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By Lillian Sokoloff, A.B.
American Christianity has influenced, and been influenced by, a stunning panoply of non-conformist groups, separatist enclaves and, in some cases, self-styled prophets and messiahs. In our series “The Sectarians” we will trace the origins, the beliefs and the impact some of these groups have had on the church today. We begin the series with a fascinating report we’ve recently discovered, written in 1918, about a group known as the “Jumpers,” or “Molokans,” the former name referring specifically to an 1830s offshoot of the Molokans. Impelled by the utterances of a prophet-child, they left their native Russia by the thousands and headed for the “City of the Angels,” Los Angeles, California.
The first group of Molokans, who came here in 1905 [some date this as 1904, Ed.], settled around Bethlehem Institute on Vignes Street. When others came, a few bought homes along Clarence and Utah Streets. Then the settlement grew in the district situated between Boyle Avenue on the east and the Los Angeles River on the west, and between Aliso Street on the north and Seventh Street on the south. Recently there has been a new settlement made along what is known as Salt Lake Terrace several blocks east of the larger colony. On that street are located many of the somewhat better homes. In a hollow south of Stephenson Avenue and east of Mott Street, there is a group of about 60 houses occupied by Russians only.
To understand the Russians in Los Angeles, it is necessary to consider briefly their historical backgrounds. During the reign of Alexis Michaelovitch, second ruler of the Romanoff family – 1645-1676 – Nicon, at that time patriarch of the Russian Greek-Catholic Church, investigated and decided to change the liturgy. While the ruling house accepted these changes and formally adopted his type of worship as the state religion, there were many dissenters who would not submit to the dictates of the government in matters of religion. The dissenters were continually persecuted or banished and were greatly dissatisfied with the bureaucratic institutions, with the hypocrisy of the priesthood and with the forms of their worship. The numbers who sought other types of religion that would satisfy their deep religious feelings constantly grew.
Prominent among the religious sects that developed were the Dukhobors, the Molokans and the Subotniks. The last-mentioned are Russians who have embraced the Jewish faith. This result was not through influence exerted on the part of Jews, however, because the Jews do not have any form of mission work for the purpose of conversion to Judaism; nor were there any Jews living in that part of Russia where these religious sects developed. The Subotniks embraced Judaism as a result of reading the Old Testament.
The essence of the Dukhobor religion is a belief in the divinity of Christ [this is contrary to modern sources, Ed.] and the brotherhood of man. The Dukhobors do not believe in any earthly representative of God; they have no church leaders and no icons or images. They do not have church ceremonies nor do they believe in saints as do the Greek Catholics. They are opposed to war and therefore to military service. Their religion forbids their indulging in the use of intoxicating liquors and in smoking.
The name “Molokan,” derived from the word “moloko,” which means milk, was first applied to them in 1765 by a religious sect in the Government of Tambov. This name was applied because of the fact that the Molokans drink milk every day in the week, while the Greek Catholics abstain from it on Wednesdays and Fridays, which are fast days for them.
The Molokans had no definite form of religion for many years. During the last years of the 17th century, two highly educated men, Skovoroda and Tveritinoff, had come under the influence of the teachings of Luther, Calvin and other European reformers. These men then preached reform among the dissenters of the Russian Greek-Catholic Church. They thus paved the way for other reformers. For about 100 years, the Molokans were unmolested by the governmental authorities.
It was not long, however, before the Russian government again began to oppress the sectarians in various ways. The heavy taxation of their land proved to be a greater burden than they could possibly bear. They were again compelled to serve in the army. Some of the more educated among them foresaw disastrous times because of inevitable wars in which Russia was to engage. They therefore began to consider the advisability of emigrating from their country.
It is well known that of the emigrants from Russia up to the end of the last century, the greatest number were Jews and a smaller percent were Poles, but scarcely any Russians proper. In the last two years of the 19th century, many of the Dukhobors left the Caucasus region and went to Western Canada, where several thousands now live. [There remains a large community in the Grand Junction area, Ed.]
The beginning of the Russo-Japanese War inaugurated a new era of persecutions for the sectarians in southeastern Russia. They were compelled to go to war. Though many were capable of occupying high military positions, they were prevented from so doing and were put to the most menial work. They also suffered all kinds of insults at the instigation of government officials. They were not permitted to go anywhere without passports – and passports were not granted them. It is therefore not surprising that these people became disgusted with conditions such as they experienced and longed to leave the country.
Of all the Russians in Los Angeles, about 75 percent of the working men were employed in lumber yards up to the outbreak of the war. Then the majority entered the ship-building industry. About 10 percent own and drive their own teams and work by the day in hauling produce and other commodities. About 2 percent are engaged in running little grocery stores and butcher shops, which are patronized by their own people. The remainder – about 13 per cent – are employed in various ways, e. g., in the metal trades, automobile shops, planing mills, fruit canneries. The last-mentioned occupations are followed by the younger men of the community, who have had some schooling but who left school as soon as the law permitted them to do so.
It is the usual thing among the Russians for the married women to work. The young women are employed chiefly in laundries. Girls who have attended school and have learned the English language work in the biscuit factories in the neighborhood. A small number of girls work in a candy factory on Utah Street. The older women work in fruit canneries or do housework by the day. Though many of the girls who have been to school for several years could do other work and perhaps earn more money, the parents are anxious to have them work near home and among their own people. Clerking or office work might cause the girls to become “Americanized” quickly, and to this the older people object.
The religion of the Molokans sprang from that of the Dukhobors. Both these sects are opposed to war. They believe in no earthly representatives of God. The Molokans have no ministers or church dignitaries of any kind. They have no rules or traditions as to who shall be their religious advisers. Their pastors are not ordained, do not receive compensation and are not dependent upon the approval of the community. Their authority prevails only at prayer meetings, marriage ceremonies and funeral services. It may be said that the Molokan religion has little definite form. It is systemless. Many of its phases are exceedingly crude. It is incoherent and inconsistent. Like the orthodox Jews, the Molokans abstain from eating pork and are supposed to slaughter their beef in a certain manner.
There are at present seven churches in the Russian settlement. These are simply very large rooms in which church services are conducted. During holidays, some private homes are also used for religious services. The Priguni conduct their prayers in a unique manner. All pray aloud for some time, until one feels that the “spirit” has entered into him, when in a trance-like manner he comes to the center of the place of worship. The praying goes on in a sing-song loud tone of voice until one by one, every person feels the “spirit” within him.
While there are still numerous groups in the U.S. and in Canada that are direct descendants of the Molokan, Jumper and Doukhabor sects, their influence may well have been enormous on what is today generally referred to as Pentecostalism.
The Molokans, especially of the “Jumper” variety, had a long history of laying claim to modern-day manifestations of the apostolic gifts, including healings, tongues, etc. When they moved to Los Angeles, California, most settled near the lumberyard that employed many of the men, a lumberyard situated in close proximity to Azusa Street. A year after the Jumpers arrived, the “Azusa Street Revival,” considered by many to be the birthplace of American Pentecostalism, burst forth onto the American church scene. The “revival” continued with three services a day for nearly three years.
It is an established fact that many of the Russian Jumpers became a part of the Azusa Street Revival, but it remains a mystery as to whether they were converts or, after a fashion, the founders.