Spiritual christianity

19.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Spiritual Christianity is the common name of various movements of Russian religious dissent (sectarianism), which broke away from Orthodoxy due to the non-acceptance of the established postulates and norms.

The adherents of Spiritual Christianity are distinguished by their allegorical interpretation of the Bible, and a denial of the Orthodox worship and the church hierarchy. They are close to folk tradition (including their songs), and they strive to subordinate everyday life to the Biblical commandments.

Origins of the spiritual christianity

Spiritual Christians emerged in the Russian Empire in the late 17th – early 18th centuries as small religious communities with enclosed lifestyles and such values as equality, fraternity and self-sacrificing. Their doctrine was similar to that of the Quakers in many ways.

Among the general features of the Spiritual Christians’ worldview, one can observe a negative attitude towards the church – one as a sinful human institution devoid of holiness. Also, they believe that faith is a free acknowledgement of the truth of God and none can set any rules for it. These ideas of faith make Spiritual Christians similar to Protestants.

Adepts of Spiritual Christianity were persecuted by the Russian Government which led to their settlement in distant provinces of Russia or to emigration. In 1901 a book was published called Location of Old Believers and Sectarians according to the Fates and Sects created by the Statistics Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In this handbook, Spiritual Christians were regarded as “rational” sects (unlike “mystical” sects such as Skoptsy, Khlysty and Malevantsy). The classification in that book is different from the classification that is used in modern religious studies.

In April 1905 after the publication of the Decree “On the strengthening of the principles of religious tolerance”,  exit from the Orthodox Church was allowed in Russia. Legislative restrictions on the Old Believers and other religious movements of spiritual Christians were cancelled. However, this did not mean granting them complete freedom. During the Soviet Age, their situation became complicated also.

Movements of the spiritual christianity

There are many movements of Spiritual Christianity which have many common aspects as well as differences.


The Dukhobors (or Dukhobory) is a Russian religious tradition that denies the rites stated by the Church. Their beliefs emerged from that of the Quakers. This teaching is one of the streams of Spiritual Christianity. The adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as some theologians and sociologists classify the Dukhobors as a confessional faith.

Siluan Kolesnikov was the founder and the main ideologist of the movement. He lived in the village of Nikolskoe in Ekaterinoslav Governorate between 1755 and 1775. Like other movements of Spiritual Christianity, the Dukhobors were persecuted by the state and the Orthodox Church.

The name “Dukhobors” has a double interpretation and can mean either fighters for the Holy Spirit or fighters with the Holy Spirit. Their adherents promulgate equality and reject the church ritual, icons, crosses and the Bible (instead they read the Animal Book or the Book of Life – consisting of psalms written by Dukhobors themselves).

The basic idea of their teaching includes the following concepts:

– rejecting the Original Sin

– a belief in reincarnation (the Resurrection of Christ is interpreted allegorically, spiritually)

– one may confess only to God

– fasting is limiting oneself from sinful thoughts and deeds

– services are held in a regular room

– marriage is not a religious sacrament

– external human differences are not important

The Dukhobors do not swear and refuse military service (including oaths). The affairs of the community are governed by meetings of elders.

The Dukhobors live in Russia (Northern Caucasus and other places), in Georgia and Azerbaijan. In 1991 a Congress of Russian Dukhobors took place and the official Dukhobor organization was founded.

In the modern world, the ideas of the Dukhobors, their beliefs and culture became popular trends used in folk and contemporary art (ensemble and contemporary music, fiction etc.).


The “Molokans” is a name of the adherents of one of the movements of Spiritual Christianity. In the Russian Empire, this group was regarded as one of the “especially harmful heresies”. Molokans are not united in one church. They may have a common basic doctrine yet their beliefs, songs, teachings and holidays may differ. In the Bible interpretation, they prefer allegory and symbolism.

