Bread and Salt
“Visit one another, practice bread and salt, practice charity, keep the commandments, pray to God,” a group of believers in Russia wrote in the eighteenth century.1
Why bread and salt?
Since Slavic times, Russians used bread and salt as symbols of hospitality—symbols standing for fellowship and peace. But to believers meeting in secret during times of persecution, they came to mean much more.
Christ said, “I am the bread of life.” He also said, “You are the salt of the earth.” Seeing bread and salt together spoke to Russian believers of fellowship between Christ and his people.
Beyond this, they believed bread and salt were the least a person could live on.2 Bread (Christ) keeps one alive, and salt (Christianity sprinkled throughout the world) keeps one from spoiling. Many believers detached themselves so completely from this world’s things that they took to the road with nothing but a bag of dried bread and a pinch of salt. Even to those who did not go to that far, bread and salt stood for the self-denial, the suffering, and “otherworldliness” that is ours, in community with Christ.
Spirit Christian Communities
While Old Believers spread through remote regions of Russia and colonies of Nemtsy appeared in the south, Spirit Christians3 in its central and most densely populated regions (around Tambov, Voronezh and Moscow) also increased. Like the Old Believers they called on the name of Christ, and like those who loved Christ among the Moravians, Hutterites, and Mennonites, their walk with him led them into serious-minded obedience to his teachings.
A wool merchant from Tambov, Ilaryon Pobirokhin, became a leader among the Spirit Christians in the late 1600s. He read much and kept his large family in order. Before his death in Siberian exile he wrote:
Be serious minded. Trust in God. Love God with all your heart. Actively work for the good of his holy congregation. Show respect and obey all his commandments. Follow the path of virtue. Shun enslaving habits. Be perceptive. Do everything in light of what comes after death. Do not allow opportunities to do good escape you. Think carefully before setting out to do anything new, and make no decisions in a hurry. Be prompt in meeting your obligations. Do not believe everything you hear. Do not tell others everything you know, but only what is necessary. If you are not sure about something, do not affirm it nor deny it. Investigate, so you may be discreet. Be temperate. Do not eat unless you are hungry. Do not drink unless you thirst, and that only in small quantities. Avoid drunkenness like you would avoid hell. Intemperance leads to sickness. Sickness brings death. Those who abstain from the unnecessary live in health and well-being.
Do not be arrogant, but meek. Keep more to silence than to much conversation. When someone is speaking, listen. When someone talks to you, pay attention. When someone gives you orders, carry them out. Do not boast. Do not be stubborn, quarrelsome or vain. Be friendly to all but flatter none. Be fair. Do not desire what belongs to others. Do not steal but work hard to produce everything you may need. In poverty ask for help. When it is given, accept it and be thankful. But return the things you borrow, and whatever you promise, fulfill.
Be courageous, and always ready to work. Leave off idleness and laziness. If you wish to start a project, count the cost in advance then stick to it without giving up. Do not lose heart in adversity. Do not let prosperity corrupt you. Be thrifty. Take note of what happens to those who do not persevere: they come to misfortune and sorrow. The fainthearted sigh, lament, and wail, over things the patient forbear without murmuring. Be generous and kind to all. Give to the one who asks of you. As long as you have anything left, help the poor. If someone has hurt you, forgive him. If you have hurt anyone seek reconciliation. Do not hold grudges. Forgive the sinner. Let peacemakers do their work. If you love your fellowmen, you will be loved in return. Greet those you meet. Return the greeting of those who greet you. Answer those who ask questions. Give advice to those who want it. Comfort the sorrowful. Do not envy. Wish everyone well.
Serve everyone to the extent of your ability. If you only do good to others your friends will love you and your enemies will not be able to hate you with reason. Always speak the truth. Do this and it will go well with you. Glory to God!4
Ilaryon’s son-in-law, Semyon Ukleyn, worked as an itinerant tailor. In his travels he told many about Christ. On one occasion, with too large a group to arrest, he entered the city of Tambov, publicly calling on the whole city to repent. Isaya Kirilov, another zealous leader read the Gospels and taught the people. As a result of these men’s work, large “underground” communities of Spirit Christians took shape in the 1700s.
Back to Christ
Twelve years after the Mennonites’ came to Russia, Spirit Christians also began to settle on great plains of the south. They established themselves—directly across the Molochna from what became the Mennonites’ largest colony—in communities called Bogdanovka (gift of God), Spaskoye (Salvation), Troytskoye (the Trinity), Terpenye (patience), Tambovka, Rodianovka, Yefremovka, Goreloye, Kirilovka and others, south to the Black Sea.
