Christian Martyrdom in Russia/Chapter II

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A Paper written in 1805[1]

In the second half of the last century there arose in Russia a Society the existence of which would have seemed impossible in our country. Suddenly there appeared people who not only repudiated all the religious ceremonies and outward ritual of the Greek-Russian Church, but even did not accept the outward baptism by water, and the communion of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine.

It was natural that such men could not have been left in peace, either by their neighbours or by the Government itself, the more so that no one knew or understood their spirit. From every side they suffered almost incessant persecution; every encounter with a priest, police agent, or magistrate caused them to be brought before the law and imprisoned; every opposition from the neighbouring population was accompanied with dreadful abuse and outrage; their every action rendered them, in the eyes of others, monsters and breakers of the general peace. The higher Government formed its opinion about them principally from the reports of the lower authorities, and they were often sent off into exile as State offenders. Thus, the persecution of the Spirit- Wrestlers endured until the mild and peaceful reign of Alexander I.[2]

In 1801, the Senators Lopoukine and Neledinski, who were sent to examine two of the provinces in which the Spirit-Wrestlers lived, were the first to exhibit this people to the Tzar in their true character; and, owing to the report of these examiners. His Majesty, wishing to isolate the Spirit - Wrestlers, graciously allowed them to emigrate to the so-called " Milky - Waters " in the Taurid province.

At the end of the year 1804, the Spirit- Wrestlers living in the provinces of Tamboff and Ekaterinoslaff asked and obtained permission also to be allowed to emigrate to the same place. But before explaining what these people now are, it is necessary to examine their origin, their mode of life, and their teaching.

The Origin of the Spirit-Wrestlers

The name " Spirit- Wrestlers " was given as far back as 1785, probably by the then Bishop of Ekaterinoslaff. It was at the time evidently intended to distinguish, by this name, those holding this teaching, just as the repudiation of ikons (images) was in its time called " Ikon- Wrestling."

But the Spirit- Wrestlers themselves, giving their derivation of the name from "spirit," say that they in the spirit strenuously serve God. Thus, following their explanation, the term ought to be understood. The populace called them by various abusive names, such as "milk-men," because they did not fast, but took milk during Lent.

As to themselves, they always called, and call, themselves merely "Christians," whilst others they call "men of the world."

Their origin is unknown, even to themselves; for, being common people and illiterate, they have no written history; neither has tradition preserved amongst them any information upon the subject.

The Society of the Spirit-Wrestlers was originally a dispersed one. Nowhere did they at first form communities, but they lived, a few families in various villages. They were dispersed not only through certain provinces where they were specially strong, but also through almost the whole of Eussia. They even affirm that many of their brethren are to be found in Germany and Turkey, but that in Germany they are more severely persecuted than by the Mohammedans.[3]

Communication among the Russian Spirit-Wrestlers takes place when occasion offers, for example, when the brethren have to travel upon business; but, when necessary, special messengers are sent.

Their Mode of Life and Organisation

Apart from the question of the peculiarities of their religious faith, the Spirit- Wrestlers may be regarded as affording the model of well-organised family and social peasant life. In 1792, Kohovsky, the governor of Ekaterinoslaff, in his report to the higher authorities, said, amongst other things, that the Spirit- Wrestlers are of exemplarily good conduct, and, avoiding drunkenness and idleness, are continually occupied with the welfare of their homes, leading a moral life. They have always regularly paid the State taxes, and fulfilled their other social duties, often even to excess, as compared with the other peasants, owing to the oppression to which they are always subject from the local authorities.

But as soon as question is raised as to principles and actions of theirs which in any way touch their religious faith, there is immediately disclosed a complete difference from, and even opposition to, other peasantry.

The Spirit-Wrestlers never frequent the churches; they do not worship images; during prayer they do not make the sign of the cross; they do not keep the ordinary fasts, and they take no part in the recreations and loose pleasures of worldly people. There are many such circumstances which completely separate them from all ordinary society of peasants, and which have always been a cause of unceasing persecution against them.

