“Modernity and the Old Believers: Jonestown was not an analogue” by Chris Knight-Griffin
The Russian Old Believers or "Old Ritualists" were a distinct Russian sect of Christians that maintained a separate place of worship because of profound disagreements with the Russian Orthodox Church over scriptural interpretation and ritual. The Old Believers were often referred to as "religious dissenters" because of the Great Schism in the middle 17th century that separated them from the official state church of Russia. After the split, they survived incessant persecution in various forms from both the Russian Orthodox Church and state authorities, although they are arguably the same during this period. Moreover, the Old Believers survived many suicide events by self-immolation as a means of protest against the repressive and harsh treatment from the official state church. The suicide events have played an important role in coloring the Old Believers as fanatical cultists for which they have become infamous in modern literary treatments.
Despite the impediments of repression and the poor contemporary interpretation, the Old Believers were quite modern with regard to their social organization. It was because of their ability to prosper economically and to adhere to the conservative values within their own biblical interpretation - a consequence of rejecting the rituals or hierarchy as defined by the Russian Orthodox Church - that they not only survived, they thrived. Shunned and persecuted for their stubbornness in rejecting liturgical change imposed upon them by the Russian Orthodox Church, the Old Believers refused to accept the state sponsored liturgy at the expense of continued hounding following the rejection of Nikon's decrees in 1652-1654. It should be noted that both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Old Believers share the same history dating back to at least the 7th century although not officially recognized until 988 AD. By turning inward toward strong family and small societal units, they also turned their outsider status into the very lucrative textile trade.
The mercantilism of the Old Believer communities needs to be placed in the proper context of the era. By the early 1800s, the Industrial Revolution in England and France was in full swing, and Russia was lagging behind in part to due to a lack of infrastructure. The Russian Tsars of the 19th century dealt with everything from assassination, wars, pogroms, revolts, and the economic pressure and imperialism of the west while trying to manage a large peasant population at home. All the while, the country was defending itself against a myriad of French campaigns and England was increasingly becoming more industrialized. England became an important center not only of manufacturing, but of exporting new technology as well. Some of the technology would end up in Russia and would welcome a new era of growth for the Russian peasant class, especially the Old Believers.
It was during this period that any new commercial enterprises should have welcomed by the Tsar if for no other reason than to aid the economy and employ the vast number of peasants. Yet acceptance of the new economic realities was slow in coming. The Old Believer faith had a large base of illiterate peasants (muzhik), so any change within the community required guidance from the priests who were generally some of the few people within a given community who were literate. Instead of relying on strict dogma as a means social management, the Old Believer priests used celibacy, modern notions of assigned gender roles and a rigid form of asceticism to maintain order and traditions despite outside sectarian and secular interferences.
This is very different from many modern interpretations of the Old Believers that often describe the group as backward and cultish yet these views are in shortsighted and misleading, Indeed, Russian Old Believers are not dealt with in a positive light in most contemporary treatments. The most recent example of mass suicide in modern history associated with the Old Believers was that of Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana of November 1978, during which 913 Americans died as a part of the "Cult of Death" as proclaimed by the cover of Time magazine. The reference to a "cult" and subsequent treatments of Peoples Temple as a fanatical "Kool-Aid" drinking cultist sect was not apt or accurate. As an example of the negative connotation of religious "cults," the popular powdered fruit drink has managed to get into colloquial speech to refer to brainwashing and mind control. However, Peoples Temple was a part of Disciples of Christ, a larger mainstream church, and Jim Jones, the pastor and leader, was ordained as a Protestant minister in 1953, and for the first two decades it was not considered a cult.
Popular American magazines like Time and Newsweek neglected to mention that many of the commune's members were neither suicidal, nor were they crazy. Instead, the members were isolated, exhausted people placed under considerable strain by their leader, the Reverend Jim Jones. They were constantly under threat of attack from outside their community. Whether the threats were real or perceived is irrelevant to the assignment of blame on the members, like many other examples, they were victims of authoritarian rule. Of the total number of Peoples Temple deaths in Guyana, more than 300, or about a third of the total members present in Jonestown, were children, and another third were senior citizens. The deaths of these cannot be considered as suicide; rather they were murdered. The current understanding is that it was a murder/suicide, and not a "Cult of Death," as described by Time Magazine. An essay in the same issue of Time Magazine headlined "The Lure of Doomsday" stated that "the historical record of cults is ominous and often lurid." It then goes on to inculcate the Old Believers as just such a cult. "In the 17th century, Russian Orthodox dissenters called the Old Believers refused to accept liturgical reforms. Over a period of years some 20,000 peasants in protest abandoned their fields and burned themselves [alive]." The suggestion made by Time Magazine is that the Old Believers were brainwashed, crazy and obstinate to a fault. Unfortunately, what is being presented does not accurately describe the Old Believers or their actions; moreover, it is not an apt comparison to Peoples Temple.
