The Old Believers (старове́ры or старообря́дцы) are a group of Orthodox Christians who broke from the Church of Russia after Patriarch Nikon's reforms of the Church practices. They are more properly known as Old Ritualists.
The schism itself is known as staroobryadchestvo (старообрядчество).
Although Russia dates its conversion to Christianity from the year 988 A.D., Orthodoxy did not begin to establish itself as a church in its own right until a few centuries had passed. Up until about 1440, Russia received much of the impetus for its faith and the operation of its church from Byzantine Orthodoxy in Constantinople. In 1443 the Tsar declared the Russian metropolitanate independent of the Byzantines, and shortly thereafter a long era of reform among the clergy was initiated. Several councils were held to set matters straight among the clergy and laity, the most influential of these being the Stoglav (One hundred Chapters) of 1551, in which some 100 chapters of reformation were laid down with the provision that disobedience would result in transgressors being forever accursed. By 1589, the patriarch in Constantinople acknowledged the fact of Russian separation by himself declaring the Russian patriarch as separate and the See for that patriarch as being located in Moscow.
Despite these efforts and the recognition of the Russians as a third center of Christianity, by the beginning of the seventeeth century there was still a widely felt problem with the clergy. (Moscow as the third Rome was a popular theory at the time.) In the reign of Patriarch Joseph (1642-1652) there arose a reformist group of clergy whose aims included the restoration of the purity of the service books and stricter observance of various matters of spiritual discipline among the clergy generally. This movement was headed by the priest and confessor to the Tsar, Stephan Vonifatiev, and the Archbishop of Novgorod, Nikon. Even though the Russian metropolitanate had nominally been independent of the Byzantines for two centuries, many of the clergy had been educated in Greece, and Nikon was one of these. One of the splits which developed among the reformists concerned the extent to which the older Greek customs and rites should be adhered to in the new reforms.
Upon the death of Patriarch Joseph in 1652, Vonifatiev was lawfully elected Patriarch, but refused the position. The Tsar Alexei then put Nikon in his place, contrary to the Church Canons, which forbade the Tsar to have such influence over the appointment. Apparently no one actively contested the appointment and Nikon commenced his reign with several reformatory measures. No sooner did Nikon become Patriarch in Moscow than he began to enforce the reforms vigorously, quite different from what the "Guardians of Piety" had expected. He took Greek texts, recently printed in Italy (in Roman Catholic publishing houses), as the pattern for his reforms. The Greek Orthodox Church, by now under Muslim rule and deprived of its privileges and power, had began to seek union with the Pope of Rome-the very symbol of heresy for Eastern Christians during previous centuries. Then, with the long arm of Russian law he tried to force everyone to accept them. In 1653, he sent a memorandum to the churches in the land which instructed them in various revisions of the services and the books. These reforms met with opposition from many of the clergy. Among the major points which were contested were: (1) how many fingers would be used to make the sign of the cross; (2) the spelling of Jesus' name; (3) whether "Alleluia" should be sung two or three times; (4) the retention of certain words and phrases in the Creed; (5) the number of hosts to be used in the liturgy; and (6) whether the priests should walk around the altar with or against the passage of the sun. These matters of ritual, seemingly unimportant in themselves, nevertheless were the embodiment of certain theological precepts and ideological alliances, and hence stirred considerable controversy upon their arrival. For example, the conservatives maintained that the sign of the cross with two fingers rather than three (the latter being the proposed reform) signified the dual nature of Christ, with the first finger representing the divine nature and the bent second being a symbol of Christ's descent to Earth for the salvation of humankind. They cited many old icons to support their position on this matter, in which some of the saints and Christ could be seen using the two-fingered sign. The three-fingered sign, on the other hand, was intended as an acknowledgment of the Trinity. But this was considered by the conservative dissenters to represent Greek heresy. To make matters worse, many of the clergy felt that strict observance of the most minute details of the dogmas and disciplines of the church were necessary to salvation. This was a direct result of the reformatory efforts of the group in Moscow.
Even so, the disputes might have been settled in the course of a few councils, had not Nikon pressed his hand too early and forcefully. He had his opponents flogged, exiled and even burned at the stake. Among the exiles was the arch-priest Avvakum, who had been one of the more prominent among the younger members of the reformatory circle in pre-Nikonian days and had spearheaded the conservative opposition to Nikon's edicts. He was eventually burned at the stake in 1682 and until then continued to serve as a spiritual leader for many of the dissenters. The result of these measures was such a storm of protest, that Nikon was himself forced to resign his office by 1658.
However, his compatriots continued to wield official power, and the persecutions went on in his absence. The Tsar was on the side of the would-be reformers and began to openly wage campaigns against the conservatives. After the Council of 1666, in which the Stoglav of 1551 was declared a forgery and heretical, the Solovetski Monks of the White Sea formed a bastion against the new tide of reform, and were promptly excommunicated and eventually replaced with monks from Moscow.
