Old Believers: Russian Church Reforms of the 17th Century
Patriarch Nikon’s reforms in mid 17th century Russia set in motion many processes that continue to this day. While the core of the reforms was liturgical, relating to prayer, there was also a deep social and ideological layer to them. These reforms led to a schism in the Russian Orthodox Church that remains largely unhealed even in modern times. The consequences of the schism were enormous. They prompted the emergence of what is today usually known as “Old Believers”, a large and diverse group of Christians who reject these reforms. Some historians say that as many as 20% of the members of the Russian Orthodox Church found themselves in the schism, now as “Old Believers”.
The main aim of the course is to provide an objective and critical overview of the reforms of Patriarch Nikon as well as their historical, socio-political and religious contexts. The consequences of the reforms will also be considered. Events of the reforms, key people, reformers and opponents will be examined in greater depth. The emergence of the Old Believers in the decades following the reforms will be studied, along with a general overview of the various Old Believers groups today, priestly and priestless.
Course duration: 7 weeks The enrolling for the course: the course starts as the group is recruited Price: 100 EUR* Final document: After you successfully complete the course, you will be awarded a Certificate of course completion.
*8600 RUB (The final price in euro might be slightly different based on the currency rate of the payment day)
After completing this course, students
will be able to:
Recognise and understand some of the historical events prior to the reforms, that later had an impact and incluence on the reforms.
Recognise and outline the main events of the reforms and be able to identify the various main movements involved.
Analyse the historical context (religious, social, political) of 17th century Russia and demonstrate how it is connected to the reforms. There is no single answer to this issue and there are various conclusions to be made, giving students a degree of freedom, and requiring them to think, not just memorise.
Outline the various arguments involved in polemics regarding the reforms.
Identify, in a fundamental manner, the practical changes of the reforms as well as explain why these were rejected by those who would become the Old Believers.
Identify the various Old Believer groups that formed after the reforms, some of their religious practices and their basic doctrines.
Tutor of the course
Deacon Phillip Calington, Doctor of Theology (PhD)
Obtained his Doctoral (PhD) degree in theology from the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological
institute in Paris, in the fields of liturgy and Church History. His Master (MA) research and dissertation was about the Old Believers and the schism in the Russian Church of the 17th century.
He has presented at international conferences about Old Believers, for instance at the conferences of the "Japanese society of Old Believer scholars".
The course starts by considering some important historical events before the 17th century in order to relate them to events studied in the 17th century. This will be followed by an examination of the historical context of 16th-17th century Russia, where the events took place. The reforms themselves are subsequently examined, as well as the key people and ideological trends of these reforms.
While liturgy was at centre of the reforms, this course is not a liturgical course as such, and touches mostly only upon the liturgical questions in a general and overarching way, without a deeper historical study of the liturgical development in the Orthodox Church. However, there will be an analysis of the sign of the cross throughout history, to demonstrate why its forms might have developed and changed.This will demonstrate to students the development of some parts of Christian worship and allow them to understand it in the context of the reforms.
The aftermath of the reforms, in particular the formation of various Old Believer groups, is examined, with a focus on three main groups: Priestly Old Believers, Priestless Old Believers and Edinovertsy, as well as their fundamental claims and beliefs.
Brief introduction to the history of Christianity in Rus. The
Baptism of Rus will be briefly touched upon and a very general and short presentation of the history up until the 17th century will be given. Then a more in-depth focus will be given to the socio-political and religious situation in Rus during the
16-17th century, allowing students to understand the historical context of the reforms studied subsequently.
What was the place of Russia in the Christian world during this era?
Which influences can be seen starting to affect Russia?
Did the fall of Constantinople affect Russia?
Students should be familiar with and understand the general historical context and social, political, and religious situation in Russia during the 16-17th century.
Outcome of the first week:
Students should have a general idea of history of the Russian Church up to the 17th century. They should be able to explain the general social and religious context in Russia in the 17th century, be able to point out potential foreign influences and be
broadly aware of the historical context of the era.
In the second lecture, we will examine the Council of Stoglav which took place in 1551. We will explore what this council did and why it was so significant for the opponents of the reforms and later for Old Believers. In many ways, the council of 1551 made the opposition to the Nikonian reforms "viable" in the eyes of the opponents. The ideology of Third Rome will be explained. The issues of the Stoglav council and the ideology of Third Rome are two very important aspects to the identity of the opponents of the reforms and for modern-day Old Believers.
Outcome of the second week:
Students should understand the primary reasons for the significance of the Council of Stoglav in 1551 and its connection to the Nikonian reforms some 100 years later. The ideology of Third Rome should also be understood in its proper historical context.
In the third lecture, we will move to the time around the reforms and focus on some of the most important people of the reforms. Before examining the reforms themselves, it is vital that students know some of the key figures. This will give a historical and personal background to the events. Since very few people outside Russia are aware of the vital roles played by these key figures, it is essential to introduce them here.
We will primarly take a closer look at six people: Patriarch Nikon, Tsar Alexei, Archpriest (Protopop) Avvakum, Arsenios the Greek, Patriarch Makarios of Antioch and Paul of Aleppo. Greater emphasis will be placed on Patriarch Nikon, Tsar Alexei and Archpriest Avvakum, as these three are widely considered to be the three most significant individuals in these events.
