Quaker Visit to the Dukhobortsy, 1819

Passages by William Allen and Stephen Grellet

In 1819, two Quaker missionaries visiting Russia, William Allen and Stephen Grellet, at the suggestion of Tsar Alexander I, travelled to the Dukhobortsy living on the Molochnaya River. Both kept journals and recorded their impressions. The following accounts are reproduced from Grellet’s “Memoirs of the Life and Gospel Labours of Stephen Grellet” (Longstreth, Philadelphia, 1862) and Allen’s “Life of William Allen” (Longstreth, Philadelphia, 1847). Together they are the earliest surviving descriptions by western observers of Doukhobor religious practices.  They also reveal the Quaker missionaries’ distress at the deep doctrinal differences they encountered with their Doukhobor hosts.  Foreword and afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. 

Foreword

In 1818, two members of the Society of Friends, English philanthropist William Allen (1770-1843) and French-born American evangelist Stephen Grellet (1773-1855) embarked on an extensive missionary tour of Europe designed to establish a network of correspondents “who have at heart the promotion of real vital religion…”.  They visited most countries and were respectfully granted meetings with many rulers and dignitaries with whom they discussed their Quaker beliefs.

In November of 1818 Allen and Grellet arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia where they met with prominent members of the Russian nobility.  In February of 1819, they had an audience with Tsar Alexander I whom they first met in London in 1814, at which time he showed a great interest in the Quaker faith.  The Tsar warmly recalled their previous meeting “saying that this meeting provided for him cheer and firmness of spirit…”  When the Quakers informed Alexander of their intention to tour parts of the Russian Empire, the Tsar observed that they “should be pleased with some of the people (i.e. sectarians) in the South….”

Allen and Grellet travelled to southern Russia in the spring of 1819.  In Tavria province, the Quakers first visited the Mennonite village of Altona.  From there, on May 29 and 30, 1819, they journeyed about five versts (an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 1.0668 km) to the Doukhobor village of Terpeniye, accompanied by German-born Superintendent of the Tavria Colonies, Samuel Contenius (1749-1830) and their Mennonite host.  In Terpeniye, the visitors were conducted to the Sirotsky Dom (Orphan’s Home) where they met with a group of several Doukhobors.  They recorded the following accounts of their visit.

William Allen’s Account

In the evening, Contenius and our host accompanied us a distance of about five versts to Terpeniye, a village where there is a settlement of one of the sects of the Dukhobortsy.  We crossed the Molochnaya river, and on our arrival, were conducted to the house where they are in the practice of meeting on public occasions, and where we found several of the fraternity.  They were well dressed according to the custom of the country, but there was something in their countenances which I did not quite like.

William Allen (1770-1843)

We had some conversation through Contenius, and informed them that we had heard in England of the persecution they had endured, and also of the humane interposition of the Emperor, on their behalf, – that while we had felt sympathy with them in their sufferings, we wished to know from themselves what were their religious principles.  It soon appeared, however, that they have no fixed principles; there was a studied evasion in their answers, and though they readily quoted texts, it is plain they do not acknowledge the authority of scripture, and have some very erroneous notions.  I was anxious to ascertain their belief respecting our Saviour, but could learn nothing satisfactory.

Stephen endeavoured, through Contenius, to convince them of their errors on some points, but they appear in a very dark state; they have driven out from among them, all those persons called Dukhobortsy, who receive scriptural truth, and who are of the class with whom we were so much pleased at Ekaterinoslav.  My spirit was greatly affected, and I came away from them much depressed.

The following morning (First-day) was also spent with the Dukhobortsy; a considerable number attended what they called their worship, but some of their ceremonies were painful to witness.  They manifested great ignorance on the subject of religion, and the interview did not prove more satisfactory than that on the preceding day.  An opportunity was however afforded for some gospel labour among them.

Stephen Grellet’s Account

29th of Fifth month. This afternoon we went to the principal village of the Dukhobortsy; they inhabit several others near. We went to the abode of the chief man among them. He is ninety years old, nearly blind, but very active in body and mind. He appears to be a robust, strong man. Fourteen others of their elders or chief men were with him. We had a long conference with them. He was the chief speaker. We found him very evasive in several of his answers to our inquiries.

