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The Russian Orthodox Old Believer Church

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Old-believers and the Law of God

One of the prime motives for the rejection of public schools by the Old-believers was that the Law of God was being taught there by teachers of religion from the Russian Church. After 1905, the state provided the Old-believers with the opportunity to organise the teaching of this subject for their own children in existing zemstvo (county) and ministerial schools by teachers of religion from the Old Belief.

The implementation of this initiative, which was laid down by the Ukase (decree) of April 17, 1905, was carried out by the Ministry of Education. On April 30, 1905, the Ministry began drafting its Rules for teaching the Law of God of heterodox confessions. To this end, suggestions were accepted from the Curators of school districts. Based on the results of the consultations, on February 22, 1906, Minister Count I. Tolstoy approved the “Provisional Rules of teaching the Law of God of heterodox Christian confessions” [1]. These rules allowed students to be divided into groups according to their religious confession and language. Thus, the right to educate children of any religious denomination in general schools — zemstvo, ministerial, and parochial — was guaranteed.

These “Rules” gave equal rights to teachers of religion of all religious confessions and admitted them into the teaching staff: “Teachers of religion of heterodox confessions are invited to vote at faculty meetings. The amount of compensation granted to teachers of religion of heterodox confessions is determined by the local authorities of the Department of Education” [2]. In addition, the right was granted not only to organise separate rooms to conduct separate teachings of the Law of God, but also to hold a separate pre-lesson prayer. However, the Rules approved by the Ministry simultaneously created a problem for the Old-believers, since, according to this document, in order to teach in schools, Old-believers’ teachers of religion were required to hold an educational qualification no lower than that of public school teachers [3].

The problem was that the Old-believers did not have a sufficient number of teachers of religion with the necessary qualifications. Moreover, most of the clergy did not receive such an education. The President of the Council of Congresses D.V. Sirotkin in September 1906 appealed to the Cabinet of Ministers “with a request for the admission of Old-believers’ teachers of religion, elected by a parish, to teach the Law of God in educational institutions, even if they do not possess the educational qualification required by the Regulations of the Cabinet of Ministers, dated April 17” [4]. In addition, the Council requested to expedite the adoption of “the law regarding Old-believers’ and sectarian elementary schools, and the teaching of the children of Old-believers and sectarians in the rules of their faith”, as was provided for by the Ukase of 1905 [5].

The Ministry of Education met the wishes of the Old-believers. On November 18, 1906, it issued a circular to the Curators of school districts concerning the permission of Old-believers’ teachers of religion who don’t hold an educational qualification to teach the Law of God for the next five years [6]. The circular was supported by the Council of Ministers and approved by the emperor on February 6, 1907. [7]

Thus was established one of the fundamental educational rights of the Old Believers, which was valid until 1917. Old-believers’ teachers of religion, even without holding a certified teaching qualification, could, according to the recommendation of their community, teach the Law of God in various elementary schools.

That being said, the requirement for Old-believers’ teachers of religion to hold an educational qualification still remained. The Council of Congresses, realising the importance of a pedagogical education, tried to convey this knowledge to the Old-believers’ community. For this purpose, a number of publications were prepared in the periodical “Tserkov’” (The Church), urging clergymen to receive an education and explaining the need for acquiring it. The Council issued a special textbook, “to assist persons wanting to receive the title of ‘teacher’,” which set out the conditions and short materials in order to prepare for the examinations. A public teacher could be classified as “anyone who graduated from a two-year rural school, or from 2 classes at a secondary school. The examination could be held in any high school, non-classical secondary school, teachers’ training college, and where none are present, then it may be held at an urban school. Men from 17 years of age and women from 16 years of age may be admitted to the exam” [8]. As part of the documents necessary for passing examinations, Old-believers were required to provide a certificate of political reliability, which was requested from the governor. Examinations were passed in Church Slavonic and Russian languages ​​in the form of essays, arithmetic, geometry, history and geography of Russia. After the examinations, the examinee was allowed to conduct trial lessons and then received the appropriate certification. Obviously, the requirements were minimal.

But, among the Old-believers, there was serious debate about the need to pass such an examination. Exams were required to be passed by priests, often of advanced age, which elicited protest. Old-believers’ priests saw this as an infringement of their rights [9]. They considered the examination to be humiliating, and unworthy of the calling of a priest [10].

The fact is that according to the Regulation of Parochial Schools of 1902 “in literacy schools, parochial and Sunday schools, priests, clergymen and persons not ordained to the clergy are permitted to teach the Law of God” [11]. The qualification in their case was the conduct of two trial lessons and the recommendation of diocesan authorities. That is, for the teachers of religion of the Russian Church, it was unnecessary to pass the qualifying examinations, although this was a requirement for the teachers of religion of the Old Belief. Part of the Old-believers’ community was outraged: “Since there is a rule according to which every priest of the established Church has the right to be a teacher of religion in his parochial school, then the same right should be granted to Old-believers’ priests to freely teach the Law of God in their schools without qualificatory requirements” [12].

