by Ebenezer Henderson
Ebenezer Henderson (1784-1858) was a Scottish linguist, Biblical scholar and missionary who travelled extensively in Scandinavia and Russia from 1806 to 1832 on behalf of the British and Foreign Bible Society. In 1818, he travelled to the Dukhobortsy living on the Molochnaya River. He kept a journal and recorded his impressions of his visit. The following account is reproduced from his published memoirs, “Biblical Researchers and Travels in Russia: Including a Tour in the Crimea and the Passage of the Caucasus (London: James Nisbet, 1826). While brief, it is one of the earliest Western accounts of the Doukhobor colony on the Molochnaya and provides rare historic insights about their way of life and beliefs. Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.
…The following day, we skirted the Moloshnaia [Molochnaya], in all probability Gerrhus, the seventh of the principal streams specified by Herodotus, and that which formed the boundary between the nomadic and royal Scythians. As has already been observed of most of the Russian rivers in these parts, its western bank is the higher, and exhibits, in some places, a free-stone projecting through the mould.
We also passed a remarkable assemblage of rocks in a valley [probably Kamennaya Mogila, a Scythian stone monument near the village of Terpeniye], standing quite isolated, but evidently connected with others which we could descry in the high bank at no great distance. The Moloshnaia flows in a southerly direction, and empties itself into a liman [estuary] connected with the sea [of Azov].
The right bank of this river is inhabited by the Duchobortzi [Dukhobortsy], a sect of Russian Dissenters; and the left, by the Mennonites. The former of these people eight villages, to which are attached 37,114 desiatines [an Imperial Russian unit of land equal to 1.0925 hectares] of land, independently of an island called the Isle of Wolves [Biryuchiy Ostrov] which makes about 1,000 desiatines more, and affords excellent pasturage for their cattle in winter.
Their number, in 1818, amounted to 1,153 souls [adult males]. We spent a few hours at one of their villages, and endeavoured to elicit some information relative to their peculiar sentiments and practices, but found them uncommonly close, and evidently influenced by a suspicion that we had some design against them.
They have been called the Russian Quakers; and much as the enlightened members of the Society of Friends would find to object to among this people, as opposed to their views of divine truth, it cannot be denied that many points of resemblance exist between them. Their name, Wrestlers with the Spirit, indicates the strong bearing their system has on mystic exercises, in which they place the whole of religion, to the exclusion of all external rites and ceremonies.
All their knowledge is traditionary [oral tradition-based]. On our urging upon them the importance of being well supplied with the Scriptures, they told us we were much mistaken if we imagined they had not the Bible among them – they had it in their hearts: the light thus imparted was sufficient, and they needed nothing more.
Everything with them is spiritual. They speak indeed of Christ, and his death; but they explain both his person and sufferings mystically, and build entirely upon a different foundation than the atonement.
They make no distinction of [Orthodox feast] days and meats; and marriage, so far from being a sacrament with them, as in the Greek [Orthodox] Church, is scarcely viewed as a civil rite, and it not infrequently happens, that proofs are given of a connection between the parties previous to any announcement of their mutual determination to marry.
View Tavria Doukhobor Villages, 1802-1845 in a larger map
Between 1818, Ebenezer Henderson travelled throughout Russia with the Rev. John Patterson in the service of the British and Foreign Bible Society, a non-denominational Christian charity formed in England in 1804 for the purpose of making affordable, vernacular translations of the Bible available throughout the world. Through their efforts and ministry, thousands of Russian language Bibles were distributed to the peasantry. It was under these auspices that Henderson, accompanied by a cargo of Bibles, travelled to Tavria to visit the Dukhobortsy living on the Molochnaya River in 1818.
Henderson found a Doukhobor population of 1,153 adult males settled in eight villages (he erred as there were nine Doukhobor villages on the Molochnaya in 1818) along the right bank of the Molochnaya River. Their landholdings totalled 37,114 desiatinina, along with an additional 1,000 desiatina of land on the island of Biryuchiy Ostrov in the Sea of Azov. Henderson is one of the very few Western writers to reference the island among the Doukhobor landholdings.
Henderson spent a few hours in an unnamed Doukhobor village, where he “endeavoured to elicit some information relative to their peculiar sentiments and practices”. In response to his enquiries, he found the Doukhobors “uncommonly close, and evidently influenced by a suspicion that we had some design against them”. What Henderson and Patterson 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 authorities or with passing strangers.
Henderson observed that “many points of resemblance” exist between these so-called “Russian Quakers” and the Society of Friends in England, not the least of which was the exclusion of all external rites and ceremonies. They observed none of the Orthodox feast days and holidays. Unlike the Russian Orthodox, the Doukhobors did not view marriage as a religious sacrament but as a civil rite only.
When Henderson urged upon the Doukhobors the importance of being well supplied with the Scriptures – the ostensible reason for his visit – he was advised that he was “much mistaken if we imagined they had not the Bible among them – they had it in their hearts”. This was a reference to the Doukhobors’ Zhivotnaya Kniga (“Living Book”), an orally-transmitted collection of religious psalms and precepts. The Doukhobors informed Henderson that the light imparted from thus was sufficient, and they needed nothing more.
Consequently, Henderson’s main objective of distributing Bibles among the Doukhobors proved unsuccessful, and the Scottish missionary left the Molochnaya disappointed, having failed to dispense a single Bible to the Doukhobors.
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