“The cry of the Spirit Christians,” a scholar who visited them in the 1800s remarked, “is back to Christ.” They lived by the Sermon on the Mount and counted twelve virtues as friends: truth that delivers us from death, purity that brings us to God, love that is where God is, labour that is good for body and soul, obedience the quickest way to salvation, not judging that brings us grace without effort, reasonableness the highest virtue, mercy of which Satan himself is afraid, self-control the work of Christ, prayer and fasting that unite us with God, repentance the highest commandment of Christ, and thanksgiving that pleases God and the angels.
Equals in Christ
Nowhere did the Spirit Christians’ obedience to Christ become more apparent than in their relationships one to another. With Christ, they objected to being masters over others. “The Spirit of God lives in man,” they taught. “God has no separate existence or dwelling place apart from his Spirit. Therefore all men deserve the same honour: poor and rich, servant or master, lowly or high. All men have fallen and need a Saviour. We must serve them all, like Christ.” This attitude led them into good relationships, not only with their Mennonite neighbours but with the pious among the Orthodox, the Old Believers, the Armenians—even the Turks and Tatars with whom they came into contact.
The Way, the Spirit Christians believed, did not belong only to them. All who follow Christ in their hearts, whether they know him with their mouths and minds or not, will be saved. One of their members wrote in the nineteenth century:
The church consists of all whom God has separated from worldly society. These elect ones are not distinguished by any special symbols. They are not united in a distinct denomination with distinct doctrines and rites. Rather, the children of God are scattered all over the world and belong to all confessions. . . . The church is a society selected by God himself. It is universal. It has no common external creed. . . . We must understand the Scriptures as representing what is inward and spiritual. We can only understood them if Christ lives within us.
Growing up in this atmosphere of equality and grace, Spirit Christian children honoured their elders but used no special titles. All who lived in their communities greeted one another by bowing “to the inestimably precious image of God that lives in all men.” A woman who visited them in the 1800s remarked:
Can you picture an old man of eighty and a boy of ten calling one another affectionate diminutives like Stepa, Viktorushka, Lusha, Dasha, etc.? That is exactly how they do. Fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, children of all ages address one another, and even strangers, with their given names. . . . At first it is impossible to know who is related to whom and how. Along with this they respect one another alike, the young the old, the old the young, the men the women, and the women the men. The men take no liberties they would not allow the women to take.
Spirit Christians respected all, but like the Quakers they refused to bare their heads to anyone.
The Holy Trinity, Spirit Christians believed, lives within us. The Father is our inner sense of right and wrong—our conscience. The Son sets our consciences free. He is our light. The Spirit moves us to do what the light allows us to see. He is our will. To worship God is to stand in unobstructed fellowship with the Holy Trinity within us. Novitski, an Orthodox historian quoted a Spirit Christian:
I am the living temple of God. The altar and throne of God is within me. The Holy Trinity is made flesh in me. I am the priest, the one who sacrifices, and the sacrifice itself, all at the same time. My heart is the altar. My will is the offering, and my soul is the priest.
Beyond this, Jesus Christ is my High priest. He makes me holy. So why should I yet need an outward clergy? The one in whom Christ works is chosen and ordained to the priesthood by him.5
Visible and Invisible
Spirit Christians believed salvation comes through baptism (baptism of the Holy Ghost and fire), but most of them did not use water in connection with it.6 “Christ is our priest,” they said. “We are washed daily by his Word of truth. We are baptised (immersed) in the Holy Ghost and fire (persecution). Our communion is constant fellowship with others and with Christ. Our confession is to confess our faults one to another. Our fasting is more than abstaining from certain foods at certain times—it is to abstain from sin and sensual indulgence all the time.”
With their rejection of visible sacraments Spirit Christians also rejected the use of ikons and the veneration of saints. They did not believe in the necessity of miraculous signs as Novitski reported one of them saying:
We believe that Christ does miracles and are living testimonies of it. We were dead in sin. We were blind and deaf. But he has raised us up. He has let us see his salvation, and hear his commandments. Beyond this we are not interested in miracles. We need no outward, bodily, miracles for our salvation, because we do not know Christ in an outward way. He is the inner Word and reveals himself to us in the innermost parts of our souls.