Newsweek issued its report on Jonestown the very same day as Time Magazine with an almost identical title, "The Cult of Death" with a comparable essay entitled "How They Bend Minds." The essay mentions many other religious groups analogous to the Peoples Temple "suicide cult" such as the Unification Church ("Moonies"), Scientology, Hare Krishna's, and the ancient Jewish Zealots. However, the Old Believers were excluded from the list and are the only group that had a mass suicide in its past - in the context of modern history. "The tragedy at Jonestown was only superficially like past cases of mass suicide," the article states, which is very apt since the reasoning for each case of suicide varied as much as to allow suicide as the only linking factor.
Unfortunately for Peoples Temple, the deaths in Jonestown represented the end of their movement. This was not the case for the Russian Old Believers. The 17th century suicides of the Old Believers were seen by many as apocryphal, yet their world did not end. Old Believer resistance marked the group as outsiders in Russia and as such, they would remain a threat to the Russian Orthodox Church. The suicides were common events, taking place from the 17th into the 19th century. However, many of the suicides were on a small scale and were done as an act of rebellion or even prompted by the Old Believers themselves to make a political statement.
Both Peoples Temple and the Old Believer churches were based on the apostolic tradition. The comparisons of historical suicide events vary too greatly to apply to the Old Believers, yet the perception of an unstable cult remains. By stating that Old Believers - or Peoples Temple - was a "cult," it ends inquiry and allows for the out-of-hand dismissal of the group as "crazy." This is unfortunate. An appropriate definition of a cult is "the name given to a small congregation, by the large congregation," and this was true of the Old Believers as well. The term "cult" could easily apply to any religious group seen as markedly different from the majority viewpoint.
The Russian Orthodox Church saw the Old Believers as a small, radical offshoot of the Orthodox Church with schismatic rituals because they did not adhere to the state churches' practices. Minor differences accounted for the schism. These differences included common practices such as regular contact between the faithful and clergy, something that was rejected by the Orthodox Church. A priest would ask for forgiveness from the congregation, and the congregation would reply with a similar request. The position taken by the priest was that he was an equal in the eyes of the community and therefore equally guilty of sin before God. This was a part of the Old Believers forgiveness ritual. By 1848, the Russian Orthodox Church had all but done away with such practices as noted by the publication of the Russian Orthodox Church Book of Hours of 1848 "which dismisses customary forgiveness." Moreover, about half of the Old Believer communities were free of any liturgical guidance. These were known as "priestless communities" and, as the name implies, these factions were without a church figurehead.
The belief of the Old Believers can be summed up as Apocalyptic and Manichaeism (dualist). In this worldview, things are very black and white or - in a religious sense - good or evil. The decision-making process for the Old Believers was based on this simple premise: things are inherently good and Godly; and if they are not, then they are evil. This applied to everything, including cities. Moscow, for example, was seen as the "Third Rome" and as such, was a holy city. The new "Rome" was to be the center of Christendom, and after the fall of Constantinople, Moscow was surely the next in line, if it could remain orthodox - literally holding the right, or correct position. If the rulers - to include the Russian Orthodox Church as well as the Tsar - of one of the most important cities in Christendom were changing doctrine, then it was the work of the antichrist. This meant that not only had evil forces taken hold of Moscow - reason enough to deny Church authority - but that it was a sign of the end times. The apocalypse was at hand. Any submission to authority would mean giving into the devil himself. This view did not change during the 19th century. However, unlike previous generations, it was not as prominent in the daily life of the average Old Believer.
Only small groups of Old Believers still held to such a strict interpretation of scripture, and their acceptance, or toleration, of the evil outsiders became the basis for their survival. This sea change from peasant communes and sparse hermitages to industrious traders may have been due to one very important factor that became prominent during the 19th century, that of trade and a rudimentary form of mercantilism. The benefits were mutually agreeable. The Old Believers were making money, and influential entrepreneurs in Moscow had a source for textiles. Money, it seems, changes everything.
