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     Protestant sectarians
     Orthodox and Old Believers

To be completed

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Protestant sectarians: 16th - 17th century

The Protestant Reformation, with its encouragement of a personal relationship with God, provides a fertile breeding ground for sects. The early decades see the split between Lutheran and reformed churches on the nature of the Eucharist. Anabaptists almost immediately join the fray with their revised concept of baptism.

By the 1560s the ancient controversy over the Trinity is revived. Francis Dávid, appointed bishop in Transylvania in 1564, begins preaching that only God the Father is divine. His followers soon become known as Unitarians (initially used by their opponents as a term of abuse).


Although at first much persecuted by those who are certain of the truth, the Unitarians themselves resolutely avoid doctrinal rigidity. Jesus Christ is venerated, even if not allowed full godhead. So also, in modern Unitarianism, are the deities of other religions.

The same determination to remain open to divine truth of any kind characterizes the Quakers, followers of George Fox who begins preaching in the 1650s in England. Again 'quakers' is originally a derisive term for the sect, which in Fox's time is prone to fits of ecstasy (the Society of Friends is the group's own name for itself). Quaker devotion to religious tolerance finds early expression in the foundation in 1681 of Pennsylvania.


England in the 17th century is the greatest seedbed of Protestant sects. The most prominent among them, in opposition to the Anglican church, are the Presbyterians - whose doctrine derives from Calvin and his 'school of Geneva'.

In their determination to take charge of everyone else's religious wellbeing, the Presbyterians alienate many who agree with them on doctrinal matters. The result is another sect, of great influence during the Commonwealth in England, which is variously known as the Separatists, Independents or Congregationalists.


The Separatists believe that each local congregation of Christians should be entirely in charge of its own affairs. One such congregation (including many of the Pilgrim Fathers) leaves England in 1608 to enjoy the religious liberty of Holland.

From among their number there derive the Baptists. Some of the English Separatists in Amsterdam adopt the Anabaptist rite of adult baptism. A group returning to London establishes a Baptist church there in about 1612. Developments in England later in the century, and in the English colonies in America, lead eventually to the great number of Baptist churches all round the world today.


Russian Orthodoxy and the Old Believers: 1652-1667

The only major schism within Russian Orthodoxy is created almost single-handedly by an energetic monk who is appointed patriarch of Moscow and all Russia in 1652. He is Nikita Minin, who becomes known by the single name Nikon.

From early in the Romanov dynasty there has been a reform movement within the Russian church, attempting to correct the ritual wherever it has deviated over the centuries from the Greek Orthodox example. Nikon is an enthusiastic reformer, and as a close friend of the tsar (Alexis) he has almost unlimited power to insist on changes.


Many of the errors which Nikon discovers and corrects seem trivial. Russians have been crossing themselves with two fingers where they should have used three; conversely they have been singing three alleluias where they should have sung two. But by 1655 the patriarch is going further. He sets about removing from churches and homes any icons which show the holy figures in an incorrect manner.

By 1656 there is such vocal opposition to the new measures that Nikon excommunicates all who reject his reforms. But well before this he has used simpler methods to silence his opponents.


From the start of the reforms it is clear that Nikon's chief opponent is the priest Avvakum Petrovich. In 1653 Avvakum is banished to Tobolsk in Siberia. He is subsequently sent even further east, to the Lena river. It is ten years before he is recalled to Moscow.

By then the tsar has had enough of Nikon's autocratic ways and has dismissed him. But his reforms are retained, with the result that the dissidents eventually become a separate sect known as the Old Believers (Raskolniki). They themselves later split into the Popovtsi, who establish a church hierarchy of their own, and the more radical Bezpopovtsi, who survive to this day without either priests or sacraments.


The schism becomes final when a church council of 1666-7 offers no concessions, opting instead for a policy of continuing persecution.

Avvakum is sent to imprisonment in a small fort within the Arctic Circle, near Naryan-Mar. Here he spends the last fourteen years of his life writing books. They include the first Russian autobiography, entitled simply Zhitie (Life). In a racy and colourful style, which has made his book a classic of early Russian literature, Avakkum describes the battle to defend the old rites - together with the bitter experiences of the first Russian author to suffer exile in Siberia.


Revivalism: 18th century

The 18th century is the most rational and complacent period in European history. Educated gentlemen of the time profess an optimistic confidence in the rightness of things (satirized by Voltaire in Candide). They see a well-constructed universe as delightful evidence of God's creative talents. The contemporary strand of Christianity known as Deism makes God himself an essentially rational being.

The trend is signposted just before the new century in two English books - John Locke's The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) and John Toland's Christianity not Mysterious (1696).


The wish for a reasonable Christianity is an understandable reaction against the passionate intolerance which has characterized the 16th and 17th centuries. But reasonable faith is not necessarily the kind which most people want.

Throughout Europe and in America - and even in other religions, as in the Hasidist movement within Judaism - people in the 18th century flock to preachers who will offer them the passion and mystery of traditional religion (and even the terror, in gory depictions from the pulpit of the hellfire ahead for the wicked).


The revival of a longing for an intense personal experience of God begins in Lutheran churches in north Germany in the late 17th Germany. It is seen in England from the early 1730s, when the brothers John and Charles Wesley astonish other Oxford undergraduates by forming a Holy Club with a rigorous programme of prayer and self-improvement.

These students' methodical habits cause them to be mockingly called Methodists. They accept the name, which remains attached to their group when they launch a missionary revival within the Church of England. Eventually the Anglican church cannot contain them, and Methodism becomes - from 1784 - a separate sect.


As an itinerant preacher, travelling the length of England and often speaking in the open air, John Wesley has the ability to move his audience to a tearful state in which they commit themselves to God.

His younger colleague George Whitefield has the same power, perhaps to an even greater degree. From 1739 Whitefield takes the message to America, where it falls on fertile ground - for the colonies are already engaged in a similar movement of revivalism. Known as the Great Awakening, it has Jonathan Edwards as its leading preacher.


This passionate new development of the Protestant ideal builds on the Reformation notion of every Christian's personal relationship with God. It finds a natural home in America - the land of the individual, the place where all families have made at some time a personal commitment in the decision to cross the Atlantic. America becomes the home of revivalism - famously so in the 20th century, with world-wide campaigns undertaken by preachers such as Billy Graham.

The enthusiasm of a revivalist meeting is essentially something to be shared. Here is the root of the Christianity nowadays known as evangelical. It is linked also with the rapid growth of Protestant missions to convert the heathen.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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