“They Feel That They Were Divinely Guided in Coming to Los Angeles:” Mary A. Clarke’s article on the Molokan (Spiritual Christian) Russians, P.E. Magazine, May 1908, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Published by the Pacific Electric Railway, which, under the control of Henry E. Huntington, renowned books, manuscripts and art collector whose library, art museum and botanical gardens is in San Marino, P.E. Magazine was far more than just about transportation. As the featured issue for this post, from May 1908, shows, the contents of the publication concerned a variety of topics not unlike contemporaries such as Out West or West Coast Magazine, which included history, travelogues, and other items pertaining to greater Los Angeles.

The highlighted article from the journal here is titled “A Peculiar People: The Molokani Who have come to Southern California from Far Russia” by Mary A. Clarke and which describes the “Molokan” or Spiritual Christians, who were dissenters from a modernized Russian Orthodox Church in the 18th century. The word “molokan” refers to the Russian word for “milk,” with three general interpretations for the adoption of the term: first, that they imbibed “spiritual milk” in their worship; second, that they resisted Orthodox proscriptions on drinking milk; and, lastly, that there was a river, translated as “milky waters,” near which the first Molokans resided.

A portrait of Clarke in the Topeka State Journal from Kansas, 26 April 1899. She was actually in Iran for a decade between 1880 and 1898 with eight years back in the United States during that period.

An article by Russian ethnomusicologist Margarita Mazo of Ohio State University noted that the first expatriate Molokans came to America in the first years of the 20th century with most going to San Francisco and Los Angeles. A core area of residence for those in the Angel City were the “flats” along the east bank of the Los Angeles River in Boyle Heights, the neighborhood established in 1875 by William H. Workman, banker Isaias W. Hellman and merchant John Lazzarovich.

A previous post here featuring a 1917 report on the Americanization of foreign-born women issued by the State Commission on Immigration and Housing including a significant discussion of efforts focused on Molokan women and it is interesting to note that a Molokan Elementary School, operated by the United Molokan Christian Association, has recently operated in Hacienda Heights, just a few miles south of the Homestead.

Los Angeles Times, 11 July 1909. Note the reference to “effeminate Persia” from the headline. Clarke, as can be seen at the end, was residing in Azusa at the time she wrote this and many other articles from the paper through about 1913.

As for Mary Amanda Clarke (1859-1957), she had a remarkable career, especially for a woman of her era, starting with her birth in Brooklyn, Ohio, southwest of Cleveland, as the youngest of four daughters born to Lucy Peck and Seth G. Clarke. Seth, who worked for a time as a carriage maker, was mainly a Presbyterian Church minister, but was also a Union Army chaplain during the Civil War who, on the conclusion of the conflict, delivered the news to some North Carolina African-Americans of their emancipation.

Clarke followed her father’s footsteps in the sense that she became a Presbyterian missionary following her initial education, including study at Western College, a women’s school considered a kin of Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts and now part of Miami University, in Oxford, a southwestern Ohio town near the Indiana border.

A 1923 passport photo of Clarke and her husband, William M. Colquhoun, as they prepared to travel extensively in Europe.

At age 21, in 1880, though, Clarke joined a group of missionaries in what was known as the Western Persia Mission, in northwestern Iran, close to the borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan. From 1880-1884, she was the principal of a girls’ school there, but poor health led her to return to the United States. After her recovery, she spent five years as a teacher of English at the Princeton Collegiate Institute in the town of Princeton in western Kentucky, located roughly between Nashville, Tennessee and Evansville, Indiana.

Feeling the lure to return to Persia and continue her missionary and teaching work, however, Clarke returned to that nation, but, this time, spent six years, from 1892 to 1898, in the Eastern Persian Mission as the assistant superintendent of a boys’ high school in the capital city of Tehran. Again, her health broke down and she came back to the United States and went to a sanitarium at Clifton Springs, New York, southeast of Rochester, to take advantage of the sulphur springs treatment there.

In 1899, with a cure apparently found, she went to work as the dean of women students at Alma College, a Presbyterian institution in the central Michigan town, west of Saginaw, of that name. After a couple of years there, she returned to school at Oberlin College not far from her hometown in Ohio and earned her bachelor’s degree in 1901. She then took the position of principal of the Detroit Seminary and served two years there, following this with graduate work at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, south of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where she earned her master’s degree in 1905.

Clarke taught art history and English at Carleton from 1903 and it may be that the delicate state of her health is what led her to resign and move to Los Angeles, where the climate was far better for her—especially given the fact that she almost lived to be 100 years old. She was not in the Angel City for long before she wrote her article on the Molokans for the P.E. Magazine and, later in 1908, she married traveling salesman William M. Colquhoun, a native of Scotland. At the time, she was living in Azusa and, presumably, was teaching.

From 1909-1913, Clarke wrote often for the Los Angeles Times, generally for the paper’s Sunday magazine, and, while the majority of her subjects concerned elements of Persian life based on her decade of residence and work there, she also wrote on such topics as the San Gabriel Valley foothill towns of Azusa, Duarte, Glendora and Monrovia; the operatic soprano Ellen Beach Yaw, long a resident of Covina; the private school operated by The Broadway department store owner Arthur Letts and which had as superintendent, Charlotte Hoak, another writer featured in the P.E. Magazine issue; the Glendora estate of Charles Silent; the diary of Guadalupe Zamorano de Dalton of Rancho Azusa; gold mining in San Gabriel Canyon; and the Mission San Gabriel, among others.

