Visit to the Dukhobortsy Exiled in Finland, 1815

Passages by Robert Pinkerton and John Paterson

In 1815, two Scottish agents of the British and Foreign Bible Society, Robert Pinkerton and John Paterson, visited a group of Dukhobortsy exiles living in the Vyborg district of Finland. They recorded their impressions through a series of letters to friends and associates. The following accounts are reproduced from Pinkerton’s October 13, 1815 letter to Richard Phillips from St. Petersburg (Society of Friends Library, London, England) and Patterson’s September 28, 1815 letter published in “The Christian Herald” (Volume 1, John E. Caldwell, 1816) as well as his letter to Richard Phillips from St. Petersburg of October 12-24, 1815 (Society of Friends Library, London England). Taken together, they form one of the few surviving accounts of the Dukhobortsy in Finland, their history and beliefs, the circumstances of their exile, and the efforts taken by the missionaries, both openly and covertly, to assist them and ease their sufferings. Foreword and afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. 


Between 1812 and 1822, Scottish missionaries Robert Pinkerton (1780-1859) and John Paterson (1776–1855) travelled extensively throughout Russia 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 tireless efforts, supported by the liberal-minded Tsar Alexander I, the Russian Bible Society was formed in St. Petersburg in 1812-1813. In the years that followed, Pinkerton and Paterson assisted in the formation of dozens of local branches of the Russian Bible Society, through which thousands of Russian language Bibles were distributed to the peasantry.

It was under these auspices that Pinkerton and Patterson, accompanied by a cargo of Bibles, travelled northwest of St. Petersburg along the Gulf of Finland to Vyborg in September of 1815.  The missionaries then visited a “famous waterfall” forty miles north of Vyborg.  Although not mentioned by name, this was almost certainly the Imatra Waterfall, located on the Vuoksijoki River between Lake Saimaa and Lake Ladoga; a prime tourist attraction in 19th century Finland.  There, they found a colony of Doukhobors who had been living in exile for several years. They recorded the following accounts of their visit. 

The Imatra Waterfall in Finland 1819 by Fedor Mikhailovich Matveev

Robert Pinkerton’s Account

St. Petersburg, 13th October, 1815.

We went forty miles to the north of Wiborg [sic, Vyborg] to see a famous waterfall, and then fell in with a colony of Duhubortsi [sic, Dukhobortsy], from the Cossack country, consisting of about ninety persons. From all we could learn concerning them they are truly a pious, intelligent people, well reported by all around them.

We had a long conversation with one of them, who himself could not read, but who has a more intimate acquaintance with the Scriptures than many I have met with. He answered all our questions in the language of Scripture, and explained some texts to us in a manner which would have done honour to an Oxford or Cambridge divine.

These poor, forgotten people had not a Bible among them – their persecutors had taken these away from them – nor indeed a book of any kind, although some of them could read. We furnished them with some [Bibles]. I most heartily wish you had seen how his countenance brightened when we told him of the Bible Society and what has been done for the extended promotion of the Redeemer’s kingdom. He could not believe for joy and wonder. ‘No person,’ said he, ‘has ever told us of these things before.’

John Paterson’s Accounts

St. Petersburg, 28th September, 1815.

In a short tour from Petersburgh [sic, St. Petersburg], we fell in with a Colony of Cossacks, consisting of about ninety persons, who are in these quarters for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. They belong originally to the Don, and are of the sect of Duhabertzy [sic, Dukhobortsy], of whom you will find some particulars in Pinkerton’s Greek Church. Since they came to Finland, they have had no books among them, not even a single copy of the Scriptures. We had a long conversation with one of them, who could not read, and yet he answered all our questions in the language of Scripture.

We asked if they had any priests among them? He answered, ‘Yes, we have a Great High Priest, who is holy, harmless, &c.’ Have you baptism? ‘We are baptised with the Holy Ghost and with fire.’ Have you Communion? ‘We have communion with the Lord Jesus daily.’ Have you churches? ‘I hope you do not think that churches are built of wood and stone; wherever two or three are met together in Christ’s name, there he has promised to be with them; and there, is a Church of Christ. We have now conversed about God for more than an hour, and are of one heart and one soul, we are a church when you will. With the so called churches we can have nothing to do, as they admit drunkards, &c. &c.; but a Church of Christ is holy, and all its members must be so too. You will find no such people among us.’

What is your opinion of the new birth?, reading to him the passage in John III. ‘We are born the first time when we are born of our mother, but the second time when our hearts are changed by the word and spirit of God, when we are led to hate what we Ioved, and love what we hated formerly, when we give over living in sin; not that we are perfect in this world, but we have no pleasure in sin as before.’  What do you think is meant by being born of water and of the spirit? ‘By water is not meant baptism, but the word of God; for we are born of the incorruptible seed of the word which liveth and abideth for ever; and as it is the Spirit by whose operation this is effected, so we are said to be born of the Spirit; that which is born of the flesh is flesh; so you see we are not Christians or born again as we come into the world, we do not inherit it from our parents.’