The Spirit-Wrestlers deem that all externalism in the work of salvation is utterly useless, and that the external Church, owing to the lapse of true Christianity, has become a den of robbers; and they therefore acknowledge one sacred, universal and apostolic Church, which the Lord by His coming has assembled, consecrated and replenished by the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and which is, of course, the union of all faithful and true Christians.

In this persuasion, they often have meetings of the brethren; yet they have not for this purpose any specially appointed place, as they do not see any sanctity in locality; but they meet at each other's houses without any distinction. They do not even fix any special days for their meetings, deeming all days equal, and having no holy-days: any free day is a day for their meetings. These meetings, however, in most cases, for convenience' sake, take place during the ordinary Church or national holy-days. Thus, any of them may arrange a meeting at his house by inviting all the brethren. If such a meeting is held at the house of a poor brother who cannot provide food for those who have assembled, then the others previously contribute the necessary food, or else bring it with them; for at these meetings they have supper. Entering the meeting, the men greet the men, the women the women, by grasping each other's right hands, bowing three times and kissing each other. At the commencement, each one says a prayer. The three bows and kisses are intended to signify the cleansing of the body and the repulsion of pride; they take each other's hands as a sign of union and love, kindly expression, good understanding, the sense of a God revered in their souls.

During the meetings, one after another recites the prayers he knows; they together sing psalms and explain to each other the Word of God. As almost all are illiterate, and therefore without books, all this is done from memory. They have no priests in the ordinary sense of the word; they acknowledge as priest the one just, holy, true Christ, uplifted above sinners, higher than the heavens; He is their sole teacher. Thus at their meetings they hear the Word of God from each other; each one may express what he knows or feels for the benefit of his brethren; the women are not excluded from this, for, as they say, women also have understanding, and light is in understanding. They pray either standing or sitting, as the case may be.

At the end of the meeting they again kiss each other thrice as at the beginning, and then the brethren return home.

The virtue most highly respected among the Spirit-Wrestlers is mutual love. They have no personal property; but each regards his property as belonging to all. After emigrating to the Milky-Waters, they proved this in practice; for there they stored up all their property in one place, so that at present they have one common treasury, one common flock or herd, and in each of their villages is a common granary. Each brother takes from the common property that which he needs. Hospitality also is not the least virtue among them, for they take nothing from travellers who stop at their houses, either for lodging or food. However, in order that the brethren may not in time be depraved by casual visitors, they have built in the Milky-Waters a special lodging-house, where such travellers must put up. Here also are received and entertained the Government officials, and here the common treasury is kept.

The Spirit-Wrestlers are compassionate towards their fellow-men. The local authorities themselves, notwithstanding all the calumny they spread against these people, have more than once witnessed before the higher Government to the fact that the Spirit-Wrestlers give help and do acts of great charity to their fellow-men in need. They are compassionate even to household animals, and almost entirely refrain from killing them.

Respect from children to their parents is also strictly observed, and in general from younger men to those older; though the latter, and even parents, do not appropriate to themselves any ascendency over the younger ones, regarding themselves as spiritually their equals.

There exist no punishments among the brethren. As soon as any brother thinks another has behaved improperly, he, according to the precise gospel instruction, reminds him that he is acting wrongly; if the one in fault will not take consideration, he is admonished in the presence of two or three of the brethren; if he does not take heed of them, he is invited to appear before the general assembly.

There have been cases, though very seldom, in which some of the brethren have left the Society, doubtless in order to live at liberty according to their own unrestricted desire. It has even sometimes happened that wives have deserted their husbands. The husbands, in such cases, do not detain their wives, but give them liberty, at the same time giving them means to live upon as far as possible.

Deserters may, however, be again accepted into the Society if they completely repent and leave their immoral life; of which there have also been examples.

The general round of occupations is filled by each taking a calling. Thus the tradesman does the commercial business, and the agriculturist works on the land. But the majority of them are agriculturists, as they give preference to this noble occupation.