Thrift and Order
Living to please Christ in the “inner man,” Spirit Christians avoided what they thought was for outward show or carnal pleasure. This certainly included wine and tobacco, but most of them abstained even from garlic and spices, and some from meat. “One can catch a glimpse of God in the kitchen as well as in meeting, on the home table as well as on the table in the house of prayer.”7 A Russian observer wrote in the 1800s:
They condemn luxuries in food or dress. In general they condemn what is expensive, saying: “If we insist on living in luxury and spend a great deal of money on ourselves, we only help to make our neighbours miserable. Every unnecessary thing we allow ourselves we take away from a brother who needs it. It is good to prosper, but let your prospering be for the benefit of all and not to satisfy your own greediness. Let the one who prospers find his greatest pleasure in contributing to the welfare of his brothers. If he does so, he will lead a simple life and not chase after luxuries.”8
A reporter for a Russian Orthodox journal wrote in 1870:
The majority of the Molokans love to do good and try to detach themselves from anything that can corrupt a man. They condemn card playing and all games using money. They say that such games are a waste of time and teach greediness. They think competitive games gender strife and nothing, they think, is worse than playing and drinking at the same time. They believe nothing leads so directly to ruin and sin and shun both vices. On the other hand they think hard work is as necessary as daily bread and the breath of life. Even beyond supporting themselves it keeps them out of depravity and trouble. They look on hard work as a religious duty.
Filaret, the Orthodox bishop of Kiev, wrote in 1870:
The Molokans, the moment you meet them command your attention. They have a sensible look and way of talking. They are sober and mannerly. They hold to good morals. They are thrifty and work hard. They live in neat well-built villages. In everything they do around their homes they use good management and are especially known for their production of wool.
Order in Worship
Spirit Christians gathered often (some daily) in their homes to read, sing, and pray around a bare table set with bread and salt. Even children read in these meetings, from the Scriptures, or repeated long portions by memory. The oldest men, like the rest in simple clothes and with untrimmed beards, opened and closed the meetings. Women wore large headscarves and sat separate from the men. A report written in 1805 by Governor Kohovsky of Yekaterinoslav, describes a meeting in a Molochna village:
The Spirit Christians meet often. . . . Any one of them may arrange a meeting at his house by inviting all the brothers and sisters. If such a meeting is held at the house of a poor brother who cannot provide food for those who have assembled, the others previously contribute the necessary food or else bring it with them. For at these meetings they serve a meal.9 When they enter the meeitng the men greet the men, and the women the women, by grasping each other’s right hands, bowing three times and kissing each other. Then each one says a prayer. . . . During the meetings they pray one after another. They sing psalms together and explain the Word of God one to another. 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 because they acknowledge as priest the one just, holy, true Christ, uplifted above sinners, higher than the heavens. He is their sole teacher. For this reason they hear the Word of God from each other. Each one may express what he knows or feels for the benefit of his brothers. . . . At the end of the meeting they again kiss each other three times and return home.10
Order in the Congregation
Visitors to Spirit Christian communities marvelled at their internal order and peace. That peace seemed all the more remarkable when they learned how it was kept. Governor Kohovsky wrote:
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. Along the Molochna River from three to five families live peaceably together in every one of their large houses.
Where discipline became necessary the Spirit Christians still followed the instructions of Christ. Governor Kohovsky described it:
No punishments exist among the brothers. As soon as any brother thinks another has behaved improperly, he, according to the Gospel’s instruction, reminds him that he is acting wrong. If the one in fault does not respond, he is admonished in the presence of two or three of the brothers. If he does not listen to them he is invited to appear before the general assembly.
There have been cases, though very seldom, in which some of the brothers 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 what they need to live. Deserters may be reaccepted into their society if they completely repent and leave their immoral life.
Order in the Home
The Spirit Christians had no rigid rules nor governing body for their community as a whole. But in their families they observed a careful order of headship. Governor Kohovsky wrote:
In their families, the weakness and dependence of the women, the inexperience of youth, and the education of the children, naturally makes another system necessary. In every family there must be an authority, and the father is that authority. 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 oldest one of the brothers, and in the case of his incapacity, his place is taken by the one most capable.
Spirit Christian fathers educated their children, not so much with books as by working with them, teaching them trades and drawing lessons from nature. At a very young age children learned to sing and memorise Scriptures. They learned to read and write and listened to old men tell stories on long winter evenings. But schools, their parents believed, were unnecessary and wrong. Governor Kohovsky wrote:
The education of children among the Spirit Christians is most simple and uniform. As soon as a child begins to speak and understand, his parents begin to teach him to sing and pray and to tell him something out of the Holy Writings. In this way they continue to instruct him in Christian doctrine. When the children have learned a few prayers and psalms they accompany their parents to the meetings, take their turn in reciting what they have learned and sing psalms with the rest. Not only the parents but every Spirit Christian regards it as his duty to teach every child something useful whenever he has the opportunity to do so, and to keep him form evil whenever he has occasion.
