Old Believers

A schismatic group preserving ancient Russian Orthodox rituals and opposing church reforms.

Religion: Christianity
Denomination: Russian Orthodox
Founded: 17th century
Location: Russia and various other countries
Other Names: Old Ritualists, Old Ritual Believers, Old Ritual Orthodox, Old Ritual Church

The Old Believers, also known as Old Ritualists or Raskolniki, trace their origins to a pivotal moment in Russian religious history, marked by the schism (Raskol) in the 17th century Russian Orthodox Church. This division was primarily ignited by the liturgical reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon between 1652 and 1658, which sought to align Russian Orthodox practices with those of the Greek Orthodox Church. Nikon’s reforms included modifications to the liturgy and rituals, such as the manner of making the sign of the cross, which was changed from two fingers to three. These changes, intended to correct discrepancies and unify Russian liturgy with Greek practices, were met with fierce opposition from a significant portion of the clergy and laity, who saw these alterations as deviations from true Christianity.

The dissenters, who would come to be known as Old Believers, were led by prominent figures such as the archpriest Avvakum Petrovich. Avvakum and others rejected Nikon’s reforms vehemently, advocating for a return to the pre-reform rites and rituals. They argued that the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 was a divine sign against following the Greek Orthodox practices. Avvakum, in particular, was a vocal critic of Nikon’s changes, and his autobiography detailed his staunch opposition to the reforms and his experiences of persecution.

The schism led to the anathematization and persecution of the Old Believers by the official Russian Orthodox Church, supported by the Tsarist state. Leaders of the Old Believer movement, including Avvakum, were executed, and their followers faced intense repression. This persecution prompted many Old Believers to flee to remote regions of Russia, and over the centuries, to other countries.

However, the Old Believers have managed to preserve their religious practices and cultural identity. The 20th century brought some periods of relief, most notably the edict of toleration by Tsar Nicholas II in 1905, which briefly improved conditions for religious minorities. However, the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent Soviet regime again intensified persecution, leading many Old Believers to seek refuge abroad.

Today, Old Believer communities can be found worldwide, with significant populations in Eastern Europe, Siberia, and North America, particularly in Alaska and Oregon. These communities continue to practice their ancient rituals and maintain their cultural and religious identity, despite the assimilative pressures of their host societies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *