A significant sect within Russian Old Believers, known for their rejection of ordained clergy and traditional ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Religion: Christianity
Denomination: Russian Orthodox
Founded: 17th century
Location: Russia

The Bezpopovtsy, part of the wider Old Believers movement, emerged in the 17th century in Russia as a response to the liturgical reforms instituted by Patriarch Nikon of the Russian Orthodox Church. These reforms aimed to align Russian liturgical practices more closely with those of the Greek Orthodox Church, a move that sparked significant controversy and division within the Russian Orthodox community. The Old Believers, or Starovery, as they are also known, split into various sects over disputes on the validity of these reforms, with the Bezpopovtsy rejecting not only the reforms but also the authority of the priesthood itself, advocating for a return to pre-Nikonian rituals and beliefs.

The schism originated over Nikon’s alterations to the church liturgy and practices, which many felt deviated from the true faith as it had been practiced in Russia since its conversion to Christianity in 988. The primary changes included adjustments to the liturgical books, which had accumulated errors and variations over centuries, and the manner of making the sign of the cross. Nikon’s reforms, aimed at standardizing Russian Orthodox practices with those of the contemporary Greek Orthodox Church, were seen by some as a corruption of the original faith.

The Bezpopovtsy, or “priestless” Old Believers, were distinguished by their outright rejection of any clergy who accepted Nikon’s reforms, believing that the true church could only exist without these compromised priests. They held that apostolic succession had been broken by the acceptance of Nikonite rites, effectively rendering the mainstream church and its sacraments invalid. This group maintained that since the church had been corrupted, true believers must practice their faith without the clergy, preserving the purity of pre-Nikonian Christianity through lay leadership within their communities.

This faction of Old Believers was further divided into numerous sub-groups, each with its own interpretations and practices but united by the rejection of the Nikonian reforms and the clergy who supported them. These sub-groups include the Pomortsy, who were among the earliest Bezpopovtsy communities, the Fedoseevtsy, who practiced strict asceticism and rejected marriage, and the Filippians, known for their extreme measure of self-immolation as a means of preserving their faith.

Despite the absence of formal clergy, the Bezpopovtsy developed their own religious practices, including the election of community leaders to guide their worship and spiritual life. They continued to practice baptism, the only sacrament they acknowledged as valid without ordained priests, and emphasized a strict adherence to the old rites and traditions they believed were ordained by God.

Throughout their history, the Bezpopovtsy faced persecution and challenges, both from the Russian state and the official church, due to their nonconformity and rejection of state-imposed religious practices. Nonetheless, they have managed to preserve their distinct religious identity and practices to the present day, with communities existing in Russia and among the diaspora.

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