Thanks to such an education, the attitude of the parents is passed by degrees 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 among a number of children one can distinguish the Spirit Christians’ children from the rest like ears of wheat among oats.
Like the Old Believers the Spirit Christians had no way of getting legally married. Fathers simply took their daughters by the hand and presented them to young men they wished to marry with the words: “Here, take my daughter for your wife according to God’s law. Take her with you to your father’s house.” The parents of both the boy and the girl (usually in their early teens) would give them their blessing, and as in all meetings they would sing and pray around bread and salt. A Spirit Christian wrote in the 1800s:
Man and wife must be united in love. Their union must be an inner, spiritual, one. He who loves his wife, loves himself. The man who treats his wife roughly in word or deed sins against the Lord’s command. How could love and harmony exist between people who quarrel? Without love and harmony a wife cannot be a helper for her husband. She sinks to being nothing more than a slave for carnal cohabitation. Degraded to the level of a non-reasoning animal, the spirit and image of God in her is dishonoured and lost. Unless a man and woman are united by a bond of affection their union is fornication and adultery.11
In a nineteenth century description of their beliefs a Spirit Christian wrote:
Among us a woman is not a beast of burden but a helper and a support. She is a companion and friend.12
War and Government
The historian Novitski wrote: “Most likely it was only a lack of opportunity and resources that prevented these dissenters (the Spirit Christians) from re-enacting the horrible mutinies and bloody disputes which characterized the rising of the similar sect of Anabaptists in Westphalia.” But nothing could have been further from the truth.
The Spirit Christians believed it their first duty to love all men. “To kill a man’s body is to break down a temple of God,” they believed, and died rather than take up arms. They rejected participation in government, patriotism, and warfare outright. A tsarist official described in his diary how some of them responded to military conscription in 1818:
In the morning the commandant told me that five peasants belonging to a landowner in Tambov had been sent to Georgia. These men had been sent for soldiers, but they would not serve. They had been flogged several times and made to run the gauntlet, but they would submit readily to the cruelest tortures, even to death, rather than serve in the army. “Let us go,” they said, “and leave us alone. We will not hurt anyone. All men are equal and the Tsar is a man like us. Why should we listen to him? Why should we expose our lives to danger to kill those in battle who have done us no harm? You can cut us to pieces but we will not be soldiers. He who has compassion on us may give us what he wants to, but as for government rations,13 we have not received them before and we do not want them now.14
The Spirit Christian leader, Siluan Kolesnikov, wrote, “We should submit to worldly authorities, not only to the good and gentle, but to the perverse. We should obey them even when they mistreat and persecute us.” But when obeying authorities meant hurting others, the Spirit Christians withstood them firmly. A document they wrote at Yekaterinoslav in the Ukraine states:
Society is full of evil people motivated by jealousy and terrible passions. Such people could not exist by themselves for they would exterminate one another. For this reason the wisest among them have set up authorities to curb disorder. Up to this point, worldly authorities are beneficent and ordained by God. God wants them to exist for the good of the human race.
But Christ said. “I am not of the world.” We who follow him shun evil not because we fear the punishment of worldly authority, but because we are born again. We want to live like Jesus said. He changed our wills and freed us from the bondage of man-made laws. He gave us his Holy Spirit and created in us a new heart. He freed us to live above God’s laws and do what pleases him, totally without constraint.15
Fire and Light
Enemies of the Spirit Christians (church and government officials who feared their rapid spread) began a wave of persecution against them in 1792. They ordered the registration of all their meeting places and tried to stop them from making converts—in spite of an admission made by one of their own historians:
The Spirit Christians are not interested in conflict with the authorities. Their desire is to create a just and sensible community. Their morals make them stick out from the surrounding population like ears of wheat stick out from the weeds. Even the places where they live look tidy and well-cared-for, in part because of the way they help one another. In their teaching and conduct they emphasise brotherly love above all else. Friendliness is their outstanding characteristic.16
A provincial governor who described the Spirit Christians as “monsters and breakers of the general peace,” wrote:
Those infected with the movement merit no mercy. . . . They are all the more dangerous because of their exemplary conduct. They avoid drunkenness and idleness. They work hard to support their families and lead moral lives.17
In spite of his serious mistrust of them, Novitski also wrote:
They are sober, hardworking and hospitable. Their houses and clothes are clean and simple. They spend all their time working in their fields and taking care of animals.