Because of actions like the above, some of the dissenters believed that the age of the Anti-Christ had come and that the end of the world was near. In the years 1666-1668 numerous fields throughout Western Russia were neglected while the faithful adorned themselves in burial clothes and awaited the end of the world in their cemeteries at night, singing hymns and sitting in wooden coffins. Others set buildings afire where they waited inside to be cleansed and to perish in the flames so that they might join Christ before the Judgment Day. Between these and the others who were burned to death by persecutors, it has been estimated that more than 20,000 Old Believers died between 1672 and 1691 alone.
Partly because most of the prominent conservative clergy perished early in the movement, and partly because there were not many others who were courageous enough to risk stepping into their places, the conservatives began to run out of higher-level clergy, particularly bishops. This posed a problem because without bishops, there could be no ordained priesthood. Without priests, most of the sacraments could not be administered and believers were faced with the prospect of not being able to marry or receive communion. There were two kinds of solutions to this problem. One was to accept fugitive priests from the ranks of the Nikonians, and groups which did this became known as the "Beglopopovtsy." Some of these groups in various regions even eventually obtained bishops of their own in the nineteenth century. The other solution was to reject the notion of a true priesthood and to form the community around a lay priest. Perhaps the most famous example of such a community was the monastic order at Lake Vyg, headed by the Denisov Brothers. The Denisovs were responsible for several influential writings on the dissenting movement, and their community became an example for many others throughout Western Russia. These groups became known as the "Bezpopovtsy" (priestless).
From those days on to the Revolution of 1917, the Old Believer sects suffered varying amounts of persecution at the hands of henchmen either of the Orthodox or various Tsars. Under Catherine II, Paul and Alexander I, they were tolerated and thrived in some areas, but under Peter the Great and Nicholas I, they often had to flee to outer regions of Russia or to other countries to avoid death or imprisonment. During the last half of the nineteenth century, the position of the Orthodox Church softened with regard to the Old Believer question, and the 1909 Council made the first official conciliations by restoring a few of the decanonized saints which were among the Old Believer favorites and by 1929 the old anathemas had been officially removed. However, another potent socio-political force came in the Revolution of 1917 and, later, in Stalin's measures against religious adherents of all stripes.
Some of Nikon's reforms no longer seem important to us-singing three hallelujahs instead of two or spelling Jesus' name with an extra vowel-but the reason many Russians opposed them was real, and resistance to them quickly grew as large as Russia itself.
Those who defied Nikon and kept to the old way believed his reforms were an accommodation to Roman Catholicism (that is, to the "world"). They saw his enforcement of them as just another example of the state church corrupting itself through political affairs.
In the new era in Russia of enlightenment the church reforms became the policy of the Tsar, such that after Nikon was deposed in 1658 for usurping the prerogatives of Tsar Alexis, the pogrom against those fighting the reforms continued.
Across Russia, millions of impoverished and poorly educated farm workers, celibates in remote communities, and local church leaders with little responsibility, dared to rise up and declare that what they believed and how they believed was no one's matter but their own -- that belief was a matter of conviction, not legislation. They dared, at the price of their lives, to challenge Moscow, Constantinople, and whatever civil authorities or means of repression would fall upon them.
Early Old Believers
Early Old Belief was characterized by rejecting "the World" where anti-Christ reigned; they preached about the imminent end of the world, asceticism, adhering to the old rituals and the old faith. Given a lack of bishops and priests, the laity were predominant. One group, the Popovtsy, sought to attract ordained priests and were able to set up an episcopate in the 19th century. The Bespopovtsy, on the other hand, renounced priests and all sacraments, except Baptism.
Old Belief became associated with a strict asceticism that could sometimes be taken to extremes. In the 17th century some groups in Karelia that belonged to the sect committed suicide through self-immolation. Other groups that broke off from the Old Believers practiced castration of men and removal of breasts from women in order to enforce sexual abstinence.
The Old Believers had no official toleration until 1905. In 1971 the Church of Russia lifted the anathemas placed on the Old Believers in the 17th century, but most Old Believer communities have not returned to full communion with other Orthodox Christians.
The Old Believers Today
In the modern day, differences between most Old Believer communities and mainstream Orthodox Christians are in details of ritual practice alone. However, centuries of persecution and the nature of their foundation has made them culturally very conservative and mistrustful of anything they see as insufficiently Russian. Some Old Believers go so far as to consider any pre-Nikonian Orthodox Russian practice or artifact to be exclusively theirs, denying that the Russian Orthodox Church has any claims upon a history before Patriarch Nikon.
Approximately one million Old Believers remain today, some living in extremely isolated communities in areas of Russia to which they fled centuries ago to avoid persecution. Their life there has been compared by some to America's Amish communities.
A few Old Believer parishes in the United States have entered communion with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, such as the Church of the Nativity in Erie, Pennsylvania. Another was received into the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America by Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh. Some Old Believers joined the Church of Rome to form what is now called the Russian Catholic Church.