Another camp of Old-believers categorically insisted that priests receive at least a minimal level of education. Old-believers actively criticised their priests, who for several years did not consider it necessary to do anything in order to teach the Law of God [13]. “It is somewhat unheard of for one of our pastors to pass the examination necessary to achieve the title of public teacher or to even prepare for it” [14]. Many lay Old-believers insisted on the necessity of all Old-believers’ priests to pass these exams [15]. “Old-believers’ pastors should seek to achieve educational qualification not because it is required by the public authorities, but because life itself requires it” [16]. Even the Chief Procurator of the Synod was aware that lay Old-believers demanded that their teachers of religion receive a teaching qualification [17].

Therefore, the fundamental problem of teaching the Law of God for the Old-believers was that the Old-believers’ priests did not want to teach the Law of God at all, neither with qualifications, nor without qualifications. For example, out of 62 priests of the Tomsk diocese, only two taught the Law of God [18].

Against the background of the hierarchy’s prevailing indifference in relation to the teaching of the Law of God, some nevertheless showed particular diligence in this matter. They sought to rethink the methods and quality of teaching of this particular subject [19]. Bishop Michael (Semenov) stood out in this crowd. Prior to joining the Old-believers, he served as archimandrite in the Russian Church and taught at the Kazan Theological Academy. Bishop Michael, in addition to publishing numerous articles in the press concerning the teaching of the Law of God, developed recommendations and methods for teaching this discipline. His “Letters” [20] became an accessible and important tool for Old-believers’ teachers of religion. In his Letters, he outlined his views on how to teach the Sacred History, the Catechism, liturgics, and how to organise individual classes. He appended a program summary to his recommendations. The author believed that “the teacher of religion is primarily a sculptor of the souls of children. His task is to develop the foundations of religiosity laid down by the family. The teacher of religion is not a simply a teacher, but a priest among a flock of little parishioners” [21].

The approach to teaching according to Bishop Michael is eloquently revealed in his correspondence with F.E. Melnikov, in which they discussed the creation of children’s religious literature. For example, His Grace suggested using the theme of “good people” when addressing children. He advised writing about outstanding personalities: Saint Paulinus; Philaret the Merciful; John the Merciful; the missionary de Veuster who helped lepers, despite being far from Orthodoxy. Bishop Michael believed that the example of sacrificial love is non-confessional and will serve to educate [22].

Old-believers’ priest Gregory Karabinovich served as a teacher of religion at the Moscow Alekseevsky Business School. Having converted to the Old Belief from the Russian Church, priest Gregory Karabinovich had a seminarial education. Therefore, the practice of teaching the Law of God was quite familiar to him. Priest Gregory Karabinovich was one of the initial founders of the Fraternity of Old-believers’ teachers. He took part in many educational undertakings of the Old-believers, and compiled three textbooks on the Law of God, which survived several reprints [23].

Two other Old-believers’ teachers of religion should also be mentioned: priest John Voloshchuk and priest Michael Storozhev. These clergymen had experience working as Old-believers’ teachers of religion and compiled their own textbooks [24]. However, the example of these figures is an exception.

In June 1908, a memorandum was sent to the Old-believers’ Commission of the Imperial Duma from a group of Old-believers at Bogorodsk Uyezd. In this document, the petitioners pointed out that the five-year term granted for Old-believers’ teachers of religion to obtain an educational qualification was clearly inadequate, and they requested an extension of this term. The following argument was put forward: “The fulfilment of their direct pastoral duties leaves the clergy of the Old-believers with very little free time for other activities, and, in addition, many of them are of such an advanced age, where a person is no longer conducive to using textbooks and preparing for examinations” [25]. In addition to this difficulty, the memorandum pointed out a number of other problems that Old-believers faced when organising their lessons on the Law of God in departmental schools, namely: the evasion of local educational authorities from compensating Old-believers’ teachers of religion; the failure to provide a separate premises in which to hold classes, and; the uncertainty surrounding the minimum number of Old-believers’ students, for whom it was necessary to organise separate lessons. Taking into account all these problems, the initiative group proposed to extend the moratorium on Old-believers’ teachers of religion acquiring educational qualification for another 5 years, as well as to introduce mandatory public funding for Old-believers’ teachers of religion, and to set the minimum number of students to be isolated into a separate group at 10 people. In the case of a lower number of students, it was proposed to merge students from several nearby educational institutions [26]. But the Commission of the Imperial Duma did not respond to this appeal.

In February 1909, the Council of All-Russian Congresses devised and submitted to the Ministry of Education its proposed “Rules for teaching the Law of God to the children of Old-believers”. This proposal also stipulated the procedure for introducing Old-believers’ teachers into the teaching staff, the expectations of their material content, their rights and obligations with regards to the leadership of an educational institution. In addition to the approval of these Rules, the Council requested an extension of the term for obtaining an educational qualification for Old-believers’ teachers of religion to 10 years.