Such a way of life could not go unnoticed, and from their new colonies on the Molochna River the Spirit Christians sent messengers to visit those who expressed interest in them. Novitski wrote:
They believe themselves children of God and think God has called them to teach one another. They are quick to give to the poor. They think they must share with others what God gives them, everyone according to his ability. . . . Along with this they have carried their propaganda with incredible zeal all over the south of Russia. They have gained crowds of followers in the governments of Yekaterinoslav, Kharkov, Tambov and in the country of the Don Cossacks. In the Caucasus they have showed their face and they have overrun Saratov, Voronezh, and Kursk. From the centre of Russia they have made their way north to Finland, the islands in the White Sea and Arkhangelsk. In the east they have gone as far as Siberia and Kamchatcka. Wherever they go it is not the rich but the poor and humble, the peasants and workers that welcome their teaching. The educated do not know them and it is rare even for a merchant to join them.
Village priests soon feared the Spirit Christians because “every one of them is familiar with the Gospel and overwhelms an adversary in discussion with citations from it.”18 In the mid-1800s an Orthodox scholar wrote:
More than once I have seen the priests roundly defeated in their arguments by Spirit Christians. When this happens, many leave the church and join the heretics. Neither should we think the heretics keep themselves to acquaintance with the Scriptures. Many of them buy books and read them eagerly to find arguments in support of their teaching.”19
In 1799 a new law banished the Spirit Christians to mines in the Ural Mountains “so that those who reject God-ordained authority on the earth may feel and know that there is still a power, put in place by God, to defend those who do right and to restrain and punish evildoers like themselves.” But neither the law nor persecution could stop them and by 1800 “crowds of them, preaching openly in the marketplace” were reported in Astrakhan on the mouth of the Volga.
Most Spirit Christians along the Molochna River lived in semi-communal villages. Every seven years they used the lot to redivide their farmland.20 Older men and women among them made sure that everyone worked and had enough: at least a one-room house, food for the day, bedding, and clothes. But around three thousand of the Molochna settlers, led by a converted soldier, Savely Kapustin, began to live in communities that operated from a common purse.
An Orthodox priest first called them Dukhobortsy (Spirit wrestlers). He accused them of wrestling against the Spirit. But like they had adopted the earlier nickname Molokan—saying they desired to drink the sincere milk of the Word—they now adopted this one. “Let us wrestle with Christ against spiritual wickedness in high places,” they said.
Savely and the Dukhobors held their land in common and stored their harvest in large communal granaries. Living together in the love of Christ they refused even to kill animals and stopped eating meat or wearing clothes of wool or leather. Anyone could leave at any time21 (even the wives and children of resident members) but so joyful had their community become that hardly anyone took advantage of it.
Like Russian believers through centuries before them, the Spirit Christians learned what it takes to survive persecution. They discovered the great strength that comes through submitting one to another and sharing everything in Christian community. Doing this, they flourished in adversity and blossomed out during a strange time of . . .
1 Coneybeare, Russian Dissenters (citations in this chapter from this work unless identified otherwise)
2 Russian believers took literally the Scripture quoted by Christ: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” But they thought it was possible to live on bread and salt.
3 This generic term came to include the Molokans, the Dukhobors, Communist Christians and other similar groups. In many ways they resembled the Old Believers. But the Spirit Christians were yet further removed from Eastern Orthodoxy and closer to the Quakers and Anabaptists in practice.
4 Instructions for Life, translated by Eli A. Popov, Grand Forks, British Columbia.
5 National Memorials
6 Exceptions were the communities in the lower Don region. They baptized with water and celebrated communion with ordinary bread and wine.
7 The testimony of a Molokan brother in California, 1982.
8 Kostomarov, quoted by Coneybeare
9 At fellowship meals after meetings, four courses—tea and sweets, borscht or lapsha, lamb or chicken, fruits in season—were served if available. During every course someone spoke or read, and every course ended with a song.
10 translated by Vladimir Chertkov in Christian Martyrdom in Russia, 1897
12 Description of Beliefs and Teachings of the Molokans
13 benefits paid to families who had sons in the army
14 quoted by Lev Tolstoy in The Kingdom of God is Within You
15 cited in Coneybeare, Russian Dissenters
16 Shapov, 1867
17 Kohovsky, quoted by Coneybeare
19 S. Atav
20 A practice they continued when they settled the Valle de Guadalupe, in Baja California, in 1904.
21 only on foot and taking with them only what they could carry