In their Society there are no elders who rule or administrate, but rule and administration are by all and each. Written regulations or rules they also have none, and one might suppose that there ought therefore to be disagreement and disorder amongst them. Yet no such disorder has ever been noticed. In the Milky- Waters, three, and even five families, live peacefully together in one large cottage.

As to the management of the families separately, the weakness and dependence of the female sex, the inexperience of youth, and the education of the children, naturally require another system. In every family there must of necessity be an elder one, and the father in the flesh is this elder one. His duty is to care for the needs of his family, to watch the conduct of the children, correct their faults, and teach them the law of God. When the father dies, his place is taken by the elder of the brothers; and in the case of incapacity of the latter, his place is taken by the one most capable.

The system of education among the Spirit-Wrestlers is most simple and uniform. As soon as the child begins to speak and understand, his parents commence verbally to teach him prayers and psalms, and to tell him something out of the Holy Writings; and they thus continue to instruct him in the Christian doctrine. When the children have learnt a few prayers and psalms they accompany the elders to the meetings, recite in their turn the prayers they have learnt, and sing psalms together with the others. Not only the parents, but every Spirit-Wrestler regards it as his duty to teach every child something useful whenever he has the opportunity to do so, and to keep him from evil whenever he has occasion.

Owing to such education, the spirit of the parents by degrees passes into the children; their ways of thinking take deep root, and the tendency towards good is most strongly encouraged by good examples. It is said, and indeed seems quite natural, that amongst a number of children, one can distinguish Spirit-Wrestlers' children from the rest, like ears of corn among oats.

Their Teaching.

1. The chief article in the Spirit-Wrestlers' profession of faith is the service and worship of God in the spirit and in the truth.

2. They know no creed, and only say of themselves that they are of the faith of Jesus. The creed which is recognised in our Church, they accept as true in everything, but they regard it as one of the ordinary psalms.

3. They acknowledge God as being in three personifications of the One and Unutterable. They believe that through the memory we assimilate ourselves with God the Father, through the understanding with God the Son, through the will with God the Holy Ghost; also that the first person of the Trinity is the light—the Lord our Father; the second person is the life—the Son our Lord; and the third person is peacs—the Holy Spirit our God.

4. The conception they have of Christ is based on the teaching of the gospel: they acknowledge His coming in the flesh, His works, teaching, and suffering; but chiefly they accept all this in the spiritual sense, and affirm that all contained in the gospel should be accomplished in ourselves. Thus Christ must in us be begotten, born, grow up, teach, suffer, die, revive and ascend; and it is thus that they understand the process of the new birth, or renovation of man. They say that Jesus Himself was and is the Gospel eternal and living, and has sent it forth, preached in the Word. He Himself is the Word, and can be written only on our hearts.

5. They believe that, except through God and His Christ, there is no salvation; but if God is invoked without a pure heart, He Himself cannot save man.

6. For the salvation of man, indubitable faith in Christ is necessary; but faith without works is dead, as also are works without faith. The only living faith is the hearty acceptance of the gospel.

7. Concerning baptism, they say that they are baptized into the Word through the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as Christ taught the apostles, saying: Go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This baptism takes place when a man repents with a pure and willing heart, and calls upon God, and then his sins are remitted, and he turns to God, and not to the world. This is the only baptism for the remission of sins which they profess.

The new birth and baptism, according to their understanding, are one and the same. The means of attaining the new birth are living faith in God and prayer. The signs of the newly born, or baptized, are the works of the new man.

The consummation of baptism or new birth, they say, a man attains when he is united to God; and such a man may see God with his spiritual eyes. External baptism they regard as useless, saying that water only washes off the uncleanness of the external body.

8. They confess their sins in prayer to the heavenly God, good and merciful, who forgives all our sins. If they sin against their brethren, they confess before all, and ask their brethren to forgive them.

To deny one's sins when others remark them, is regarded by the Spirit- Wrestlers as a great wrong. They also condemn the practice of calling oneself a sinner, and making this a kind of boast, a sham meekness, to excuse one from trying to correct one's errors. When a man has fallen he should immediately recover himself, ask God's forgiveness with humbled heart, and with all his might strive not to fall again into a similar sin.