It is extraordinary to imagine that an obscure group of religious believers bent on self-immolation as means to protect the sanctity of belief of salvation considered a prosperous and amenable foundation for a capitalist endeavor, but this is precisely what happened. When Nikon had proposed his decree in 1652-4, one of the convergences of practice that he required was that the making of the sign of the cross "with 3 fingers instead of the traditional 2" as a means to consolidate Russian practices with "Greek and Ukrainian churches." This initiated the schism that isolated the Old Believers for centuries. A simple change in gesture illustrates the profound depth of the Old Believers beliefs and masks their otherwise contemporary social structure, which allowed for a certain independence of mind and ultimately a very progressive reform that was manifest as traders and merchants. The question raised at this point is "How are these two positions related?" The answer lies in the Old Believers' interpretation of scripture.
The strict liturgical interpretation of the Old Believers allowed the peasants to excel where others may have been hindered by Tsarist reforms. Whether the reaction of the Old Believers was justified or not, it was seen as a challenge to the consolidation of political and religious domination of the country's peasants, and as such it was a direct threat to serfdom. Moreover, that threat extended to the bureaucratic state, particularly the Tsar, because serfs made up the majority of the population.
At the time, serfs were indistinguishable from slaves: they could be bought or sold; they were even referred to merely as "souls." In the 17th century, serfdom had actually increased despite meek attempts by Peter the Great to ease the practice. By the 1850s, however, serfdom was waning and the Old Believers were taking advantage of the new freedoms as the state became less involved in managing new markets. This meant that some "Old Believer peasants broke with conservative communal traditions to become industrial leaders and public spokesmen for the merchantry as a whole." In part due to the coming "emancipation of the serfs" and as merchants, they gained the ability to relax or abolish the required service to the state. By doing so, they also began to fill up positions in the workers guilds that previously had only been held by "long-established merchant families." The Old Believers were arguably more successful because they took risks and because they were willing "to defy convention," a trait that started with the Nikon and the great schism (Raskol). Their enthusiasm for change was apparent and suited the new industrialization giving them a boost in the new markets.
The acceptance of change was not a random occurrence. By the mid-19th century, the Old Believers were very adept at survival under changing conditions. Accepting industrialization was an extension of this reactionary survival mechanism. In this case, it was appropriated and deftly applied to commercial interests as a "strong work ethic," thereby almost insuring a certain level of success.
The entrepreneurial spirit moved Russian industrialism on a reformative path. As an example of the Old Believers' foresightedness, they were the first in Russia to import and build an English cotton-spinning mill, a necessity for any textile-producing village. Moreover, prior to Alexander II abolishing serfdom in 1861, and as the wealth increased for many in the Old Believer community, more Old Believer serfs were able to buy their freedom which unleashed a large workforce, one that was needed in the textile mills. Since approximately 1834, the Old Believers had been migrating back to the area in and around Moscow in order to take advantage of the blossoming textile trade; it was this trade that that made Old Believers successful entrepreneurs. Another example of Old Believer forethought is that their merchants sent their sons and daughters abroad, not only to acquire an education, but also to help secure business relations. For the girls, it was an introduction to European culture. Moreover, the Old Believers were achieving a modicum of approval along with their newfound wealth, with a popular Russian writer expressing "general admiration for most Old Believers." This, however, would not last.
Even with greater freedom, the Old Believers still rejected the authority of the state. In 1854, the government responded by announcing that effective January 1, 1855 no Old Believer would be allowed to join a business or trade guild. The idea was to force the Old Believers to convert to the state church or else be excluded from their newfound source of wealth. The choice was clear and ironically quite Manichean: stand with your faith and suffer financial devastation, or convert and maintain your status as a prosperous merchant. Illustrating the close ties between church and state, this political declaration attempted to force a religious agenda aimed directly at the Old Believers and became yet another challenge of the "true faith." Aside from feigning belief to circumvent the new guild ordinance - a reminder that it is difficult to control thought, much as an Orwellian novel would suggest - the clergy in Moscow were discovered to have been "handing out conversion certificates without ever having baptized the recipients," otherwise the government may have never known who was, or was not, truly converted. Most, however, maintained the facade of adherence to Orthodoxy while covertly maintaining the "old books." For some, like V.A. Kokorev - who was known as the Old Believer Millionaire - these were not impediments to wealth as much as they were annoying, yet surmountable, challenges.
