The Kleinsassers


Up from Sankt Peter in the beautiful valley of the Drau, in Kaernten, lies the Kleinsasserhof. Visitors to this part of Austria love to stay there in the summer, where ducks swim on the pond under shade trees, the sun lies warm on the vegetable garden, and flowers bloom in every window box of the massive farm house, built four hundred years ago to shelter the wealthy Kleinsasser family.

The Kleinsassers, unlike the people in the village below, did not have to work for wages, or as tenant farmers. They owned their land. Their women always had hired help to keep the great house clean, and the men kept their workmen busy in fields and vineyards, or with the family’s cattle on green pastures up the Alm.  Hans, Stefan, Mathias, and Josef Kleinsasser, growing up there in the early 1700s had little to worry about their future, and like their six sisters, had much to look forward to in life.

But things changed.

As the boys grew older they made friends in the village. Some of those friends led them to see that having money and owning land would not make them happy. True joy comes from being free! Free from bad habits that bind a person, and free to believe and think as matters really are.

Knowing Jesus and following him, these friends told the Kleinsasser boys, is the way to absolute freedom. Night after night they met in Sankt Peter, these young people of the Wurtz, Glanzer, Hofer, and other families, to read from the Scriptures even though it was not allowed. With radiant faces they shared with one another how knowing Jesus was changing their lives. They prayed and encouraged one another.

At first Hans and Dorothea Kleinsasser did not mind. “They’ll get over it once they marry and settle down,” old Hans assured his wealthy friends. But when the believers of Sankt Peter stopped going to mass and fell into the hands of state authorities, their parents’ good-natured tolerance turned into terrified reaction and alarm.

All the Kleinsasser boys, Hans with his wife Barbara and two small children, Stefan (in his early twenties), Matthias (nineteen years old), and Josef (only sixteen) remained firm in their convictions and let themselves be carried off to the Spittal jail. So did one of the Kleinsasser daughters, Dorothea with her young husband Christian Nagler.

Old Hans cried and pled with his boys. Frau Kleinsasser wrung her hands and despaired of what would happen to their beautiful farm if all the boys let themselves be carried off with strange ideas—no doubt to their ruin in a foreign land. But nothing could change their minds.

“We have found unspeakably more than a farm, cows, and money,” the boys told their unhappy parents. “We have found the way to eternal life and will not give it up for anything in the whole world!”

So old Hans and his wife watched in tears as their four boys left under guard on the road from Spittal to Klagenfurt, with a motley crowd of “heretics” bound for exile. They had no other choice but to hand the family estate to a son-in-law, Thomas Gasser (whose descendants still own the beautiful Kleinsasserhof today) while the exiles, with nothing but the clothes on their backs and what little they could carry, floated southward on a river vessel through what is now Slovenia and Hungary, to Romania.

Following Jesus leads to inner freedom and peace—lovely blue flower hidden from the eyes of the world. But the Kleinsassers soon discovered how steep and rough the narrow path to find it may be. Already in the first refugee camp in Romania, Stefan died. Then, after meeting the Anabaptists at Alwinz, new troubles with the government began. Time after time the brothers and sisters found themselves scattered until the little community at Kreutz took shape. There Christian Nagler died and his wife with her three little girls moved in with her brother Hans and family.

At Kreuz all the believers chose Hans Kleinsasser to be their leader. They sent him to Alwinz to get baptised and ordained, and on his return he baptised the rest. For a short time things went well. The brothers and sisters worked together in love, planting, cooking, sewing, and caring for animals. But all of them lacked experience. Hans faced great challenges with immature and imbalanced people among them. Only with the grace of Christ did he manage to lead them successfully through persecution, arrest, the flight across the mountains into Turkish lands, and from there eastward in search of a safe place to stay.

Near the border of present day Romania and Moldova, a Russian general found the believers and directed them to his estate at Vishinsk in the Ukraine. Considering this an answer to prayer, the brothers and sisters travelled willingly with a young sergeant and ten Cossacks (Ukrainian soldiers), through Polish territory to the old city of Kiev, its golden domes shining above the wide Dniepr, and on to the river flats that were to be their new home.

The first night they slept on the wagons that had brought them. But the following day, August 2, 1770, they moved the women, the little ones, and those that were sick, into three abandoned houses on the nobleman’s estate. Then they set to work building a communal residence, a dining room, a carpenters’ shop, a kitchen, and storehouses.