They however stated unequivocally, that they do not believe in the authority of the Scriptures. They look upon Jesus Christ in no other light than that of a good man. They therefore have no confidence in him as a Saviour from sin. They say that they believe that there is a spirit in man, to teach and lead him in the right way, and in support of this they were fluent in the quotation of Scripture texts, which they teach to their children; but they will not allow any of their people to have a Bible among them.

We inquired about their mode of worship. They said they met together to sing some of the Psalms of David. Respecting their manner of solemnizing their marriages, they declined giving an answer; but a very favourite reply to some of our questions, was, “the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” We found however that they have no stated times for their meetings for worship; but that tomorrow, which is First-day, they intend to have one, and this, they said we might attend, and see for ourselves. We left them with heavy hearts and returned to Altona.

Stephen Grellet (1773-1855)

First-day, 30th. I had a sleepless night; my mind being under great weight of exercise for the Dukhobortsy. I felt much for these people, thus darkened by their leaders, and I did not apprehend that I should stand acquitted in the Divine sight, without seeking for an opportunity to expostulate with them, and to proclaim that salvation which comes by Jesus Christ. It appeared best to go back to their village, and see what opportunity the Lord would open for it, after their meeting, whilst they are all congregated. My dear Allen and Contenius felt very tenderly with me on the occasion. We rode again to their village in the morning; having previously appointed a meeting here among the Mennonites to be held in the afternoon.

The Dukhobortsy collected, at about ten o’clock, on a spacious spot of ground out of doors; they all stood, forming a large circle; all the men on the left hand of the old man, and the women on his right; the children of both sexes formed the opposite side of the circle; they were all cleanly dressed; an old woman was next to the old man: she began by singing what they call a Psalm; the other women joined in it; then the man next the old man, taking him by the hand, stepped in front of him, each bowed down very low to one another three times and then twice to the women, who returned the salute; that man resuming his place, the one next to him performed the same ceremony to the old man, and to the women; then, by turns, all the others, even the boys, came and kissed three times the one in the circle above him, instead of bowing. When the men and boys had accomplished this, the women did the same to each other; then the girls; the singing continuing the whole time.

It took them nearly an hour to perform this round of bowing and kissing; then the old woman, in a fluent manner, uttered what they called a prayer, and their worship concluded; but no seriousness appeared over them at any time.

O how was my soul bowed before the Lord, earnestly craving that he would touch their hearts by his power and love! I felt also much towards the young people. I embraced the opportunity to preach the Lord Jesus Christ, and that salvation which is through faith in him; “If ye believe not that I am He, (the Christ the Son of God,) ye shall die in your sins.” I entreated them to try what manner of spirit they are of; for many spirits are gone out into the world; and “hereby know we the Spirit of God; every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is not of God; but this is that spirit of Antichrist,” &c.

Whilst I was speaking, the old men appeared restless; they invited me several times to retire to the house, but I could not do so till I had endeavoured to relieve my mind of the great concern I felt for them; many of the people were very attentive, and the Truth appeared to reach their hearts. We then went into the house with the old men; they had a few things to say, but not to any more satisfaction than yesterday. We left them with heavy hearts, and returned to Altona.

Afterword

Allen and Grellet arrived in the village of Terpeniye the evening of May 29, 1819. A religious colloquy took place between the Quakers and the Doukhobors, during which the latter were asked to expound on their religious principles. The colloquy, which at times became more of a dispute, touched on the authority of Scripture, divinity of Christ, Doukhobor worship services and marriage rites. Allen and Grellet then returned to Altona for the night. They returned the following morning of May 30, 1819 and attended a moleniye (prayer service) which they dutifully described. The Quakers then attempted some “gospel labour” but the Doukhobors proved unresponsive to the missionaries’ entreaties. Allen and Grellet again returned to Altona “with heavy hearts”.