9. As to the Communion, they partake at all times of the sacred, life-giving, eternal sacraments, in the forgiveness of their sins spiritually, through the inward acceptance of the Word of God, which is Christ; and such a communion, they say, penetrates the understanding of man, as it were, to the marrow of the bones.

The communion of the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine they do not accept; saying that bread and wine enter into the mouth like ordinary food, and are of no avail to the soul.

10. Fasting they regard as a matter not of kind or quality of food, but of abstinence from gluttony and other vices, of purity, meekness and humility of the spirit. Mere outward abstinence from food does not, according to them, yield any good to the soul.

11. They respect the saints, but do not call for their help, saying that they—the saints—have pleased God on their own behalf, and that we must simply imitate them.

They do not, however, indiscriminately count as good all the deeds of the so-called saints; thus they deem that when St. Nicholas, during a Church Council, hit Arius on the cheek, the Word of God had then deserted him.

12. Marriage amongst them is not regarded as a holy sacrament, and is accomplished merely by the mutual consent of the young couple. As, among the Spirit- Wrestlers, no preference is given to wealth or rank, the parents do not at all interfere in the marriages of their children. There are also no marriage rites or ceremonies; the mere consent of the two, and a promise to live together, suffices.

Abstinence from marriage for the sake of purity is regarded amongst them as a high virtue.

13. The dead they commemorate by good deeds, and in no other way. God Himself, they say, will remember the righteous in His kingdom. Therefore they do not pray for the dead, deeming it useless. The death of a Christian they do not call death but change; therefore they do not say " our brother has died,"but" our brother has changed."

14. Concerning the state of the righteous in heaven, they say that the kingdom is in man's will, and that heaven is in the soul; that the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and, therefore, no torments of hell can touch them. As to the torments of the unrighteous and hell, they believe that unrighteous souls walk in the dark, expecting soon to perish, and that hell consists in evil feeling.

As to the transformation of souls after death, they believe that man is either justified by deeds, or by deeds is condemned; that the deeds of each man take him to his true place, and that after death there is no repentance.

15. As to the general resurrection of the righteous and unrighteous, the Spirit-Wrestlers do not enter into discussion, leaving this in the care of God.

16. For a man to save his soul, they do not think it necessary for him to belong to their Society. They say that conduct brings a man salvation, and that for this it is only necessary to understand the way of God, and to follow it.

17. The Spirit-Wrestlers are careful as to the neatness of their houses, and say that for a Christian it is proper to live cleanly and tidily (in this they have always been distinguished from the other peasants in the same village), and that it is only necessary to take care that the spirit be not set upon these things.

They think in the same way about pictures in their rooms, portraits of remarkable men, and even of saints. They say that such pictures serve to ornament the house, and are pleasant for the eye; but they should in no case be worshipped, for that is a deadly sin.

18. The Spirit-Wrestlers like to express their religious thoughts and feelings in the form of allegories. Thus, for example, they speak of seven heavens, the first being humility; the second, understanding; the third, abstinence; the fourth, brotherly love; the fifth, compassion; the sixth, good counsel; the seventh, love, where God lives. In a similar way they denote twelve Christian virtues, under the guise of twelve friends, thus—

1. Truth: which delivers man from death.

2. Purity: which brings man to God.

3. Love: where love is, there God is also.

4. Labour: honourable for the body and helpful for the soul.

5. Obedience: a quick way to salvation.

6. Not judginig: salvation without labour.

7. Reasondbleness: the highest of virtues.

8. Mercy: of which Satan himself is afraid.

9. Self-Control: the work of Christ our God Himself. 10. Prayer and fasting: unite man with God. 11. Repentance: there is no higher law or commandment. 12. Thanksgiving: gladsome to God and His higher angels.