Their teaching denies:

  • Visible icons and crosses
  • Venerating the saints
  • The necessity of the clergy and hierarchy
  • Wearing of the pectoral cross

Molokans acknowledge worshipping God only “in Truth and Spirit”. They do not make the sign of the cross and see drinking alcohol and eating pork as a sin, as well as smoking and drug addiction. They approve of the Bible and read it and sing its Psalms during their worship. They believe in the imminent coming of Christ and the establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth.

Spiritual christianity

Among the Molokans one can distinguish:

  • “water Molokans”, who practice water baptism
  • Molokan Jumpers who protested against the dominance of the elders
  • Sabbath Molokans who gather for worship on Saturdays instead of Sundays
  • “Spirit and Life Molokans” who regard a devotional book of Spirit and Life as another part of the Bible

There are many versions of the origin of the name “Molokan”. One of the most popular is based on the Molochnaia River in Ukraine where many Molokans lived. Another suggests it is based upon Biblical metaphors about “spiritual milk” that feeds the Spiritual Christians. Nowadays about 500,000 Molokans live in the USA, Canada, Latin America, Caucasus, Transcaucasia, Ukraine and Central Russia.

Subbotniks (sabbatarians)

In the late 18th century the religious movement of Subbotniks emerged in Russia. Their distinctive feature was Sabbath observance. Besides observing the Sabbath, Subbotniks fulfil many other Judaic rules such as circumcision. Some even migrated to Israel.

The Subbotnik movement is not similar to Judaism in all respects. Some of the followers observed the commandments of the Torah yet denied the Talmud and prayed in Russian or Old Slavic languages. And some (like in Irkutsk or Piatigorsk) wore Russian costumes and kept Russian traditions. Other Subbotniks have controversies concerning worshipping Jesus as Christ or the Messiah and the sacredness of the Old and New Testament.

The unifying issues are related to:

  • Circumcision
  • Recognition of the Divine in one person (i.e. denial of the Trinity)
  • The credibility of the Old Testament
  • Sabbath observance
  • Denial of icons and clergy

By the early 20th century, there were Subbotnik communities in 30 governorates of the Russian Empire with thousands of believers. Since their emergence, they have contacted Ashkenaz Jews and Karaims in Crimea, yet the uniting of the nation has not taken place since the Jews have kept their special group identity.


Shtundism or Shtunda is a Christian religious movement that became established in the nineteenth century in the Southern governorates of the Russian Empire i.e. Khersonsk, Ekaterinoslav, Kiev, and later in other regions of the Empire. Sometimes it is called Shtundo-Baptism. In the late 19th and  early 20th centuries, “Anti-Sectarian” essays and pamphlets of Russian Baptists and Evangelical Christians (Pashkovtsy) were also regarded as Shtundism.

The main manifestation of Stundism was the mass and spontaneous organization of Bible study groups among the villagers. Shtundism was in many ways similar to Pietism since its adherents emphasized personal piety, refusal of alcohol and fitting moral standards and rational argumentation to them.

Shtundists were persecuted and criticized. Due to the spontaneous character of their movement, they had neither a centralized organization with a leader nor a unified system of theology.

The main characteristics of their beliefs were the refusal of the:

  • Sacred Tradition
  • Clergy as a mediator in salvation
  • Sacraments and rites of church services
  • Existence of “holy saints”
  • Baptism of infants

In the late 19th century, most of the Russian and Ukrainian Shtundists became a part of the Russian Baptist Union.


Jumpers are also known as Sopuny (Sapuny), Triasuny, Siontsy and Vedentsy. This group were considered as sectarians. They emerged in the 1850s in Transcaucasia from the Molokans and became a separate community. They protested against the dominance of the elders, and practised jumping and dancing during the worship when filled with the Holy Spirit.

Their founder was Lukian Petrovich Sokolov, a villager. He misinterpreted the words from Psalm 91:7 – “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean”. The word “Hyssop” sounds like “sniffing” in Russian. So, Sokolov performed a new practice for worshippers to sniff at each other during the service to clean and to bring grace to each other. Other practices of the Jumpers were quite exotic as well, like “resurrecting the virgins” or “awaking the spirit”.