Clarke’s essay began with the note that “some years ago, when traveling through Trans-Caucasia,” this being what are now the nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, “our party learned that we were in the region of the Molokan, or milk-drinker.” She then observed that “when I learned of the presence of a company of Molokani in Los Angeles, I lost no time in making their acquaintance.” It seems likely that this was in the Boyle Heights area and the writer continued that,

So pleasant were the impressions received as I attended their church services and visited one private house and another, that I have felt moved to record these impressions for the benefit of others to whom perhaps the word Molokan has as vague a sound as it once had for me, and to whom perhaps the vagueness is not mixed with any pleasant associations.

In fact, it would be no surprise to surmise that these recent immigrants, still very much attached to their culture and religion which would have seemed alien to the dominant White Anglo-Saxon Protestant population of Los Angeles, were regarded with, at best, a distant sense of curiosity and, at worst, outright hostility for their otherness.

Clarke did immediately request her readers “let me hasten to record my first and strongest impression, which was one of great and constant surprise at the intelligence and personal cleanliness of these people” given that “the Russian peasant is a proverbially dirty fellow.” Being “deeply impressed with the neat personal appearance” of the Molokans, as well as “the comparative cleanliness of their homes,” she opined that “the Russian colony of Los Angeles is greatly superior not only to the average Russian peasant in his own country, but to the average European immigrant who comes to our shores.”

As impressed as she was by these statements, Clarke went on to record that “this was quickly merged in greater surprise at the general intelligence of both the men and the women.” In contrast to what she saw in the Orthodox rites in Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine, which is valiantly defending itself against a harrowing Russian invasion, which she felt was “the excess of the animal nature over the intellectual and spiritual,” Clarke exclaimed, “how different here! Earnest, intelligent faces met us everywhere, and the only drawback to conversation was the lack of a common language.”

The writer went on that there was another unexpected result of her visit was “their readiness to talk,” though she noted that she “was accompanied and introduced by Miss Greene, who has charge of the Russian school in Bethlehem Institution, a Congregational church headed by the prominent minister Dana W. Bartlett and a branch of which was at the corner of Anderson and 1st streets in the flats of Boyle Heights where so many Molokans resided. With their trust of Annie M. Greene, who graduated in 1872 from the Wisconsin Normal School for teacher education, Clarke allowed that this gave her the ready access otherwise not likely available.

The author reiterated that the reason that the Molokans were of an “attractive personal appearance,” intelligence, and dearth of suspicious attitudes were because they were not Orthodox and, therefore, free from being “priest-ridden, ignorant and superstitious.” Clarke continued that “the Molokani . . . are what they are because they have dared to think, because they have had the courage to stand by the convictions developed through their reading and thinking.” These, however, led to independent thought and ideas and, therefore, “in the eyes of the [Russian imperial] government, [this made them] disloyal subjects.”

Notably, the writer likened this development to that of what transpired in England, once the Bible was translated into English for the common people and which then meant that “the seed was sown which afterwards bore fruit in the emigration of the Pilgrim Fathers” or the Puritans to America—though what this meant for the indigenous people was, of course, left aside. When Clarke sought to address the history of the Molokans, though, she wrote that they, numbering up to 50,000 persons, went back only a century. She added that the earliest members were martyred, to the extent that one was nailed to the wall of his house in the shape of a cross and a baby was literally torn apart in a struggle between the mother and an Orthodox priest demanding the child’s baptism.

Clarke added that early Molokans were forced out of the Crimea, driven from Kharkov, a city in Ukraine, and the region of the lower portion of the Volga River to the east. If not killed through such examples as forced starvation, being walled up alive, and in other ways, exile, imprisonment and beatings were also applied to Molokans, in her telling. When many were forced to the regions in modern Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, they found “comparative freedom from persecution for a time.”

Notably, the author observed that “the Molokani living in Los Angeles came from six provinces and thirty-six different villages in that region” but “most of them . . . came from near the town of Kars,” then part of Russia, briefly within the new republic of Armenia following World War I and then seized by Turkey in 1920. The emigration from this heavily contested area of the Trans-Caucasus came from two main reasons, according to one of the men Clarke talked to, including the fact that Molokans suffered enduring difficulties with poor land for farming, taxes and new laws that adversely affected them.

The bigger issue, however, was “their desire to escape serving in the army, because Christ commanded that men should live together in peace.” Their remote location protected the Molokan men for a time, but in the preceding two decades, this was not the case. The source was quote as saying that “to fight is contrary to our principles, and made our hearts sick to the extent that we had leave the old nest,” including traveling enormous distances, such as to Los Angeles, when many had never been further than an adjacent village to their hometown.

The migration to the Angel City, it was recorded, began in 1899, followed by a visit by seven men who’d been in Canada and came to the Angel City, “led here by the Spirit,” though it was also noted that some of the Molokans, “while in Russia . . . had read in their geographies of California.” After two years, some of the Molokans went back to Russia and “carried back a good report, and a goodly number of their relatives and friends were willing to follow them when they returned here.”

Significantly, Clarke reported that

Part of those who originally came to Los Angeles afterwards went to Hawaii. Not liking it there, they returned, and are now settled in San Francisco. A few have gone to Mexico. The only Molokani outside of Russia are in these three places—Los Angeles, San Francisco and Mexico. The people themselves estimate that they number about two thousand, and most of them are in Los Angeles.

With this, we will conclude part one and return tomorrow with the second installment of this post and the remarkable account of the former missionary of the Molokans/Spiritual Christians of early 20th century Los Angeles. Be sure to check back with us then!

Leave a Reply