February 09, 2001

Doukhobors of Russia

Doukhobors of Russia

The Doukhobors were a religious sect which developed in Russia during the 1700s. They referred to themselves as Christians of the Universal Brotherhood. In their early days, the group was called Ikono-bortsi (icon wrestlers) for their opposition to Orthodox icons and the veneration (worship, as they saw it) of these religious images. Instead, they insisted that the Spirit of God dwelt in each person and not in icons.

In the 1600s, Nikon, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (1652–66), set out to reform the Church. His primary emphasis was on the liturgical books used by the Church. Nikon's reforms created a great schism in the Russian Church, resulting in his banishment and the creation of a group known as the Old Believers or Raskolniki. Various other sects formed and joined with the Raskolniki. One of these sects was the Doukhobors.

Opposition to the ceremonial of the Orthodox Church is embodied by the Doukhobors who reject the sacraments and are officially designated as a rationalistic sect. Scorning ceremonial, a special priesthood, and the veneration of icons, they maintain that the only worship of God is in spirit and that the heart of man is the sole true temple of God. Instead of baptism by water, they demand the baptism of the Spirit, instead of confession to a priest, confession to each of the brethren, and instead of the Eucharist meditation on the words of Christ.
From The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol X: Reutsch - Son

The name Doukhobors means spirit wrestlers. The name comes from Doukho-bortsi (same meaning) used by Archbishop Ambrosius (1785) to identify this peasant group as heretics to the Orthodox faithful. The name is not intended as a compliment, rather it meant, in the Church's opinion, that these people were doing war against the Holy Spirit.

This group adopted the name Doukhobor, saying that it meant that they fought for and with the Spirit of God. They believed that life is a struggle and that the only viable weapon was the spiritual power of love.

Doukhobor dogma is very similar in nature to that of the Quakers. Both reject the ordained clergy, the sacraments and any external symbol of Christianity such as icons, statues, crucifixes, etc. Most of the early Dukhobors were peasants and farmers who believed in a communal living situation with all members being equal in status. As such, they categorically ignored any authority imposed by either church or state.

Catherine II persecuted them and Alexander I moved roughly 4,000 Doukhobors to a remote region around the Sea of Azov in 1801. Here, the rejected sect flourished and quickly created profitable agricultural communities. Not surprisingly, they refused to be drafted into the Russian military. In 1840, the Doukhobors were taken off their Sea of Azov lands and relocated in the Caucasus. Again, they soon produced flourishing agricultural communities. They continued to resist the state's insistence that they serve in the military. Eventually, their leader, Peter Vasilievitch Verigin, was exiled to Siberia, in 1887, taking with him a small group of followers.

Doukhobors made their greatest moral strides and development in the late 1800s under the leadership of Peter Verigin. Peter Verigin, believed to be truly enlightened by God, implemented many changes in Doukhobor life believed to bring them closer to total purity. These changes enabled the Doukhobors to live a Christian life closest to that which is outlined by God. It was during this time that they became vegetarian and rejected the use of all forms of tobacco and alcohol. Up until this time, the Doukhobor's eating habits were nothing unusual. They ate in the same fashion as the region they lived in.

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