09 June 2008

Religious Beliefs: Old Believers

By Christine Koehler

The Old Believers were a faction of the Russian Orthodox Church that broke from the Church after 1666. Members protested reforms of the Slavonic Bible and Service books introduced by Patriarch Nikon. Old Believers continued liturgical practices the Church maintained before the implementation of these reforms. Russian speakers refer to the schism itself as raskol.

The holy books were translated from Greek into old Slavonic, and over time mistranslations and corruptions of the text appeared. There were also details of rituals in which the Russian Church had forsaken the custom of Constantinople and Greek Orthodox. Nikon's work was to restore all these points to exact conformity with the original Greek. This reform had been discussed before his time; in the sixteenth century the Greeks reproached the Russians for their alterations, but a Russian synod in 1551 sanctioned them.

There were several basic differences, and those who didn't conform with the 'new' ways were excommunicated. In all, 400 pages of changes appeared, many seemingly arbitrary in fashion.
  • Spelling of Jesus: Ісусъ [Isus] became Іисусъ [Iisus].

  • Minor (but apparently important) changes in the Creed--begotten but not made became begotten not made.

  • Making the sign of the cross with two straightened fingers became making it with three straightened fingers.

  • The number of prosphoron in the liturgy went from seven to five.

  • The sunwise direction of the procession became the counter-sunwise direction.

  • Alleluia, alleluia, glory to Thee, o God became Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, glory to Thee, o God.

  • Христосъ [Christ], became Сынъ [the Son], so that wherever Сынъ appeared, Христосъ was substituted.

  • Wherever Церковь [Church] appeared, Nikon substituted Храмъ [Temple] and where Храмъ was written, Церковь was substituted.

  • They also forbade the rebaptizing of Latin converts (still a peculiarity of the Russian Church).
According to the Old Believers, Nikon acted without consulting the clergy or gathering a council. The patriarch was accused of anti-national sentiments, trying to Hellenize the Russian Church, and corrupting the old faith. He soon fell out of favor (there is no explanation for this) with the Tsar and therefore could not crush the rebellion as he wished.

After the implementation of these innovations, and with the support of Muscovite state power, the Church anathematized and suppressed the old liturgical rite itself, as well as those reluctant to embrace the new rite. Opponents of the ecclesiastical reforms emerged among all strata of people and in relatively large numbers.

Even after the deposition of Nikon in 1658, a series of church councils officially endorsed the liturgical reforms. Old Believers rejected all innovations. The most radical maintained that the official Church had fallen into the hands of the Antichrist. Under the guidance of Archpriest Avvakum Petrov (1620/1621-1682), the leader of the conservative camp within the Old Believers' movement, the Old Believers publicly denounced and rejected all ecclesiastical reforms. From 1666 onward, they lacked all civil rights. The state church had the most active Old Believers arrested and executed several of them in 1682, including Archpriest Avvakum.

Old Believers endured a severe persecution in 18th and 19th centuries as schismatics (raskolniki) until the ukaz of Empress Catherine II, which introduced a new term "Old Ritualists" (staroobryadtsy). They referred to themselves Orthodox Christians. Under Catherine (1762-1796), her son Paul (1796-1801), and her grandson Alexander I (1801-1825), they were tolerated and even thrived in some areas. Many Cossacks are Old Believers, mostly because they were considered an independent entity under Imperial Russia and welcomed all who wished to join them.

Government oppression varied from relatively moderate to intense. Under Peter the Great (1682-1725), Old Believers paid double taxation and a separate tax for wearing a beard, whereas under Nicholas I (1825-1855), they were hunted and executed. The Russian synod and the state authorities saw Old Believers as dangerous elements and threats to the Russian state.

In 1905, Tsar Nicholas II (1894-1917) signed an Act of Religious Freedom, ending the persecution of all religious minorities in Russia. Old Believers gained the right to build churches, ring church bells, hold processions, and organize themselves. It became prohibited (as under Catherine the Great) to refer to Old Believers as raskolniki (schismatics), a name they consider insulting.

The period from 1905 to 1917 is often referred to as "the Golden Age of the Old Faith." In 1971 the Moscow Patriarchate revoked the anathemas imposed on the Old Believers. While treating the Old Believer hierarchy and clergy with at least a semblance of courtesy, their attitude seems to be ambiguous at best and they regard even the Edinovertsy with mistrust.

In 1974, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia issued an ukase revoking the anathemas and asked forgiveness from the Old Believers for the wrongs done them. This marks the first effort to make the prayer and service books of the Old Believers available in English. Nevertheless, most Old Believer communities have not returned to Communion with the majority of Orthodox Christianity worldwide.

Old Believes at Wikipedia
New Advent
University of Calgary