Some of the brothers began to work land and plant wheat. The estate manager gave the sisters fifty sheepskins out of which to make warm clothes for the winter, and they set to work, spinning, sewing, and weaving as fast as they could. Because Andreas Wurtz had died, the brothers all agreed to make Josef Kleinsasser their new householder and work manager.

What a challenge! What a contrast, starting from scratch in Russia as compared to working on his father’s lovely estate in the valley of the Drau. But Josef took on his new job with courage and good cheer. How much better to work for the whole community instead of for personal gain! How much more satisfying to build up a congregation for the Lord rather than a private estate!

Little by little, as the new community at Vishinsk on the Desna took shape, more believers from Stein, from the prison at Sibiu in Romania, and from the old Anabaptist churches at Alwinz and Sabatisch came. Hans Kleinsasser found this tremendously rewarding. But his wife died. New members kept bringing new ideas into the believers’ community, and with them new problems to overcome. But Hans faced them one after another, with the grace of Christ until he died only nine years after coming to the Ukraine.

For Josef Kleinsasser, life in the believers’ community proved no less adventurous. Exiled from Kaernten as a sixteen-year-old, he never saw his parents again. In Romania he married Christina Egerter. They had two little boys and a girl, all of whom died before they escaped Turkish territory. Then, at Vishinsk, his wife died too, and he married Gretl Kuhr. Four years later she died and he married Katherina Koller. That marriage lasted fifteen years, but Katherina also died and he entered his fourth marriage with Maria Hofer.

During all this time, Josef kept an unusually pleasant and cheerful disposition. Everyone knew they could depend on him. Householder of the believers’ community for thirty-four years he guided the brothers and sisters into material stability while his brother Hans Kleinsasser, and later Johannes Waldner led them in spiritual matters. “We all thanked God for bringing us together in peace,” a brother wrote after the first communion in bread and wine at Vishinsk. “We praised and thanked him from the bottom of our hearts. All of us resolved to live in true peace and unity, serving God and our brothers and sisters in love, strengthening one another in the faith, and sharing all our spiritual and material blessings in Christ.”

At Vishinsk the believers prayed much. Every day married brothers and sisters prayed in separate groups. The young people, boys and girls, also had daily prayer meetings, and for years the whole congregation woke up at midnight to pray. Besides this, they had two Bible study and worship meetings a day, one before breakfast, and one after the evening meal. After these meetings all the brothers greeted and embraced one another, and the sisters did likewise.

For an hour, every day at noon, the believers took turns reading from the Scriptures, and held an open discussion as to what they meant. This greatly strengthened them in the faith and led them to peaceful solutions of issues that arose. But not only in spiritual matters did they handle things well and overcome. Under Josef Kleinsasser’s direction they built more communal dwellings, a pottery, a blacksmith shop, a water mill, a windmill, and a schoolhouse.

Then the nobleman, on whose estate they lived, died. His sons would not come to agreeable terms with the believers and suddenly ordered them off their land. What a commotion! Just two months before Josef Kleinsasser’s wife Katherina died, the whole community packed up and relocated at Radicheva, sixteen kilometres away. But they did not lose heart.

Once more, under Josef Kleinsasser’s cheerful direction, they burned bricks and built five large buildings and many smaller wooden ones in a square measuring almost 500 feet each way. In the middle of the square children played and men and women worked in a sheltered patio surrounded by a weaving room, a pottery, a sewing room, a shoemaker’s shop, a carpentry, a hat maker’s shop, a tannery, spinning and book binding shops, a smithy, a wash house and a bakery on the lower floor. On the second floor of the buildings, under thick roofs of straw thatch, every family had one room with a bed, a table, and two chairs.

During these first years of hard work but great joy at Radicheva the believers learned of another Christian community in Russia. Speaking German like them, and nonconformed like to them to the world, committed to returning good for evil, brothers from this community at Sarepta (a Moravian Church community) on the lower Volga came to see Radicheva in 1802. This is what their leader Johannes Wigand had to report:

After crossing the Desna River, a difficult and dangerous procedure we took a guide to find Radicheva where the brothers now live. We made our way up and down a number of hills and through deep ravines until we came to the site of the Gemeinschaft. Since we did not know where we should go we stopped at the schoolhouse. The second servant, Andreas Wurtz guessed right away that I must be Wigand from Sarepta! The first minister, Johannes Waldner, also came with arms opened wide to greet us.