Remarkably, the names of the Doukhobors whom Allen and Grellet met with and held religious debate have been preserved in historical records. In Orest Markovich Novitsky’s classic work, Dukhobortsy: ikh istoriia i verouchenie (Kiev: Universitetskaia tip., 1882), widely regarded as the most substantial and comprehensive treatment of Doukhobor history in the nineteenth century, it is recorded that the Quakers met with those Doukhobors held to be the “main teachers” and “mentors” in their colony.  Their names are recorded by Novitsky as follows: from Terpeniye – Vasily Kalmykov, the son of Kapustin, Aleksander Krylov, Matvey Kuchaev, Grigory Malen’kov, Kirill Kolesnikov, Ivan Barbin, Fatei Zhikharev, Sergei Sukharev, Grigory Remez, Nikolai Zakharov and Stepan Tikhonov; from Goreloye – Abrosim Tomilin, Gavriil Sorokin, Ivan Ostryakov, Trofim Kalmykov and Ivlii Kudrin; from Orekhov (or Rodionovka) – Semeyon Perepelkin and his son Ivan; from Bogdanovka -Yakov Peregudov; from Kirilovka – Timofei Khudyakov and his son Ivlii, and Ivan Ishchenkov; from Troitskoye – Mikhail Bezlepkin, Mikhail Stroev; and in Spasskoye – Abram Samoylov. According to Novitsky, the discussion between the Quakers and Doukhobors was dominated by Grigory Malen’kov and Grigory Remez, who willingly joined in the religious debate, which lasted as much as half a day, and whose responses to the Quakers’ questions “did honour to the most clever sophist”.  The revered Doukhobor leader Savely Kapustin was not himself present at the debate, as he was then in hiding from Tsarist authorities. 

In any case, the visit proved to be deeply disappointing for Allen and Grellet. They found the Doukhobors to be “very evasive” in several of their replies to their inquiries. What the Quakers did not take sufficiently into account, however, was the intensity of persecution that had made the Doukhobors evolve evasion as a means of dealing with the authorities or with passing strangers. On some points, however, the Doukhobors made no attempt to conceal their religious views. They “stated unequivocally” that they denied the divine authority of the Scriptures and looked upon Christ in no other light than as a good man; views which scandalized the evangelical-based Quakers. Moreover, the Quakers, whose own worship services were characterized by strict silence and solemnity, were prudishly upset by the lack of “seriousness” they observed at the Doukhobor moleniye and by the rounds of bowing and kissing which they found “painful to watch”. Overall, the Quakers’ disapproval of the Doukhobor variety of folk Christianity implies a certain intolerance and insensitivity, tinged with religious bigotry.

View Tavria Doukhobor Villages, 1802-1845 in a larger map

The Quakers did not return to Terpeniye, but they encountered groups of Doukhobors elsewhere. On May 24, 1819 in the city of Simferopol, Allen and Grellet met with “five or six of the people called Dukhobortsy”. This group, the Quakers decided, was “of the right sort” because they “prized” the Scriptures. Similarly, on June 10, 1819 in the town of Nikolaev the Quaker pair “met a number of the Dukhobortsy”. This group had read the Scriptures and had “seen the gross errors under which they had been.” The Quakers concluded, however, that “their eyes [were] only partially opened…”. The Nikolaev Doukhobors told Grellet that “several” of the Molochnaya Doukhobors desired to read the Scriptures and that “they [the Molochnaya group] think that they see farther than their old men and elders.” Unlike the Molochnaya Doukhobors, who under the magnetic influence of their leader Savely Kapustin (1843-1819) had rejected the divine authority of the Scriptures, these groups still maintained the earlier Doukhobor tendency to follow the Bible as well as their Living Book. Moreover, in Nikolaev, the Quakers also encountered a group of Molokans who “were originally Dukhobortsy…”. These individuals told Allen that “many” of the Molochnaya Doukhobors “read the Scriptures privately, and teach their children to read them.”

The visit of Allen and Grellet to the Molochnaya, while painfully depressing for the Quakers, was to become for the Doukhobors a fondly memorable event. Eighty years later, during the voyage to their new Canadian home in 1899, a group of Doukhobors gathered in the cabin of a steamship and spoke warmly with appreciation of the Allen and Grellet visit to Joseph Elkinton, an American Quaker assisting in their migration to Canada. Interestingly, the Doukhobors told of a prophecy, purportedly from Grellet, which foretold of their persecution, exile and final deliverance to a foreign country “among a people of a different language.” There, the prophecy continued, the Doukhobors would prosper and be visited by members of the Quaker brotherhood. While the prophecy is no doubt apocryphal, it demonstrates the spiritual significance which the Allen and Grellet visit acquired among Doukhobors over the years that followed.

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of Memoirs of the Life and Gospel Labours of Stephen Grellet  by Stephen Grellet (Longstreth, Philadelphia, 1862) or Life of William Allen by William Allen (Longstreth, Philadelphia, 1847) visit the Google Book Search database.