The Jumpers preached the following ideas:

  • the celebration of the holidays and performing rites according to the Torah
  • the observance of the Sabbath as a worship day instead of Sunday
  • the elebration of Shavuot (Pentecost), Passover and other Jewish holidays

The worship and prayers were led by the so-called “elder” who was elected among the members of the community. Usually, it was a young man who could sing and dance. He took three young “prophetesses” to assist him.


Another branch emerged from the Jumpers called the Maksimists. Their name was derived from the founder Maksim Rudometkin. He believed in  the concept of “walking in the Spirit”, which could be gained through a special kind of jumping. The members of the sect lined up in a circle, holding their left hands, with their right hands free. They spun around until they fell exhausted, after which they began to “prophesy”. The extreme radicalism of the Meksimists made them isolated from the rest of the people.

The Maksimists believed that all material benefits should be achieved by their own labour because only this way of life is pleasing to God. For this reason, the adepts of Maksim Rudomyotkin refused any external help apart from support from “brothers” and “sisters”. They did not receive social benefits or pensions.

This group do not communicate with other people, keeping themselves apart and withdrawn. They do not attend any social or entertainment events and do not watch TV. The Maksimists, more than other streams of Spiritual Christians, adhere closely to the Christian commandments. Their desire to separate from society leads to excessive isolation and a reduction in the circle of friends for community members and families.

Maximists do not compromise on their faith and they prohibit the members of their community from marrying any non-believers. They also refuse to baptize a child if his/her parents have violated any religious commandments. In contrast, the Jumpers have come to terms with reality over time and adapted to it.


The Khlysty (or Khristovery) is one of the oldest Russian sects. They emerged in the seventeenth century among  Orthodox villagers.

The name Khlysty (whippers) derives from their practice of self-whipping from the modified word “Khristy”. For the official clergy it is unacceptable to use the word “Christ” in a name of a sect.

This branch of Spiritual Christians is the most radical and self-forgetful, and its adepts called themselves “people of God” and “the faith of Christ”.

The Khlysty formed separate communities (“ships”), which are also understood to be “internal” churches. Communities are independent of each other and are governed by “helmsmen” equated to God, Christ, prophets, apostles, etc. Every helmsman enjoys unlimited power and respect. If the community is led by a “helmswoman”, it is called “Theotokos”, “mother”, etc.

The Khlyst doctrine is based on the dualistic idea that the spiritual world and heaven were created by God, and the material world and earth were created by Satan. They also believe that there are seven heavens, and on the seventh exist the Holy Trinity, the Mother of God, angels, archangels and saints. Since the Khlysty do not give definitions concerning the Holy Trinity, angels and archangels, they may mean moral virtues and the many manifestations of One Divine being.

Also, the Khlysty are famous for their doctrine of the incarnation of God in man. They believe that God can incarnate in people many times, according to the necessity and the individual’s piety. These incarnations are continuous and are accomplished through the natural transfer of Christ’s spirit to His earthly son. Usually, the incarnation of Christ occurs as a result of fasting, praying and performing good deeds.

The Khlysty adhere to asceticism and practice food and sexual abstinence. They regard the human body as sinful and believe that there is a penalty for original sin. The Khlysty believe in reincarnation and deny the priesthood, saints, the state, holy books and church rituals.


The worship of the Khlysty involves self-flagellation or whirling, in which they bring themselves to ecstasy. Collective services (“Radeniia” or “joyings”) are held at night.

Khlyst communities can be found in the Tambovsk, Samara, Orenburg regions, as well as the Krasnodar Territory and the North Caucasus.

The religious groups which include the Khristovery, Molokans and Dukhobors are called “old Russian sects”, they are distinct from the Protestant groups that emerged later.

There are still some communities of Spiritual Christians in Russia. Their main goal is to “Spiritualize” the Orthodox faith.