Religious Sectarianism

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Sectarianism, Religious


the common designation for various religious groups, communities, and societies that separated from and are opposed to the prevailing currents in Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and other religions. Sectarianism originated as a form of democratic movement that expressed social protest against the prevailing order in a religious guise. In the course of social development, however, sectarian movements became separate bourgeois churches (in the West, primarily Protestant ones) that play a profoundly reactionary role in modern society.

In precapitalist societies the religious sect was a form of social community binding believers together on the basis of equality, unity of feelings and convictions, and a struggle, cloaked in religious forms, against the ruling classes. Sects usually lacked a clerical bureaucracy, universally required dogmatic systems, and established rituals. In the messianic sects that spread through the Roman Empire in the first centuries of the Common Era, Christianity developed as a religious and social movement of slaves and other disfranchised strata of the population, but after a series of modifications it became the state religion. Sects broke away from the Christian church during the Middle Ages, became hostile to it, and during the Reformation in Western Europe merged into a popular movement that put an end to the undivided domination of Catholicism.

In other religions, sects emerged through the separation of opposing currents from the dominant religion, expressing a spontaneous social protest by the popular masses against class exploitation and foreign domination. For example, the Brahman sects reflected the discontent of free communal peasants, who faced ruin and slavery during the formation of class states. In one form or another, the early sects of Judaism, including the Essenes and Sicarii, reflected the indignation of the working people over increasing social oppression by the Roman and local elite. The Judaic sects condemned slavery and social inequality. The Ismailians, Karmathians, Kharijites, and other medieval Muslim sects were antifeudal in their social orientation, as were the Wahhabis, Mahdists, and Babis in modern Islam, and the Sabbatians, Frankists, and Hasidim in modern Judaism.

However, because of the limitations of sectarianism as a religious form of social protest and the heterogeneity of the elements initially united in any particular group, sects die out in the course of historical development or display internal contradictions and are transformed into churches. The evolution of the social role and forms of sectarianism depended on the course of the development of capitalism in various regions and countries and on the preservation, to varying degrees, of vestiges of serfdom in the economy, the sociopolitical structure, and the social consciousness. For example, under the socioeconomic conditions in Russia from the 18th century through the second half of the 19th, sectarianism continued to be an expression of political protest. In the developed capitalist countries of the West, the role of sectarianism as a democratic movement declined, and the sects evolved into bourgeois Protestant churches. The sects that adapted to new conditions in the West represent one variety of bourgeois Protestant church. A number of sects spread eschatology, chiliasm (the Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses), and mystical eschatological forms of worship (the Pentecostalists). The most widespread forms of sectarianism or, more accurately, “churchified” sects, in the second half of the 20th century in Europe and America are the Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Adventists, Pentecostalists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In the developed capitalist countries sectarianism is reactionary. It distracts the popular masses from political struggle and replaces social protest with religious consolation. In colonial and dependent countries, sectarianism sometimes becomes intertwined with the national liberation struggle against colonialism. For example, in South Vietnam the “syncretic sects,” which took shape after World War II (1939–45), combining certain features of Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism, played a substantial role in the struggle against the colonialists.

In Russia sectarianism was preceded by the antifeudal heretical movements of the 14th through 16th centuries. After the schism of the second half of the 17th century, the sect of the Khristovovery (Christian believers), or Khlysty (flagellants) emerged (late 17th century). The sect was characterized by strict demands for asceticism and by mystical ecstatic worship. “Sacred” and especially ecclesiastical books were rejected. The most extreme wing of the sect, the Skoptsy (self-castrators), emerged in the late 18th century and advocated extreme asceticism.

The doctrine of “spiritual Christianity” (dukhovnoe khristiane), which developed in the 1760’s among the adherents of Khristovoverie, soon divided the believers into two groups, the Dukhobors (spirit wrestlers) and the Molokans (milk drinkers). Spiritual Christianity called for building the kingdom of god on earth, based on human equality and common ownership of property. The social principles of spiritual Christianity were adhered to most consistently by the Dukhobors. The Molokans based their doctrine on the Bible, their interpretation of which contained elements of rationalism. Through the Don interpretation, which was elaborated in the early 19th century, some of the Molokans attempted to reconcile their doctrine with Orthodoxy and come to an agreement with the autocracy. A current supporting the ideas of Utopian socialism also emerged among the Molokans. In the 1830’s through 1850’s the Pryguny (hoppers or jumpers) separated from the Molokans.

