Born in Grigorova, Russia, in November 1620, Avvakum Petrovich became one of the central figures in the 17th-Century schism of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Schisms in Christianity
The Great Reformation was not the first time Christianity had split. Branches such as the Coptic Church in Egypt had existed as long ago as 451 AD. Then, in 1054 occurred the great schism which resulted in the two main branches:
- The Eastern (Greek) Church
- The Western (Latin) Church.
Even before 1054, Christians had existed in Russia. They became part of the Eastern Orthodox church, which, after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, became a semi-independent church: the Russian Orthodox. During the 17th Century, this also broke apart: the patriarch in charge wanted to draw closer to other Eastern Orthodox churches, whereas others, like Petrovich, wished to retain the traditional rituals.
His Early Years
The Russian Orthodox Church was hundreds of years old when Avvakum was born. From the earliest years of the Russian Orthodox Church, ritual was one of the most important elements of the faith: so important that many would even die for it. Born in the village of Grigorovo in the Nizhny Novgorod district, Avvakum's father was a priest and he taught his son these rituals. From his mother, Avakkum learned the fear of God and the power of prayer. He was ordained as a deacon at the age of 21, and became a priest at 23. The young man worked tirelessly, and recruited many souls to the Kingdom of God. In 1638 he married Anastasia Markovna, the daughter of a local blacksmith, who raised his children, and supported him through thick and thin.
In 1652, Czar Alexis appointed his friend Nikon as patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Nikita Minov Nikon was born in 1605; after attaining power he went simply by the name Nikon. Upon being named patriarch, Nikon began his reforms of the Church and, two years later, convened a synod to re-examine the service books, so challenging the established rituals.
The Old Believers and Petrovich
In the same year that Nikon became patriarch, Avvakum, at age 31, was appointed archpriest of Kazan Cathedral. By this time he was also leader of a large group called the Old Believers, and his name became known across Siberia. The Old Believers did not accept the reforms set forth by the Patriarch. They believed that the centre of Christendom had moved from Jerusalem to Rome, to Constantinople, and to Moscow; that they were the guardians of the faith, and that any attack on their rituals was an attack on the heart of Christianity. Labelled 'schism-makers' by their opponents, they were willing to defend or even die for their beliefs. At one point, Avvakum argued that one reason Constantinople fell to the Turks was in their not maintaining the faith.
Nikon, however, wanted to bring Russia's church in line with the other Orthodox churches. He proclaimed that it was the Greeks, not the Russians, who had preserved the correct forms of worship, and he had the power of the Czar to support his position.
The Final Showdown
Martyr: A transliteration of the Greek word for 'witness', particularly one willing to die for his cause.
— Holman Bible Dictionary.
Avvakum, fearing that his opposition might endanger his family, asked his wife if he should hold his peace. She replied:
Dare to preach God's word as heretofore and do not feel anxious about us.
He was exiled to Siberia and life was hard. Two of his children died from starvation, and when Avvakum was called to face the executioner in 1670 he believed his head would fall, as had that of Briton Sir Thomas More, who died as a 'witness to the truth' in 1535. On this occasion, Avvakum exclaimed 'We suffer and die for the truth... Here stands my throne'. The Czar had other ideas, however, and the archpriest was soon back in his jail cell. From here he continued to write his autobiography, its pages smuggled out by his followers until 1676. Hailed as a masterpiece of Russian Literature,The Life, Written by Himself has been reprinted as recently as 19791.
Avvakum finally died on April 14,1682, burned at the stake on orders from the Czar. As he wrote in his autobiography:
Let the servant of Christ rejoice in reading it. When we die, he will read and remember us before God. And we will entreat God on behalf of those who read and listen. They will be our people there at Christ's side, and we theirs, forever and ever. Amen.