On 1,890 acres of land that used to belong to a monastery, above the right bank of the Desna, the brothers farm unusually fertile land, operate fisheries, and mills, and own 316 acres of pine forest. Only four months after their move from Vishinsk we found them with eighteen or nineteen houses already standing and ready to live in.

To the right of the gateway, on a gently sloping rise planted in fruit trees, stands a large stone building thatched with straw. This is the dining room in which the community also meets to worship. Next to it is the kitchen with storehouses over vaulted cellars. We found a blacksmith shop at Radicheva, a tannery, a shoemaker’s shop, a distillery, and a laundry next to a forty-foot well. In the community’s bakery the sisters bake bread every day. Then we saw the weaving shop and the place where the new mothers and babies stay—eighteen of them right now. The girls bring them food from the kitchen.

At the far end of the Hof stand two schoolhouses, one for the younger and one for the older children. Boys and girls are taught together but sit separately. They learn how to read and write. They learn from the Scriptures along with practical skills like knitting, spinning and sewing. Next to the schoolhouses stand the carpenter’s shop and a house for the single sisters is going up. When all the buildings are finished the single men will sleep in a house for the brothers, with their workshops nearby.

At midday, Johannes Waldner, the elder of the church served us a clean, plentiful, and appetizing meal in dishes he had made himself. What a blessed time we had in our conversation together! I found him a good bit more liberal in his thinking than his congregation. He knows the beliefs and history of our Moravian Church well, and asked us many questions. I explained to him how we depend on Jesus’ precious blood for the healing of body and soul, and how it is the foundation of our faith. Johannes Waldner’s hunger for this instruction could not be satisfied. Deeply moved, he assured us that their church also depends entirely on the blood of Christ for its righteousness and salvation. But he sighed with grief as he described how far many of them yet were from turning to true life in God, and how hard this may be to fix.

The difficulty is that they are so suspicious of new ways. No matter how good and helpful it might be for them to change things, they seem to be afraid of doing so. For this reason they keep repeating their same prayers every day, and their worship meetings continue week after week with no variety in form or content.

In the evening, after the sun went down and it became hard to work, several school boys went from house to house announcing, “It is time to pray!” Johannes Waldner went into the meeting room and sat behind a table with the second minister and the householder. We were given places next to them, and the brothers and sisters sat on benches in rows, the school children closest to the servants’ table. We sang. Johannes Waldner spoke about love. We prayed, and right after the meeting we had the evening meal. Then the brothers gathered in our room to visit, the second minister Andreas Wurtz, among them, and the householder, Josef Kleinsasser, a worthy old man, rosy cheeked, and with eyes beaming cheerfully at us from between his white hair and beard. Jakob Hofer was there, Paul Glanzer, a lively old man, Christian Waldner and others. They all expressed their joy in our visit. We talked from heart to heart, returning again and again to the one vital concern.

Among other subjects we spoke much about announcing the Kingdom of God. Johannes Waldner had gained some idea of our evangelisation from our books and newsletters, but some others still held to the simple belief that the Kingdom of God consisted only of their little community at Radicheva. When I told them about our mission work around the world they were really amazed, but it warmed their hearts and made them very happy. Near midnight we finally got to bed.

The day after this Andreas Wurtz held the evening meeting. He gave a rather unsatisfactory talk on faith. After the meeting the majority of the brothers again came to our room and we continued the conversation of the night before. Part of the time we spoke of the way they run their community and of practical affairs. They have a large number of basic trades and these produce goods of almost perfect quality but without any ornamentation. Every member of the community knows more than one trade so they never come into difficulties if one of their occupations is not needed for a time. Johannes Waldner, for instance, is a carpenter as well as a weaver, and Andreas Wurtz is a farmer, potter, and gardener.

On the next day they took me to see the sisters’ house where everyone received me with much love. After several important conversations, in which we spoke of the complete surrender of our wills to Christ, they asked me other more trivial questions. An old mother asked me how our young people get married. Another asked whether our sisters wear high heels. As I was leaving they all begged me again and again to greet our sisters in Sarepta.

After this I visited the clothing department. The householder buys the linen, wool, and thread with money from the common purse and a sister in charge oversees the work. This sister knows how many adults, growing boys and girls, and little children need socks, skirts, shirts, and other clothes. She sees that the needs are met and oversees the mending and patching. The tailor’s department works with her. Any community member that needs clothing tells the householder and receives it ready to wear. If a garment needs only to be mended, it is taken away and replaced by an already mended article belonging to someone else of the same size. The minister wears a black coat but everyone else usually wears blue.