But seeing you cannot read, how came you to know all this? ‘I wonder you ask such a question. Has not Jesus promised to be with his people always, to the end of the world; and has he not promised to give them his Spirit to teach them all things? He has said, when you are brought before governors and kings for my sake, take no thought how or what you shall speak, for it shall be given you in the same hour what you shall speak; now I believe the promise. I have often been called to answer for my religion, and I have always found Jesus true to his word. And there now, when called to come before you, I prayed God to fulfil this promise to me, and he has done it. You see I speak freely, and you seem satisfied with me. You are the first we have ever met with in this place who understood us. You must be taught by the same spirit.’

Can any among you read? ‘There are some among us who can read; but you seem to lay much stress on reading and being learned; Jesus Christ had no other learning than his parents taught him, and the apostles were unlearned men. It is enough if we are taught of the Spirit.’  We asked him if he crossed himself before these pictures? He replied, ‘That we cannot do; you know the commandments;’ and here he repeated the first and second.

Are you obedient to the laws? ‘As far as they do not interfere with our religion or our faith. We have sworn allegiance to our Emperor, and we serve in the army.’  You are called Duhabertzy? ‘Our gracious Emperor has been pleased to call us so, and we submit. We call ourselves true Christians; we are the same as from the beginning.’  Are there many on the Don of your way of thinking. ‘Oh yes, many thousands; but they are afraid to show themselves, or to avow their opinions. ‘Have you been persecuted? ‘If any man will live godly in Christ Jesus, he must suffer persecution.’

We then related to him what was going on in the religious world, and made him acquainted with the Bible Society. I wish you had been present while we related these things to him. He seemed to awaken as out of a dream: a heavenly joy beamed from his countenance, which melted our hearts. At last he exclaimed, ‘Now he is near. We have long been expecting him to come, and long been convinced it could not be far distant, but never believed that such preparations were making for his coming. No person has ever told us of these things. I will go home to my church, and relate to them all these glorious things. How will my brethren rejoice when they hear them.’

We gave him a Russian Testament, and some of our Society’s publications to carry home with him to his brethren, as he always called them. It seems they have all things common, or nearly so. Their conduct is most exemplary: they have a good report of all men, even of their enemies.

St. Petersburg, 12-24 October, 1815.

Perhaps friend Owen has informed you that I lately had an interview with some Duhobortsy [sic, Dukhobortsy] in whose situation I feel deeply interested. They belong originally to the country of the Cosacks [sic, Cossacks] on the Don.

The history they gave of themselves is very affecting and interesting. They say that there were three brothers who from their youth directed themselves to the meaning of the Scriptures by which means they obtained more light than their neighbours, and were convinced that some of the practices of the Greek church were not scriptural.

In one ward they went so far as to refuse to cross themselves before the images of the Saints, they refused to join in the sacraments and even denyed [sic] that the Greek church was a church of Christ or that her Priests were Christian pastors, together with many other principles they held and endeavoured to propagate brought them under the notice of the Powers that be.

They were represented as being disobedient to government and on this account were banished from their homes to distant provinces of the Empire. There they remained many years and their party seemed to have languished and almost died out.

At length they were allowed to return to their homes. They immediately began to spread their sentiments: their disciples increased rapidly. In a few years after their return, they died in peace; but as these edified themselves with whom we speke [sic], their party were convinced that they ought not to remain silent. They therefore propagated their opinions and again became obnoxious to government. About 100 of the ringleaders were sent to the government of Wiborg [sic] among the Finns who could neither speak with them nor understand them and where of course they could not propagate their opinions.

They were distributed among the poor peasants and at first were not allowed to move from the place of their abode to seek a livelihood in any way. All their religious books were taken from them and even the Bible so that they were entirely without books when we found them. Even their children were taken away from them that they might be educated in the true faith. In this state of distress they were kept for several years, but for some years past they have been better treated.

They are now permitted to seek employment where they can and to support themselves by the sweat of their brows. Their children are no more torn from them, so that they are now much better off. They have otherwise been subjected to many hardships. Still they are far from being comfortable. They wish to be permitted to return to their old homes again and the late Governor of Wiborg had taken in hand to procure this liberty for them; but he died before their petition could be presented.

You may have assured we will do every thing in our power for them as soon as the great and good Alexander returns, and we are convinced that we shall succeed if not in obtaining permission for them to return to the Don, at least to join their brethren in the Crimea.

They have an excellent character among the people where they now sojourn. We have already taken preliminary steps and made arrangements for hastening the business; but we are obliged to act with the greatest caution and must not appear in this affair. They are ill misrepresented to Government, perhaps owing in many instances to their own obstinacy, and their enmity to the church creates them enemies in their quarter.

What I have in mind in stating these things to you is to request that you will endeavour to do something for them. There are upwards of 90 of them and some of them very old, one 90 years of age. They have no heads among them and only two or three who can read: a little pecuniary support would have the utmost advantage to these poor people. And if we should get them permission to return, think how much they will require for such a long journey and to set them up again in the world.

Now I know thee friend, that thou art famous for managing an affair of this kind whence prudence is requisite. Nothing must be said publicly on the subject, all must be done among the Friends in private, and silence must be enjoined on all parties. Our names must never be mentioned and in case of help in your applications you must write me and only say you can draw on friend Redman for example for so much money to be applied as mentioned in your letter of such a date; but not a word must be said of the Duhobortsy.

