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Origins, Beliefs and Practices of the Doukhobors

The Doukhobor "sect" is a small Christian denomination. Their story began in Russia in the 17th
century; it continues in western Canada to this day.
The Origins of the Doukhobor Movement
The earliest history of the Doukhobors is somewhat cloudy, because of their reliance on oral, rather
than written, traditions and teachings. Some aspects of their origins are clear, however.
They began as Russian Orthodox Christians, in southern Russia. At some time in the 1600s, Danilo
Filipov gained a following by preaching sermons which disagreed with the standard beliefs and
practices of the Orthodox church.
By the late 18th century, there were enough Doukhobors to be persecuted by both the Orthodox
church and the Tsarist government of Russia. The name was coined in 1785 by an Orthodox
archbishop.
The Doukhobors intended to peacefully farm. From 1802, Tsar Alexander I allowed them about 40
years in the Crimean frontier. Tsar Nicholas I moved them to the Caucasus, where Lukeriia
Kalmikova led them into relative prosperity until her death in 1886.
Her adopted son, Peter Verigin, nicknamed "Gospodii" (meaning, "Lordly"), emerged as the leader
but was exiled to Siberia. Despite this, by 1895 Gospodii further radicalized Doukhobor beliefs to
include communal living, teetotal abstinence from alcohol and vegetarianism. To emphasize their
pacifism, they held a public anti-war protest called "The Burning of Arms".
Doukhobor Emigration to Canada
Leo Tolstoy, British and American Quakers, and Russian anarchists supported about 7,500
Doukhobors to emigrate from Russia to Canada in 1899. They went to Saskatchewan, influenced by
farming conditions similar to what they had left behind. Gospodii and another 500 Doukhobors

joined them in 1902.


They had to register as individual homesteaders although they planned to live communally, sharing
the land and work in common. By 1905, this became a point of contention with the new Minister of
the Interior. Refusal to swear an oath of allegiance was the final straw for homesteading in
Saskatchewan.
In 1908, about 6,000 moved to southern British Columbia, still under Gospodii's leadership. Several
splinter groups emerged, but the majority had their own problems during the First and Second
World Wars, and during the Depression.
Doukobers and other pacifist denominations such as Mennonites were not permitted to vote during
the world wars; the second disenfranchisement lasted until about 1955. But in 1939, their communal
property had been foreclosed after internal problems and, of course, the effects of the Depression.
Resurrection of the Doukhobors
In the 1960s, some Doukhobors, led by John J. Verigin, bought back some of the land that had been
lost in 1939. By the 1970s the culture was being resurrected with religious services and choirs, and
teaching their heritage of pacifism and the Russian language. This group lives mainly in the
Kootenay, BC region.

Some have also re-established ties with


Doukhobors in Russia. Some
Doukhobors have also begun to relate
more to the modern world, expressing
their cultural and religious heritage
through the arts.
Other Doukhobors, whether in faithbased communities or as independent
families, live elsewhere across western
Canada.
The Sons of Freedom
When the Doukhobors were still
working to establish themselves in British Columbia in the early 1900s, several groups splintered
away. Some "Independents" simply made compromises with government regulations but kept most
of the religious beliefs.
The "Sons of Freedom" were more radical, returning to the Doukhobor roots of rejecting secular
government including educational requirements for children. In the 1920s, they became infamous
for burning their own homes and marching nude in protest parades. This behaviour resurfaced in the
1950s and lasted to some degree through the 1980s.
One government response was to place the children of arrested protesters into residential schools.
After some years, most families were reunited when the parents promised to send their children to
public schools.

Doukhobor Beliefs and Practices


In some ways, the Doukhobor story runs parallel to the Reformation, and especially the Anabaptist
movement in Europe. The Catholic church faced dissent from Martin Luther, John Calvin and Conrad
Grebel in the 1500s. The Orthodox church had another hundred years before the Filipovs rallied the
Doukhobors.
Despite their origins in Russian Orthodox Christianity, the Doukhobors developed some significant
differences. Perhaps the most important was that oral tradition, including hymns and memorized
psalms, replaced reading the Bible.
In some denominations it is difficult to separate religious "belief" from "practice", or to distinguish
"religious" from "practical" activities. With the Doukhobors this is especially true.
They rejected the Orthodox use of icons and religious imagery, except for the "life symbols" of bread,
salt and water. Egalitarian decision-making by the community, pacifism and vegetarianism are three
central practices in the Doukhobor lifestyle.
The Orthodox archbishop who first named them Doukhobors meant these "Spirit-wrestlers" fought
against God the Holy Spirit. This name was embraced by these dedicated people of faith, who
decided that they wrestle on behalf of God's Spirit. As an apostle wrote, they are engaged in
"spiritual warfare".
References:
Julie Rak and George Woodcock, Canadian Encyclopedia, "Doukhobors", referenced Jan. 17, 2011.