The men at Radicheva do not trim their beards. They wear hats and blue overcoats similar to the Russians, but with hooks and eyes instead of buttons. Men and women alike do not use buckles, ribbons, buttons, or anything they can possibly manage without. They limit themselves to what is absolutely necessary. For the same reason they do not use sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, etc. The women wear black woollen bonnets with plain linen strings, a coarse white shawl to tie over it in cold weather, a cloth jacket, and a homespun dress with an apron of plain linen.

Before we left this remarkable place, Johannes Waldner asked us to take their most heartfelt greetings to the congregation in Sarepta, and repeatedly expressed their brotherhood’s gratitude for our visit, adding that they would have willingly paid the expenses of our journey if only they had the means.

The ministers spoke more than once with great concern about how remote and cut off their community was. They also spoke of forming closer connections with the Moravian Brethren. Many people, even the Russian government, considers these people Mennonites, but Johannes Waldner believes they have an older and closer connection to us. I never went further into this but stressed that the only important thing is to be truly members of the body of Christ.

For a number of years the believers at Radicheva kept in touch with the Moravians at Sarepta. Loving letters passed both ways, but the distance between them was too great to allow for much practical exchange. Both communities prospered materially however, during the early 1800s. At Radicheva the believers’ numbers increased rapidly from two to three and four hundred people. Their glazed pottery found a ready market, and their leather, iron goods, hats, linen, and furniture supplied merchants throughout Russia and abroad. Their fields and livestock flourished to the point where they could not take care of everything themselves, and alongside the communal gardens they planted five thousand fruit trees.

In 1818 a visiting official of the Russian government reported:

The houses of the community stand in a square, surrounded by fruit trees, and with a gate at the main entry. They think of themselves as a family. The building where they live and work has six brick and two wooden wings of one story, built rather low. There are several small houses on the place as well. The roofs of the main building are high pitched and corridors have been built through the attics with small cells, or rooms opening on either side. This is where each married couple has a room of their own. They have no stoves. In each room there is a bed, a table and two chairs. The couples use them only for sleeping or for short periods of time.

Similar but larger rooms accommodate the unmarried men from fifteen years old and upward for sleep and rest. There are twelve to sixteen young men in each room and a bed for every two of them. The older girls also have separate sleeping accommodation. In addition to the bedrooms there is still enough space in the attic to dry the laundry, etc.

The brothers way of life seems humble and unassuming. They are well mannered, friendly, eager to do their duty, hospitable, and ready to help one another. Shortly before a baby is born mothers are taken into a warm room. There they nurse their children until they are eighteen months old. The community has its own midwives. After they are seven years old the children stay in separate rooms, boys in one, girls in another. The parents are with them in their free time, and may take them to their rooms. The unmarried girls make the beds while the boys are out working. Meals begin with prayer. Dinner is at half past eleven, and after dinner there is an hour free time. They eat their evening meal at nightfall. 

In the winter they go to bed at nine, and to work at five in the morning. In the summer they get up earlier and work later. Visitors to the community cannot be anyone’s personal guests. They are guests of the whole brotherhood, in whose name the elder offers them hospitality.

In this way the community at Radicheva has prospered in peace from the time they settled here, honouring God and the Tsar and stirring the admiration of their neighbours. Their land is fertile and their meadows lush. They raise cattle on a large scale, using good Hungarian stock, and keep bees. They raise a variety of vegetables and produce many hand crafted goods for sale. They also make sleighs, wagons, harrows, ploughs, fanning mills, spinning wheels, and tan leather for the general market. They do not sit with their hands in their laps, and although they live simply, they are well off.

In 1807 Josef Kleinsasser finally died, at peace with Christ and the brothers, many miles and many years from his beautiful childhood home at Sankt Peter in Kaernten. He left no living descendants and his fourth wife died three months later. But he left a thriving community that lives on in the lives of many thousands of descendants of those that came to Vishinsk on the Desna in the 1770s. His brother Hans Kleinsasser, the first servant of the Word at Kreuz in Romania, had a son and a grandson also named Hans. That Hans’s son Samuel came to South Dakota with his wife Sarah. From there they moved to Economy, Pennsylvania (a Rappist community, temporarily inhabited by Hutterites), where he died. But Samuel and Sarah’s large family survived in Hutterite colonies throughout Canada, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Rocky Cape in Tasmania.

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