We will give, as examples, two of the prayers which are recited at the Spirit - Wrestlers' meetings—


To whom shall I go from Thee, my God; from Thy face to whom shall I run? If I were to ascend to heaven, Thou art there; if I descend into hell, Thou art there; if I had wings to fly to the farthest seas, there would Thy arm reach me, and Thy right hand hold me. To whom shall I go, and where shall I find eternal life, if it be not in Thee, my Creator? To whom shall I go, and where, to find consolation, joy, a home, peace for my soul? To whom shall I go from Thee, my Lord God, for Thou hast in Thee the words of life? Thou art the source of life, the giver of all blessings. My soul is thirsting after Thee, my heart is thirsting after Thee, the God of my life! Let us rejoice in Thy sacred name, Lord Jesus, full of blessing; let my soul be pierced by it, let my heart be penetrated by it, so that nothing in all my life be dearer to me than Thy sacred Spirit. Let Thy words be sweeter to me than honey, let Thy ways of salvation be dearer to me than gold.


How shouldst Thou be loved, O God? For Thou art my life. Thou art my salvation, glory, and praise; for Thou art my wealth, my eternal treasure; for Thou art my hope and my trust; for Thou art my joy, my eternal peace. Is it better for me to love emptiness, or the unknown, or that which is perverse, perishable, or untrue, more than Thee, my true life? Thou art my life, my salvation; and therefore in Thee alone do I place all my hope, my faith, my desire. To Thee, Lord, will I call with all my heart, all my soul, all my thoughts; deep into Thee shall I penetrate; to Thee alone shall I pour forth my soul; I shall wholly be in Thee, and Thou in me. I shall see and know in Thee the true and only Lord God, Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent. In Thy light shall we see light, by the grace of Thy Holy Spirit.

The Spirit-Wrestlers who, at the end of the year 1804, came to St. Petersburg to ask permission for their brethren to emigrate to the Milky-Waters, when they were leaving Petersburg just before Christmas, were asked whether it would not be better for them to pass the festival in Petersburg, and after that, undertake the journey. They answered: "It is all the same to us, because the festival is in us, within ourselves."

And when, on settling in the Milky-Waters, they were enjoined to live quietly and modestly, and not to endeavour to bring others into their sect, they answered that all that was needed had been already sown; they need no more trouble about that, for now the time was come for the harvest, not the sowing.

[Such is the account given of the Spirit-Wrestlers at the beginning of this century.]

  1. The text is translated from the Russian of an old MS. lately republished in a monthly periodical called Russian Antiquity. We have translated it almost in full, as being evidently written by an individual well acquainted, and himself in perfect sympathy, with the religious movement in question. It gives a very fair idea of the life and teaching of the Spirit-Wrestlers at the time indicated, and indeed at the present time. The remarkable events which have happened among this people during the last few years are, in reality, but the result of a revival of their ancient spiritual tendencies, for which they have suffered persecution at the hands of the Church and the Government from the very first—(Ed.)
  2. The persecution of the Spirit-Wrestlers commenced in 1792, when the governor of Ekaterinoslaff reported to Petersburg that "all those infected by this movement merit no mercy"; the sect being represented as particularly dangerous and enticing to adherents, because "the mode of life of the Spirit-Wrestlers is founded on the most honest observances, and their greatest care is the general welfare, and they find salvation in good works." The Spirit-Wrestlers were condemned to be burned, but that sentence was remitted, and they were exiled to Siberia. (Note in the original MS. )
  3. This calls to our mind a circumstance in the present life of the Spirit-Wrestlers which came to our notice, corroborating the fact that the spirit of the Christian teaching is by nature common to every human being, and that non-Christian peoples are sometimes more sensitive to it than nominal Christians, whose appreciation is so often blunted by too much familiarity with the lifeless letter of the gospel. When the Spirit-Wrestlers were brought into intercourse with the Mohammedan tribes of the Caucasus, these last, awed by the moral purity and elevation of their conduct, came to the conclusion that the Spirit- Wrestlers had in some way got hold of and put into practice the ancient prescriptions of their own Mohammedan faith, which were practically disregarded by the Mohammedans themselves.—(Ed.)