Consider the situation in which we stand and you will see the propriety of all this. We will never appear in the business, we have friends amongst who will manage it better than we can. None will know whence the help comes, not even those who receive it. It must be literally Let not the right hand know what the left hand doeth. I am obliged to write in a hurry. I am sure thou does not forget they old friend. Salute thy partner and daughter from thy sincere friend.


At the Imatra Waterfall, Pinkerton and Paterson found a colony of ninety Don Cossack Doukhobors who had been living in exile there since 1806-1807. Historical records indicate that these included the Lazarev, Markin, Abrosimov, Nazarov, Semenov and Chuval’deev families, among others.

When the Doukhobors first arrived at Imatra, they were distributed among the poor Finnish peasants, who could neither speak with them nor understand them. They were not allowed to move from their assigned places of exile nor seek a livelihood in any way. They were subjected to many hardships; their children were taken away and their religious books were confiscated.

In time, thanks to the benevolence of Tsar Alexander I, the families were reunited again and the exiles were permitted to seek employment where they could and support themselves. They formed a colony and lived communally, holding all things in common. However, they were still far from comfortable and wished to be allowed to return to their old homes on the Don River.

Pinkerton and Paterson learned that the Doukhobor philosophy originated among the Don Cossacks generations earlier, and was first taught by three brothers who from their youth ‘directed themselves to the meaning of the Scriptures’ by which means they ‘obtained more light than their neighbours’ and became convinced that the practices of the Orthodox Church ‘were not scriptural’. Their disciples increased rapidly, and many Don Cossack Doukhobors were cruelly persecuted and exiled to distant parts of the Empire for their faith.

The Scottish missionaries had a long conversation with one of the Doukhobor exiles who explained the basic tenets of their beliefs: that the spirit of God could be found in the soul of every man; worship of God in spirit and truth; and the rejection of all external rites, sacraments, dogma and ecclesiastic hierarchy and authority. While illiterate, the exile had ‘a more intimate acquaintance with the Scriptures than many they had met with’ and ‘explained some texts to us in a manner which would have done honour to an Oxford or Cambridge divine.’

Unlike their brethren on the Molochnaya, who were now living in a completely Doukhobor setting under the dynamic influence of their leader Kapustin and the exclusivist doctrines embodied in his psalms, the Doukhobor exiles in Finland did not possess the fully-developed version of the Living Book and still maintained the earlier Doukhobor tendency to follow the Bible as well as their own oral traditions. Accordingly, while only ‘one or two’ of them could read, they were most thankful to receive copies of the Russian Testament and publications from the Russian Bible Society.

Shortly after Pinkerton and Paterson’s visit, the Doukhobor exiles in Finland submitted the following letter to the Russian Bible Society (Elkinton, Joseph The Doukhobors, Their History in Russia, Their Migration to Canada (New York: Ferris & Leach, 1903), p. 267-268):

“We, the under-named, make known that we have received the most precious and divine gift of seven copies of the Holy Scriptures from the Bible Society, according to our desire. We account it our duty to return thanks to God for His unsearchable mercy and condescension to us in having put it into the hearts of the members of the Society thus to strengthen mankind against sin. We present our ardent petition to the Society, that they would unite with us in thanksgiving to the Almighty God, who has bestowed upon them the spirit of Light and Wisdom and Grace, to lead us by the right knowledge of Himself, from the path of ignorance into the way of truth and salvation. We offer up in our prayers in union with you for the life of our great monarch, Alexander, and for his brethren and the allies. May they who love his life live as pillars of the world, and may their days be as the days of heaven, because they are called to do the work of God. May the Lord of Hosts help them, and preserve them from all their enemies, that righteousness and peace may abound in their days, and may the Lord number them among His elect forever and ever. Along with this we send each of us, the under-named, according to our promise, two rubles in aid of the Bible Society, in all twenty rubles from nine peasants.”

The Scottish missionaries, in turn, were deeply moved by their meeting with the Doukhobor exiles. John Paterson, in particular, endeavored to ease their sufferings and to obtain permission for them to either return to the Don or else join their brethren on the Molochnaya. To this end, he wrote Richard Phillips, a prominent London member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) to request financial aid for the Doukhobor exiles in Finland. It is probable that Paterson also lobbied Tsar Alexander I to release the Doukhobors from exile. However, he took great pains to conceal these efforts, so as not to damage the reputation and standing of the British and Foreign Bible Society in Russia as a neutral, non-denominational organization.

Two years after Pinkerton and Paterson’s visit to Finland, in 1817, the Don Cossack Doukhobors were released from exile and allowed to join their brethren on the Molochnaya. Unbeknownst to even the Doukhobors themselves, it seems that the British and Foreign Bible Society, together with the Society of Friends in England, played a direct, albeit clandestine, role in securing their liberation and in financing their relocation.

Note: for a detailed account of Robert Pinkerton’s subsequent visit to the Molochnaya Doukhobors in 1816, see A Visit to the Dukhobortsy on the Sea of Azov.