Developing in the Southern Ukraine in the mid-19th century, Stundism took the form of a number of sects similar to Baptism. In the 1880’s and 1890’s a schism took place among the Dukhobors settled in Transcaucasia, giving rise to the Bol’shaia Partiia (Large Party), which united the working lower strata of the Dukhobors, and the Malaia Partiia (Small Party), consisting primarily of well-to-do elements. The church and the tsarist regime persecuted the sects, showing particular severity toward the Dukhobors, a considerable number of whom were forced to emigrate to Canada in 1898–1900.

Despite all the differences in doctrines and rituals among the Russian religious sects, until the Peasant Reform of 1861 they were united in protest against the enslavement of man by man. In sectarian doctrines great importance was attributed to man and his ethics, his activity, and his ability to bring about the kingdom of god on earth, using his own powers. Sectarian ideology owed all of these beliefs to the peasant democratism of its participants. The development of a capitalist system in the post-reform period was accompanied by a revival of religious attitudes and quests, but the new conditions of social development led to a crisis among all the sects. The idea of the kingdom of god on earth gave way to that of a “home in heaven” (nebesnaia otchizna). The ethic of good works as the means to attain the ideal of justice gave way to teachings about the omnipotence of divine providence and the predetermination of human fate.

The Baptist sect began to penetrate Russia by the late 1860’s, followed by Adventism in the 1890’s. These sects spread especially in the most developed capitalist regions: the Ukraine, South Russia, and the Baltic region. Later, Evangelicism, a form of Baptist Christianity, won adherents in the northwestern and central provinces.

In the sects antedating the peasant reforms, new groups emerged and established their own church system, giving their doctrines the status of a dogmatic system strictly obligatory for all believers (Old Israel and New Israel in the Khristovoverie, and the Gospel Christians among the Molokans). Reactionary in form and content, Baptist Christianity, Evangelicalism, and Adventism constituted religious currents that diluted the social protest of democratic elements. These currents became small religious organizations competing with the Orthodox Church but not antagonistic to it. However, because the sectarians had endured various forms of religious and state persecution in prerevolutionary Russia, backward groups among the working people continued to view the sectarians as opponents of the official church. Various religious sects preaching complete abstention from alcohol appeared in the late 19th century and the early 20th.

On the eve of the October Revolution of 1917 there were around 1 million sectarians in Russia, including approximately 200,000 Baptists, Evangelicals, and Adventists. Sectarian leaders reacted with hostility to the October Revolution and fought against Soviet power during the Civil War of 1918–20. Certain sects resisted the collectivization of agriculture and opposed many measures of the socialist state. Religious fanaticism, which was manifested in the activities of a number of sects, including the Pentecostalists, Skoptsy, and Khlysty, was forbidden by law. The separation of church from state and the freedom of conscience guaranteed by the Constitution made the sectarian organizations equal in status to the other religious cults and stripped them of their former reputation as opponents of the dominant Orthodox Church. Under pressure from rank-and-file believers, many sects and their leaders proclaimed their loyalty to Soviet power in the mid-1920’s.

There are far fewer sectarians in the present-day USSR than in the prerevolutionary period. The prereform sects, along with their more recent variants (the Molokans, Dukhobors, Khristovoverie, Skopchestvo, Subbotnichestvo, Old Israel, and New Israel), have lost most of their supporters. The Baptists, Adventists, Pentecostalists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses underwent a brief period of growth from the early 1940’s through the early 1950’s, chiefly in the western regions of the Ukraine and Byelorussia. The sociodemographic structure of these sects is changing, revealing a tendency toward decline. There are half as many young members and half as many male sectarians as in the 1920’s, and only one-third as many current sectarians are directly employed in socially productive work. Although contemporary sectarianism is going through a period of modernization, marked by the elimination of fanatical rites and the observance of Soviet laws, and although it is adapting to the conditions of socialism and contemporary Soviet popular thinking, it remains basically antisocial and reactionary. Sectarians are characterized by religious fanaticism, the preaching of asceticism, the rejection of “worldly” life, and a psychology of the “elect.” The ideological development of Soviet society naturally entails a steady abandonment by the people of all forms of the religious world view, including sectarianism.

In other countries of Europe and Asia socialist revolutions have undermined the social roots of religion and sectarianism. However, in a number of socialist countries sectarianism is still one of the most enduring vestiges of religion. On the whole, the number of sectarians is steadily declining, and the number of young members is dropping. A significant proportion of the followers of present-day sects are old people, chiefly women, who do not participate directly in socially productive work.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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