Prepared by Menno Kroeker for the Kleine Gemeinde/EMC History Symposium, March 13,14, 1987.
Jacob M. Kroeker was born on May 7,1837 to Franz and Hedwig Kroeker likely in Margenau, Molotschna Colony in Russia. His mother's maiden name was Martins and she died in 1861 at the age of 63. His father died in 1853 at the age of 54. Jacob was a young boy of 16 at the time. Jacob was baptized, at age 19, in 1856 by Bishop Johan Friesen. A bit over a year later, on July 17,1857, he married Maria Klassen, the second daughter of David and Aganetha Klassen. Jacob Kroeker's wife was also a sister to the wife of Bishop Johan Friesen.
Jacob remarks that in looking back to the time of his baptism, he had a very incomplete knowledge of what the new birth was all about and yet insists that he was very sincere in wanting to walk the narrow way so that he could be saved. He shares that after his conversion and baptism, when difficult discipline cases were dealt with at brotherhood meetings, he always resolved that he would make sure he would never give occasion to be dealt with in that way. That never happened either and he is thankful for it. In looking at his life before his conversion he remarks that before men his life appeared to be all right, but when God sought to draw him closer to Himself, he clearly perceived that he must be born again.
He includes a note of regret that it was not the accepted custom of the time of his baptism that candidates informed the church ministry of their intentions. He feels that if that had been done and he would have been more fully instructed in the grace and forgiveness of God and he would have been more assured of being forgiven before he was baptized. Obviously he learned from this experience and sought to instruct young people more fully when be became the bishop later. He does believe though that the youth were more defeated and sincere at the time when he was baptized.
He searched much in the Scriptures to feed his spiritual awakening and also read other books extensively, especially the Martyr's Mirror. His constant plea to God was that He would give him strength to persevere until the day when his salvation would be made complete.
In 1860, the Jacob Kroekers, together with his brother Peter's family and a major portion of the Kleine Gemeinde moved to the settlement of Borosenko. Here they settled in the village of Heuboden. It was hoped that here, the beleaguered Kleine Gemeinde, would finally experience the peace and tranquility that they had longed for many years. But that was not to be. Internal dissension soon brought division and the church was segmented into two somewhat indistinct groups with Abram Friesen as Altesta (bishop) of the one and Peter Toews, as of 1870, the altesta of the other. The Kroekers identified with the Friesen side of the Gemeinde. In 1872, Jacob was elected as a deacon. Very shortly after that his father-in-law, David Klassen, was asked to be a delegate to search out the land of Canada. One of the main concerns in this venture, as noted by Jacob, was the prospect of receiving exemption from military service in their new homeland.
There was obviously considerable lobbying in Russia at this time by the Canadian enthusiasts and those who favoured the United States. When David Klassen returned in August of 1873 with a signed document from the Canadian government granting complete exemption from military service there was a decided swing toward moving to Canada. However American representatives insisted that similar privileges would be available in the U.S. as well. Bishop Abram Friesen heeded these assurances and decided with his part of the Gemeinde to move to the United States. However, the Kroekers were more inclined to move with their family and so they left the Friesen Gemeinde and joined the group under Peter Toew's leadership in the move to Canada. Likely his father-in-law was influential in this decision. One cannot help but think that his association with the Abram Friesen Gemeinde was a significant factor in calling on his help in a time of church crisis later.
The Kroeker family went through their own crisis in the year preceding the move to Canada. Two of their children died before Christmas of 1873 and Mrs. Kroeker was bedridden for most of the winter. It was only the bleak prospect of being left behind in Russia that induced them to undertake the long and difficult journey to America, along with their fellow Kleine Gemeinde, in 1874. Jacob notes that Mrs. Kroeker was so sick during their ocean voyage that she had to be carried wherever she went and was sickly for at least two (weeks?) years after the move.
Once in Manitoba, the Kroekers joined other members of the David Klassen family and went to the Scratching River Reserve where they settled in the newly established village of Rosenhoff, close to the present Johnny Loewen farmstead. One of the grandchildren remembers that in their later retirement years the Kroekers lived in a little house just east of their children, the John W. Duecks. Church life resumed in their new surroundings with separate congregations being established in Rosenort and Rosenhoff. In 1878 Jacob was elected as minister in the Rosenhoff congregation. His brother Peter had been elected to the ministry back in the village of Blumenhof in the Borosenko colony in 1873. He served the Rosenort congregation as minister after settling there.
With typical Kleine Gemeinde reserve, Jacob emphasizes how unworthy he felt himself to be for such an important calling, and identifies with the prophet Moses to the point of objecting to God's call on the basis of speech inability. However, as with Moses, God helped him to overcome this handicap.
Very shortly after this ministerial election Jacob was to face the greatest crisis of his ministry when the Holdeman revival swept the community and split the Kleine Gemeinde. He notes that they did not have peace for long in the Gemeinde. (Wir hatten aber nicht lange Frieden in der Gemeinde). He says that initially they thought that Mr. John Holdeman wanted to unite with them (vereinigen) but once he had proved and examined them he found them to be "too light". Mr. Holdeman could not accept the Kleine Gemeinde baptism because he regarded it as "unevangelical". It was during this traumatic time that Jacob recorded a dream he had which is quite significant for the interpretation he gives to it.