Many other Old Believer groups exist, some with teachings and practices that have even less in common with those of the Orthodox Church, even straying into heresy.
The Price of Conviction
At the very meeting where Nikon announced his plans for reform, Pavel the presbyter of Kolomna calmly said he could not comply. Nikon removed him from office and had him beaten before the council. He sent Pavel into the far north, where he died after repeated tortures. Then Nikon pronounced the anathema on all others who refused to obey his orders to change, and by 1666, several hundred thousand "Old Believers" found themselves outside the Orthodox church. In great suffering and weakness they learned that one can walk with Christ and survive persecution only in nonconformity
Almost hidden under great roofs of straw, mud plastered houses of Russian muzhiks huddled like chicks with their mother hen around rickety wooden churches topped by onion domes. Far from Moscow and Kiev, but within easy reach of heaven, those who lived under bunches of dried pears hanging in semidarkness from their beams called on the name of Christ. And as they did so, what Christ wanted became more and more important to them -- while the demands of Russia's church and state took second place.
As far back as they could remember, the muzhiks had lived in distrust of what happened at Moscow. "Live, live, until Moscow gets a hold of you!" their parents and grandparents had said. So now, when many of them got separated from Moscow's state church, they felt no remorse. Called Raskolniki (separatists) or "nonconformists" by other Russians, they began at once to live like they thought Christians should. That, in every place, was not the same. But in every place it drew the wrath of Moscow's authorities upon them, and by the mid-1660s the tsar's men were torturing and publicly flogging Old Believers from Kiev and Smolensk to Ryazan, Kazan, Yaroslavl, Saratov, Novgorod, Pskov, and Tver. Everywhere, they tore up homes and villages and drove families to Siberia. But such persecution only confirmed what many believed: The state church had become an institution of the Antichrist.
Many, but not all, Old Believers were uneducated country people. An outstanding exception was Avvakum Petrovich, an ordained leader in the Orthodox church, who had been Nikon's companion and fellow-worker. Avvakum grew up in the village of Grigorovo, near Nizhny Novgorod (Nikon's home area), and with Nikon, he became a member of the Guardians of Piety. But whereas Nikon sought earthly power and prestige, Avvakum sought to please Christ no matter what it cost.
Before his first ordination as a dyachok when he was twenty-one years old, Avvakum chose Nastasya Markovna, a poor orphan, to be his wife. She became his faithful and patient companion, supporting him no matter how badly his non-conformity to the world brought him into conflict with it.
An early occasion for conflict arose when Vasily Sheremetev, a high-ranking boyar, came down the Volga. The people of Grigorovo, including Avvakum, went on board his ship to greet him. Seeing that he was a religious man, Vasily ordered Avvakum to bless his son Matvey. But Avvakum could not obey. "How can I pronounce a blessing on a man who has shaved off his beard, deliberately changing the way God made him?" he asked.
Vasily Sheremetov was stunned. "You take it upon yourself to disobey me?" he thundered. "For this you shall be thrown into the river!"
Fortunately, no one carried out the boyar's orders. But within a few years Avvakum found himself imprisoned, then exiled with his family to Tobolsk in Siberia for withstanding Nikon's reforms. When they detected his influence even from there, Russian authorities sent him as far away as they could-to Dauria, on the border with Mongolia. There, the district governor, Afanasy Pashkov, did what he could to make the lives of Avvakum and his family miserable. He tortured Avvakum, often keeping him in chains in the prison and severely beating him. Two of Avvakum's children died from hunger, but he did not give up in his struggle to walk the narrow way. Everywhere, he warned the faithful not to have anything to do with Nikon's fallen church.
"When the priest comes to sprinkle your house with holy water," he told them, just follow him around and sweep it out with a broom. And if they drag you into church, keep right on whispering your prayer to Jesus!"
Old Believer Churches
- Russian Orthodox Oldritualist Church (Belokrinitskaya hierarchy)
- Lipovan Orthodox Oldritualist Church (Belokrinitskaya hierarchy)
- Russian Old-Orthodox Church (Novozybkovskaya hierarchy)
- Pomorian Old-Orthodox Church (Pomory)
- How Old-Believers make the sign of the cross
- The Life of Archpriest Avvakum by Himself
- Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Kellion of the Holy Trinity and St Sergius
- The Eastern Christian Churches: The Old Believers (by Ronald Roberson, CSP, a Roman Catholic priest and scholar)
- Collection of Old Believer History and Tradition compiled by Paul J. Wigowsky
- Russian Orthodox Old Believers (Old Rite)
- Old believers in Karelia in the 17th century
- General information (in Russian)
- Old-Rite Russian Orthodox Christians Yahoo Group
- Holy Nativity of the Theotokos Old Believer Skete
- Blog of the North Dakota Old Ritualist Monks (Holy Nativity of the Theotokos Old Believer Skete)
- Vieux-Croyants, mgr Daniel (Erie), Pimen M. Sofronov, articles translated to French and illustrated with some P.M. Sofronov Icons