Molokans (Russian for "milk-drinkers": молокане) are sectarian Christians who evolved from "Spiritual Christian" Russian peasants that refused to obey the Russian Orthodox Church, beginning in the 17th century. They were so named for their drinking milk on most of the approximately 200 fasting days, especially the Great Fast (Lent)— an activity which was prohibited by ecclesiastical authorities. In contrast, they called themselves "true Spiritual Christians", rather than "milk-drinkers", because they could no longer accept the Russian Orthodox Church, nor that of the Protestant sects or the Catholic Church. They may have been influenced by an earlier religious sect of Armenian "Paulicians", who became known as the "Bogomils" of Thrace, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Serbia.
In a sense Molokans are Protestants for rejecting Orthodoxy, and like Presbyterians in that they have a council of dominant elders. Though Molokans are somewhat similar to the European Quakers and Mennonites — for their pacifism, communal organization, spiritual meetings, and sub-groupings — they are ethnically much closer to Doukhobors and Sabbatarians (Subbotniki) because they evolved from the same Russian Spiritual Christian movement of Khristovers and Ikonobors (icon-wrestlers), and migrated together with some intermarriage.
During the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1547-1584 A.D.), Matthew Simon Dalmatov, the first martyr of the Russian Molokan faith, began to evangelize his family, his master, and local village members in and around the city of Tambov. Dalmatov carried this sectarian belief into Moscow, where a group of Mordvins heard his message and embraced it. Dalmatov was later martyred by Orthodox priests in a monastery prison by wheeling. Molokans were ostracized from Russian society in the 17th century for their refusal to bear arms and for their refusal to assist in any form of military service.
The name "Molokan" was used for the first time in the 1670s, in reference to the people who ignored the 200 fasting days, drinking milk (moloko = "milk" in Russian). Molokans themselves did not completely reject the name—even adding words like "drinking of the spiritual milk of God" (according to I Peter 2:2, "Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation").
Heretics were punished in Czarist Russia. Beatings, torture, kidnapping, imprisonment, banishment, dismembering, killing, and other forms of punishment were inflicted upon those called "Spiritual Christians", as Molokan's called themselves. In the 19th century, the government's policy was to send the heretics away from the center of the country into Caucasus, especially Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, central Asia, and Siberia. In 1833, there was a reported outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon a number of Molokans in the Transcaucasus region. This created a schism between Constants (Postoyaniye) and the newly evolved Molokan Jumpers and Leapers. With what the Molokans believed to be an additional manifestation of the Holy Spirit, this new smaller sect began a revival with intense zeal and reported miracles that purportedly rivaled that of Christ’s Apostles. Condemnation from the Constant sect led to betrayals and imprisonment for many of the Jumpers and Leapers, now called New Israelites by their anointed leader Maxim Rudometkin.
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