The new Minister of Education, A. Schwartz, reviewed and approved the proposed Rules, but only with respect to teachers of religion holding an educational qualification. This document was accepted for execution in December 1909. At the same time, the Council’s request to extend the term for Old-believers’ teachers to receive an educational qualification to 10 years was rejected by the minister as being counter-productive [27]. In his letter to the curator of the Moscow school district, A. Schwartz argued that his refusal was due to the reality that “the majority of Old-believers were concerned with the religious teachers of their children striving to acquire the educational qualifications required of them by law” [28].

In response to this refusal, the president of the Council D.V. Sirotkin prepared a lengthy letter in which he offered a comparative analysis of the “Regulations of teaching the Law of God to children of heterodox religions” and the “Regulations of Church Parochial Schools” from April 1, 1902. D.V. Sirotkin drew attention to the fact that, on the basis of existing laws, “it is recognised that the admission of teachers of religion who are not qualified is possible, but with the permission of the spiritual authority they fall under.” Based on this observation, the Council suggested to the Minister: “allow the Church to establish its own criteria when religiously assessing the competence of those persons who are to be allowed to conduct lessons of the Law of God in schools” [29].

Under the new Rules for teaching the Law of God, in the absence of an Old-believers’ teacher of religion, the children of Old-believers were exempted from attending lessons conducted by a regular teacher. In addition, the Holy Synod on April 28, 1906 exempted the children of Old-believers from studying the Law of God, even in parochial schools [30]. This situation in schools which the children of Old-believers attended had exposed the reverse side of the abolition of the obligation to teach them the Law of God. At the 11th All-Russian Congress of 1910, representatives of the Brotherhood of the Cross drew attention to the fact that Old-believers’ teachers of religion, in most cases, were not present in schools. And this led to the situation where in almost all educational institutions the children of Old-believers had ceased learning the Law of God altogether [31]. The Brotherhood deemed this circumstance to be much more harmful than learning with a priest of the established religion. The Brotherhood urged the Council to appeal to the Imperial Duma with a legislative proposal aimed at introducing a regulation for compulsory learning of the Law of God for the children of Old-believers, but “on the condition that it be taught by Old-believers’ teachers of religion within designated schools” [32]. The Council submitted this amendment to the Ministry of Education. In 1911, the Holy Council of the Old-believers drew attention to the problem being encountered. According to the councillors, “having been exempted from heeding the Law of God when it is taught by teachers of religion from the New Orthodox Church, the children of Old-believers do not cover it at all, since Old-believers’ priests care little about this.” [33]. Based on the results of these appeals, the Ministry decided to oblige all the children of Old-believers to take the course of the Law of God without fail.

The problem with the teaching of the Law of God being made compulsory is of particular importance in the period under review. In the early 20th century, the viability of teaching the Law of God in primary and secondary educational institutions was discussed in pedagogical circles and was a very relevant issue. Many times at various pedagogical and teachers’ congresses, in corporations, on the pages of printed media, an opinion was being espoused of the need to remove the Law of God from the teaching programs of public educational institutions. Amid these discussions, the conservative position of the Old-believers with regards to this issue is especially noticeable and obvious. According to the vast majority of Old-believers, the proper instruction of the Law of God is a hallmark of Old-believers’ educational institutions. This is an important indicator of the attitude of the Old-believers concerning this subject. At no church or public forum did a single representative of the Old-believers express their doubts regarding the study of the Law of God in educational institutions at all levels.

By 1911, nothing had changed with the situation of educational qualifications. The government introduced the new “Regulation of teaching the Law of God” from April 13, 1911, according to which the period for obtaining qualifications was extended until October 17, 1916 [34]. But, despite another leniency of the authorities, the Council of All-Russian Congresses reacted very sceptically to this privilege: “Our clergy are behaving indifferently to their direct duties, such as teaching children the Law of God in existing schools” [35].

And again in 1916, nothing had changed. The 10-year period was to expire on October 17, 1916. The Council of Ministers, at the request of the Council of Congresses, decided: “Extend until October 17, 1921, the admission of those who do not possess educational qualifications to teach the Law of God to the children of Old-believers” [36].

Thus, it becomes clear that after 1905 the Old-believers were given the opportunity to legally teach their children fundamental religious teachings in public schools. This right should have become a solution to the painful issue of the coexistence of children of the Old-believers and children of the established religion in public schools, which, in turn, would have significantly reduced the level of distrust of Old-believers toward ministerial, parochial schools, and the Russian Church as a whole. However, a significant part of the Old-believers’ clergy reacted indifferently to school service and did not become teachers of religion. The Law of God was taught only by educated Old-believers – lay people and individual priests.

On the other hand, the opportunity to participate in the teaching process allowed Old-believers to acquire pedagogical experience, develop necessary teaching materials, identify talented teachers of religion within their midst, compile and publish a number of textbooks on the Law of God, and partially secure funding from the Ministry of Education for the needs of the education of Old-believers.

The issues of teaching the Old-believers’ Law of God revealed the unambiguous and strictly conservative attitude of the Old-believers regarding the need for this subject to be in the curriculum of all educational institutions. The Old-believers concertedly expressed their resistance of the emerging liberal trends in Russian pedagogy, which rejected the need to study this subject.