He dreamt that he and Mr. Peter Toews were crossing a large body of water in a boat when they were caught in a violent windstorm. They feared that the boat would sink in the ponderous waves and they would be drowned. They rowed frantically to make their way to shore and finally after tremendous effort made it to a point where large trees with many branches bordered the shore. At the first opportunity Jacob grabbed one of the branches only to have it break off in his hand. Finally he managed to grab hold of a larger branch and pulled himself to safety. When he looked around however, he could see no trace of Bishop Peter Toews. He says he was so glad to wake up and find that it was all a dream and though he never put much stock in dreams he felt that this particular one had a lesson from God for him. He concluded that God was reminding him that he had been putting too much trust in human leadership and not enough on the hand of the Almighty. He resolved that he would commit himself anew to the guidance of God and trust that the Lord would not forsake him in this time of severe trial. That, he says, was also his experience in the years that followed.
It is noteworthy that Jacob, in his interpretation of this dream never draws the conclusion that it proved him to be right and Mr. Toews to be wrong. It becomes even more significant when we note that John Holdeman put much emphasis on dreams in arriving at his own interpretive decisions.
Shortly after this experience the Kleine Gemeinde gathered for a brotherhood meeting with John Holdeman with one of his assistants, Mark Seller, in attendance. Jacob records that the brethren could not all agree to the doctrinal position proposed by Mr. Holdeman and finally Peter Toews, apparently convinced of his own personal stand, gave the church over to Mr. Holdeman. ("Uebergab Holdeman seine Gemeinde"). This was a heart-wrenching experience for Jacob Kroeker who had been a minister for only three years.
The high esteem in which Bishop Peter Toews was held by the Kleine Gemeinde made the experience the more devastating. Jacob emphasizes that they felt very much like flock of sheep who were without a shepherd. Furthermore the division cut deeply into personal relationships as people struggled to come to grips with the doctrinal issues they were suddenly confronted with.
Eventually, three ministers, including Peter Berg of the East Reserve, Peter Kroeker of Rosenort and Jacob M. Kroeker of Rosenhoff, decided to remain in the Kleine Gemeinde. They remained, as Jacob puts it, "with the once accepted confession of faith." To again bring some order to the shattered "Gemeinde" Jacob and his brother Peter went to the East Reserve for a meeting with Rev. Peter Berg to discuss the possibility of inviting Aeltester Abram L. Friesen from Nebraska to come and help them reorganize. However they found that Rev. Berg was sick in bed and so it was left for the two brothers from the Scratching River Reserve to lead a meeting where the prospect of inviting outside help was presented. Many at the meeting were of the opinion that they could manage on their own without inviting Abram Friesen. This seems to hint at some lingering reservations about their relationship with the Friesen Gemeinde.
Jacob remarks that after the meeting he spent a sleepless night where he prayed earnestly for God's direction as to how to proceed. He implored God to take care of His own untended sheep because He had promised. "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." The next day the group again gathered for a meeting in the village of Rosenfeld. (Between present-day Kleefeld and Steinbach). The attitude of the brethren had changed considerably and they now agreed to invite the Aeltester from Nebraska to come and help them. To Jacob this was a definite answer to prayer.
Thus, in January of 1882 Aeltester Abram L. Friesen arrived and worked diligently to bring some order to the church. They were able to celebrate the Lord's Supper (Communion) and on March 4 a minister and deacon election was called for the East Reserve. Later, on March 22, the Rosenhoff congregation elected Johan K. Friesen as minister and Abram Eidse as deacon.
In the following year Abram Friesen returned to Manitoba again and conducted another election for a minister and a deacon. On the same occasion an election for a bishop resulted in Jacob M. Kroeker being elected to this office. He again expresses his unworthiness for such a high calling but sought again to lean on the Lord for strength and courage to carry on. So for the next 15 years Jacob M. Kroeker served both the East and Scratching Reserve churches as their bishop. It is frequently noted in obituaries and wedding notes that Jacob presided over the event.
In time though, he found it extremely taxing to serve such a large far-flung group of congregations and therefore Rev. Abram L. Dueck was elected as bishop for the East Reserve in 1898. However he died after having served just three years. The bishop duties reverted back to Jacob who then served in this capacity for another three years. In 1901 Peter L. Dueck of Steinbach was elected as bishop of the East Reserve. In the last two years of his ministry Jacob was a sick man and it was in his 75th year that he wrote his autobiography. He died in 1913 after serving the Kleine Gemeinde for 30 years as bishop. His wife Maria, passed away years later in 1919.
In reflecting on his lengthy years of ministry Jacob says he always felt very poor in spirit and very inadequate to lead the church in the straight and narrow way. He regrets that the church has strayed from the principles on which it was founded and is inclined to follow after material pursuits and having everything up to date. ("alles vollaufzu haben") He sees pride as being a threat to godliness in the church and compares it to the state of Sodom in the Old Testament. He emphasizes that it is through "much suffering and tribulations that we enter into the kingdom of God."
He also laments that he, a poor sinner and yet a servant of God, entrusted with the weighty calling of saving the church of Christ, has not better discharged that trust. A servant of Christ, he says, must "gather together with Christ that which was scattered, must bind up what is wounded and heal those who are sick".
Aeltester Jacob M. Kroeker's significance in the history of the Kleine Gemeinde lies very much in his commitment to the original vision of Klaus Reimer that the church must be a body of committed believers whose life will demonstrate the reality of discipleship in a spirit of humility and devotion. He refused to be swept off his feet even in the wake of a popular movement like the Holdeman revival. He reflected seriously on the doctrinal issues that were involved and even though he sensed very keenly the abandonment of the Kleine Gemeinde as a "flock without a shepherd", he refused to let go of the faith that God had directed in the past and would continue to do in the future. I believe it is safe to say that without Jacob M. Kroeker and his sense of commitment at a very critical time in their history the Kleine Gemeinde could not have survived.