Challenges that beset the Old Believers were formed in the new merchant movement by incorporating secular business practices while making their faith cultural. By promoting their own culture and values, having family members educated abroad and having returned, the Old Believers were able to form a distinct and advanced culture apart from the peasant class from which they arose. In other words, by not holding on to the Tsarist Orthodoxy, they were able to think and act independently. When the Polish Revolt occurred in 1863, the Russian people, including the long-persecuted Old Believers, united under the Tsar to fight the rebelling enemy. The Old Believers became ardent supporters of the Russian homeland; moreover, they were known as "steadfast defenders of the throne" in some of the larger communities. While the Old Believers had adapted, what is not clear is whether the change in attitude toward the monarchy was due to a true change of heart or whether it was due to pandering for survival's sake. It was noted that even the Poles who had tried to rouse the Old Believer peasantry into joining the revolt failed to garner any support. Another shift had occurred among the peasantry and without much regard for political allegiance or to church doctrine. The most reasonable explanation may be that there were enough wealthy Old Believer merchants employing the peasantry in or around Moscow by this time who had a stake in the system; they knew that to support the Poles was akin to economic suicide.
If the Old Believers were changing political direction, though, this had no bearing on their acts of altruism in their local communities. Local politics were cut off from national politics - usually by great distances - since many communes had moved away from industrialized centers in the West in the early days after the Great Schism to avoid persecution. However, the altruistic nature of the faith was seen in most Old Believer communes where they apportioned food, clothing and shelter to those in need without the expectation of reward. The Old Believers would also take in orphans and "pregnant girls" and teach them the Old Belief faith. These kind acts were usually done in the name of "mutual aid," yet such actions were met with suspicion from the outside. In hindsight, it could be argued that "mutual aid" was a utopian construct (a la Robert Owen) and that the self-sufficient Old Believer communities were a step ahead of their time. Unfortunately, such programs were seen not for their assistances, but for their allure. The Russian Orthodox Church was suspicious that such actions were a means of recruitment - aimed particularly at the poor - and not as compassionate assistance in which they were intended.
Mutual aid was only one facet of the Old Believers that made them stand out as forward thinking. The Old Believers were communal - private ownership of property was frowned upon - and labor was collectivized. It was in this framework that equality, especially among the sexes, and loyalty paid off for the Old Believers.
With most previous treatments of the Old Believers focusing primarily on their apocalyptic views and mass suicides, the study of gender in relation to the Old Believers' ability to survive in a dynamic period such as the early 19th century is a novel idea. Years ahead of their contemporaries, women played an important part in the Old Believer communities and allowed Old Believer society to prosper and advance through a turbulent period. In addition, since community and church activities were often one-and-the-same in Old Believer society, women's participation in the community meant they were actively involved in church activities as well. This also extended into ecclesiastic activities such as proselytism to "keep alive the pre-Petrine way of life."
The freedom of religious activity within the community reflected a liberal and progressive attitude toward gender and gender equality, but this should not be confused with a progressive religion. The Old Belief has been aptly described as an archaic set of religious convictions that belies the contradiction that is at the heart of the Old Believer faith. What was "new" to gender roles was that it was not exclusive, but rather inclusive. The teachings applied to all members of the community because all were equal in the eyes of the Lord. One of the sacraments, that of baptism, saw no difference in the "spiritual equality of men and women" and therefore women were afforded equal access to salvation. This is actually in contrast to many Bible verses that state the superiority of the male, but only in marriage. Numerous Bible verses unmistakably state that the wife is to submit herself to her husband (see Gen. 3:16, Eph. 5:22-24, Eph. 5:33, 1Pet. 3:3-4, 1 Pet. 3:5-6, 1 Cor. 11:3, etc.) and that her worth is only half that of a male (Lev. 27:3-4), yet the Old Believers circumvented this by adhering to a strict biblical interpretation. Each passage referenced applies only to married persons that conveniently provided a solution. The resolution was brilliant in its simplicity: they remained unmarried and celibate, thereby avoiding what would otherwise be seen as biblically sanctioned gender biases. Although these verses describe fundamental biblical teachings, they are not part of the 613 Mitzvahs (also called the "Laws of Moses" or less formally known as the "613 commandments") since that applies to prohibitions. Furthermore, there are no such prohibitions on remaining unmarried and celibate.
