Old believers

17.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

The Old Believers or Old Ritualists encompass a system of religious movements within the Russian Orthodox Church.

Its followers rejected the church reform of the mid 17th century, by the Moscow Patriarch Nikon and Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. The essence of the Old Believers is a protest against the unification of the divine service of the Moscow and Greek churches, and especially the Church of Constantinople. For this reason, for decades, its supporters have been persecuted by state and spiritual authorities.

A brief history of the old believers

Followers of the Old Believers think that the religion they preach arose from the moment of the baptism of Rus’ by Prince Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles, who borrowed the Orthodox tradition from the Greeks.

The church reform initiated by Patriarch Nikon in 1653 was rejected by part of society and also some representatives of the clergy of the Moscow Church. Opponents of the tsarist reforms were anathematized as heretics at the Moscow Council of 1656 and the Great Moscow Cathedral of 1666-1667. The reform inevitably led to a split in the Russian Church, which lasted until the 20th century.

Under Queen Sophia, who issued state laws called The Twelve Articles, the Old Believers were subjected to persecution, torture and execution. Peter the Great abolished these laws and instead introduced a double tax for the supporters of the original church, allowing it to exist semi-legally.

Despite the persecution of the Old Believers by the tsarist governments over several centuries, the latter defended their right to be called an integral part of Russian Christianity. In the 19th century, Old Believer merchants became richer and formed the basis of the country’s economy. Some restrictions for representatives of the “old” church were then gradually removed. Later, the Supreme Decree “On Strengthening the Principles of religious tolerance”, issued on April 17, 1905, abolished all previously adopted restrictions on the Old Believers.

In the Soviet period, the authorities favourably treated the Old Believers, and all previous restrictions were removed. During the Great Patriotic War, most of the Old Believers called for the protection of the Motherland. In the postwar period, many of them joined the CPSU in order to obtain a prestigious job or take a leadership position.

The main ideas of the old believers

The main distinguishing features of the Old Orthodox Church from the common Orthodox Church include:

  • making the sign of the cross with two fingers
  • triple immersion baptism
  • the use of the eight-pointed Crucifix, because the four-pointed is considered Latin
  • the veneration of a simple four-pointed cross without the Crucifixion
  • a ban on secular types of chants (opera, chromatic, part singing, etc.)
  • the absence of abbreviations and substitutions characteristic of the New Believers (Kafisms, stichera and songs of the canons are fully reproduced)
  • the observance of beginning and ending bows
  • the support of synchronicity of ritual actions (the sign of the cross and bows)
  • a clockwise religious procession (following the sun)
  • the approval of old Russian prayer clothing during the service (kaftans, kosovorotki, sundresses, etc.)

There are other distinctive features of the Old Believers. Its supporters do not use akathists (except for the Akathist to the Most Holy Theotokos) and other late prayer books. Also in church reading they widely use poglasitsy. The name “Исус” (Jesus) is written with one letter “и” under the rules of the Slavic spelling of the name of Christ, and some terms have been preserved in the Old Church Slavonic form (Psalter, Hierosalim, Davyd, Predotecha, Savatiy, Evva, priestly monk (not hieromonk), etc.)

Among the Old Believers, there are three main groups: Popovtsy (who believe that the church and parishioners need a priest to perform the rites), Edinovertsy (who came under the jurisdiction of the ROC but preserved the old traditions, books and rites) and Bespopovtsy (who rejected priests of the new kind and chose a life without the participation of a spiritual leader).

The main components of faith

In the course of history, representatives of the “old” church formed their own attributes of faith.

  1. The symbol of Faith is a system of central dogmas of the Christian doctrine. During the reform of the Old Believers, a change was made to the Symbol of Faith: the conjunction “but” in the words about the Son of God, which served as an opposition, was excluded. The Old Believers are strongly against such readings and advocate leaving the phrase as it was (“born, but not created”). They rejected the arbitrary statement of dogmas and were ready even to choose suffering and death for one letter!

In addition, it is believed that the Greek words in the text τò Κύριον are interpreted as “Dominant and true”, which means the need to confess the Holy Spirit as truly as God the Father and God the Son.

  1. Pure Hallelujah. The double pronunciation of “hallelujah” (Hebrew: “praise God”), for which the Old Believers advocate, in the course of the reform changed to triple before the phrase “Glory to You, Our God”. The New Believers think that the triple “hallelujah” corresponds to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
  2. Representatives of the Old Believer movement reject the replacement of bows to the ground with down-to-waist ones. It is believed that there are ordinary bows (to the chest or the belly), medium (to the waist), small to the ground, symbolizing repentance, and great to the ground, where the head must be bowed to the ground.
  3. Church Singing. Supporters of the previous rules retained the Znamenny Chant, which is the singing that uses specific notation symbols called “znamena” or “kryuki”. It has a unique style of performance, which has no pauses and stops, and singing in full voice is replaced by a moderate pace. A person should sing a prayer in a natural voice without classical staging. Singing is characterized by a high educational value.

Initially, the church choir consisted exclusively of men. But modern Old Believer churches often lack singers, so women are the basis of the choir in most parishes.

Old believers

Arts & culture

The Old Believers defended their vision in many creative aspects. Even before the church schism, changes began to appear in icon painting under the influence of Western European trends. Supporters of the former church denied the innovations and advocated the preservation of the traditions of the Russian and Byzantine icons.

By the 19th century, in the “new” Orthodox Church, icon painting fell into decay. The Old Believers, on the contrary, tried to preserve the icons created before the schism, and collected them extensively, they thought that new images were devoid of grace. The icons of Andrei Rublev were especially valuable. In large Orthodox Old Believer parishes, separate icon-painting schools were formed.

Arts & culture

Also, representatives of the Old Believer Church have preserved their own education system, which includes:

  • the memorization of many prayers
  • teaching reading and basic arithmetic
  • the Znamenny сhant

The list of textbooks was traditionally made up of the ABC, the Psalter and the Book of Hours. More gifted children studied Slavic writing and iconography.

Among Christians, the Apocrypha were especially popular. These are religious works, mainly devoted to the events and persons of Sacred and church history, which are not included in the canon.

Among the Apocrypha, there were writings against the use of potatoes, tea, coffee and tobacco, among other things. Some of them reflected a dislike of wearing ties. Currently, the collection The Passion of the Christ is being read on the days of Great Lent and Holy Week.

Central Russia, the Russian North, the Volga region, the South of Russia, Transbaikalia and the Baltic States are the geography of the Old Believers in Russia. At the beginning of the 20th century in the Don, Tomsk, Saratov, Vyatka, Samara and Nizhny Novgorod regions there was a significant number of its followers.

The Old Believers in modern Russia are no less important for Orthodoxy than the modern church. The movement played one of the main roles in the preservation and development of Russian cultural and religious tradition and influenced the socio-economic life of the country.

The Russian Orthodox Old Believer Church is the largest modern religious organization of the Old Believers in Russia and other countries (Belokrinitskaya Hierarchy, founded in 1846). It has about a million parishioners. The number of Old Believers in Russia numbers more than two million people, which includes residents of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Karelia, as well as representatives of the Finno-Ugric, Udmurt, Chuvash peoples, etc.

The Old Believers exist today as a primordial original culture, resistant to any innovations.