Outcome of the third week:
Students should be familiar with the various figures associated with the events of the reforms and have a broad idea of the position they each took during the reforms. Knowing their life stories in detail is less important than demonstrating an understanding of how these key people fit in into the whole picture. Familiarity with these figures, especially Tsar Alexei, Patriarch Nikon and Archpriest Avvakum (and his followers) will make for greater understanding of subsequent events.
While the reforms that took place in the Russian Church touched upon the many minutiae of church life, the sign of the cross was the single most visible change, and arguably the one that contributed most to the frequent bloody polemics and the later tragic schism. In this module, we will briefly present the history of the (practice of the) sign of the cross in the Christian Church.
We will then focus more strictly on the reforms and its main changes. As this is not a liturgical course, the analysis will be basic enough to allow students to develop a greater understanding of the main points of contention.
Apart from the sign of the cross (and blessing), we will briefly consider the spelling of the name of Jesus in Slavonic, the number of “Alleluia” to be said during prayer, the bows to be made during prayer and some other smaller changes that took place during the reforms. We will present both sides of the arguments and ensure students understand why this was so important to both sides.
Outcome of the fourth week:
Students should have sufficient understanding to be able to explain the historical background behind the Christian sign of the Cross. They should have an awareness of the major changes of the Nikonian reforms and be able to explain why these changes caused so much controversy, even violence and eventually the tragic schism.
Having examined the figures involved in the reforms, the biggest changes of the reforms and the historical context leading up to the reforms, this week we focus strictly on the events themselves. Chronologically, we will start with the first council of 1654 and go through the events up the culmination of the reforms at the council of 1666-1667. This will demonstrate to students that these (and other church reforms) do not happen overnight; rather, it is usually a long, protracted process. We will present both sides of the arguments, as Old Believer understanding of these events often differs greatly from that of the “official” State Church of the time.
Outcome of the fifth week:
Students should be familiar with the events of the reforms. They should be able to understand the whole process and be able to demonstrate succinctly the chronological timeline of the reforms. They should have an awareness of the motivating factors behind, and consequences of, these events, and how they are all connected over a period of almost 15 years. Students should also be able to summarise the principal differences between the Old Believer version of the events, and the “State” Church version.
Having examined the reforms, in this module we will focus on the emergence of the Old Believers as a consequence of these reforms. This was of course an “organic” development and not something that happened overnight. In this week we will focus on the first opponents of the reforms and then move on to the various groups that would arise later. Here we will examine, outline, and present the theological claims of the various groups. We will explore why the Priestless groups reject the priesthood, why Priestly groups accept some priesthood and why Edinoverie accepts the full rites and mysteries (sacraments) of the Russian Orthodox Church, while identifying themselves as “Old Believers”.
Outcome of the sixth week:
Students should be familiar with the various Old Believer movements and be able to demonstrate a basic understanding of their theology and stance regarding questions of rituals and the reforms. Students should be able to identify broad categories and definitions, rather than specific sub-groups.
In the final week, we will examine the current situation in the study of the reforms and Old Believers. We will examine the recently changed attitudes of the Russian Orthodox Church towards the reforms and Old Believers (lifting of the anathemas, as one example) and touch upon the likelihood of healing a schism which is over three hundred years old.
Outcome of the seventh week:
Students should be familiar with the current situation in the field of the study of the reforms, especially within the Russian Orthodox Church vis à vis the Old Believers. Students should demonstrate a basic understanding of the obstacles to ending the schism.
The course is taught fully online.
The course is organised as a series of lectures with reading materials provided for each lecture.Each lecture also includes questions posted in the forum, where discussions may take place.
The course is run entirely in English.
During the course of the 7 week long course, students will be asked to produce three shorter essays on topics connected to the lectures. Two of these will be decided by the teacher, will be submitted by all students and will be directly connected to the topic studied in a specific part of the course. The third essay at the end of the course will be chosen by the students themselves in consultation with the teacher, and will demonstrate their deeper understanding of the chosen topic.
The course will be of interest to students of History. (The schism is a fundamental event in the history of Russia).
This course will provide a good ground for anyone genuinely interested in Russian Orthodoxy, particularly those who are interested in learning about and discovering ancient piety and rites of the Russian Church.
It is an interdisciplinary course in the fields of theology, Church history and general Russian history.
Students do not require prior knowledge of theology and Russian history: introductory information will be given at the beginning of the course.
"This was a wonderful course and I highly recommend it to anyone interested In Eastern Orthodoxy and/or Russian History. Because of the short timeframe of the course, the video lectures, reading material, and essay assignments are shorter, but still at at a level that is challenging and rewarding. The instructor also includes the opportunity to meet with him on video chat twice during the course to discuss the material and ask questions. What is best about this this course - the material touches upon the main topics, and then, if you wish, you may go further with your research into dozens of different elements discussed. In completing the course, I've added to my knowledge of Russian Orthodox Church history, and also increased the materials in my library at home (books, articles, etc.).
If you are someone who wants a thorough course with a smaller timeframe and scope (to fit into your lifestyle), I highly recommend it! I am very eager to see what new courses they may offer in English, and I am encouraged to continue learning Russian again so, God willing, I might be able to participate in courses designed for non-native Russian speakers"