Such un-orthodox teachings and interpretations of gender issues were not limited to a biblical manipulation of the understanding of marriage and sex roles, in the case of resurrection, which can be derived from the book of Revelation (the book of the Apocalypse) and Genesis. These are just more examples of an atypical biblical interpretation.
The understanding of resurrection by the Old Believer faithful during the coming final days or Tribulation was another intriguing belief in use in the communities, in part because of its gender association. Since resurrection meant a rebirth into an androgynous body, it was neither male nor female, and therefore did not require genitals for procreation in the hereafter. Nevertheless, the genderless ideal was described as male-like and similar to the current popular conception of Mattel's KenŽ doll. The conversion from female-to-male and from male-to-androgynous male during the resurrection into the Kingdom of Heaven matched the Genesis 2:21-23 account of creation, according to biblical Old Belief interpretation. The important fact in the first verse is that Eve was made from Adam's rib. The Old Believer's understanding of this verse was interpreted to mean a "re-creation" and therefore a change in the physical form of the faithful to the original form, that of Adam. Since gender was not used in the afterlife, this was used as a proof that the desires of the flesh are not followed into Heaven because they were not needed. Furthermore, this reaffirmed the sinfulness of sexual desire.
In the next two verses of Genesis, however, we have a potential discrepancy with this particular Old Believer principle. Biblical scholars suggest that the account following the creation of woman in Genesis 2:24-25 does not preclude sex between man and a woman, as the Old Believers thought. The contrary, they argue, is true. Sex is natural, according to the Bible, and "is not regarded as evil or but as a God-given impulse that draws a man and a woman together so that they become one with flesh" (emphasis in original).
If this were true, then why was there such a great emphasis on celibacy in Old Believer Society? A partial answer may be linked to salvation. If one must be pure of heart and mind, and lust is sinful, then only celibacy can assure salvation. Moreover, women and men equally needed salvation. According to Old Belief, the goal was to attain a society that was essentially sexless. Such a society would be the pinnacle of equal rights, and it would have scriptural backing. Furthermore, this occurred over one hundred years earlier than many western countries. Communities became celibate but were found more commonly among the priestless Old Believer communes where social mores, lack of a priest to conduct a marriage ceremony, and the imminent end of the world, precluded marriage in favor of purity.
The role of celibate marriages in Old Believer society is actually a basis for the ascetic views of many within the community. The veneration of saints was due in part to their status as virgins. By imitating the saints, the Old Believers maintained higher level of faith and devotion. Furthermore, it was believed that the absence of sexuality - read lust - helped the Old Believers achieve salvation. Even though it was not necessary for a spiritual deliverance, it did help to affirm a higher social status. Even childbirth was seen as an unclean act that required penitence, although it should be noted that this is not a unique view held only by the Old Believers as this notion comes directly from the Christian Old Testament (see Leviticus 12: 1-8, 15:19-32 and Job 14:1-4). Procreation was deemed to be a sin of the flesh, but not of the spirit, and for that reason, it was looked down upon by the church. Celibate members, especially women, could enjoy relatively higher social status and equality with their male counterparts if they remained single and chaste. They were even permitted to hold jobs that were normally held only by males. Celibacy, to the Old Believers, was morally empowering, and therefore highly regarded by most in the community.
The Old Believers managed to persevere in the midst of continued oppression and religious persecution. Moreover, the roles of women during this period managed to help bind the communities and strengthen their resolve through ever-changing rulers, technology and impediments. What did not change was the fervent zeal for their apocalyptic beliefs and the sense that modernity was ill suited to their way of life. This presents a certain irony, considering the economic and social modernization that took place in the 19th century. Furthermore, the Old Believers formed and held onto their own unique cultural and social tenets that created a schism in the 17th century and would last until today, tenets that helped them retain a cultural identity that was modern in a social sense, yet backward in a theological sense. The schism between the Old Believers and the Russian Orthodox Church ultimately resulted in the subjugation, segregation, and exile across Russia. Yet despite the group's isolation - whether forced or self-imposed due to fears of assimilation - the Old Believers managed to save their culture through Russia's tumultuous years. The 19th century took the Old Believers from a feudal society to the edge of westernization century bringing modern nuanced gender roles along with them.
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