“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 Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we continue with a look at Mary A. Clarke’s very interesting article in the May 1908 issue of P.E. Magazine, issued the Pacific Electric Railway Company, which built streetcar lines throughout greater Los Angeles, on the Molokan, or Spiritual Christian, Russians of the Angel City, we note that she recorded that most of these recent migrants who’d arrived within the last several years were farmers and soldiers, a few of which were the vaunted Cossacks (an important group of military men from what is now Ukraine, fighting with great spirit against the Russian invasion).

She was told by one Molokan man that his financial situation was worsened by migrating to the United States, but noted that, when drafted into the Russian imperial army “they were discriminated against because the Molokani have small chance for promotion in the army.” Moreover, because the government did all it could to block or make their emigration as difficult as possible, denying passports, for example, but also arresting people and seizing their personal property, Molokans relied on purchasing counterfeit passports (good for just half a year with the holder subject to fines when gone after then) and stating they were traveling for their health or because they were visiting friends.

Los Angeles Times, 5 February 1905.

As to the prospect of the Molokans becoming American citizens, Clarke wrote that she was informed,

We do not like cities; we want land; we cannot afford to buy in Southern California; we may go to Mexico where land is cheaper; indeed, a committee of our people is now in Mexico investigating that matter; we are waiting [for] the guidance of the Spirit, and we have not yet thought it best to take our naturalization papers in the United States.

Locally, much of the farming was dominated by citrus, with which the Molokans were unfamiliar and, because of the part of the Russian empire from which they were from, including the Ukraine, the vaunted “bread basket” of that region, they sought to raise grain, but that was very limited locally at the time.

Los Angeles Express, 8 March 1905.

The informants from the community told the writer that they were happy in America and in Los Angeles and, “especially are they warm in their praise of Bethlehem Institute,” a Congregational Church (F.P.F. Temple was a Congregationalist before converting to Roman Catholicism when he married Antonia Margarita Temple in the Angel City in 1845) in the city, “and the kindness they have received there.”

Clarke added that the church’s founding minister, Dana W. Bartlett, and the head of the Russian school within it, Annie M. Greene, would not want to be cited in the article for their work, but she quoted at length from a well-educated Molokan man, who told her that, despite the adults’ struggles with English, the children were quickly learning it. The unnamed man also referred to Bartlett as something of “a father for his children,” and Greene, of whom it was said, “there is not one Russian house where she is not welcome.” The latter helped with medical care and “no matter what time of day, she is always ready and willing to help.”

Express, 23 June 1905.

The source also told Clarke

We are all contented with our good fortune. Every one does his honest work; some work in factories, in foundries, in lumber yards, everywhere. The children also are contented, and in such a way we pass our lives in hope o some day to come in contact with our new neighbors and protectors. We have no complaint. Since we have been here we have had everything for our comfort, physical and moral.

The reference to industrial employment is significant, because many of the Molokans settled in the Flats section of the Boyle Heights neighborhood, founded over three decades prior by merchant John Lazzarovich (a migrant from what is now Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), banker Isaias W. Hellman (who came here in the 1850s from what is now Germany as part of the early Jewish cadre of Angelenos) and William H. Workman (nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste.)

Los Angeles Herald, 16 January 1906.

When it came to the religious practices of the Spiritual Christians, Clarke recorded that they told her that they were not Protestants, because they did not partake of baptism. A citation of the Bible concerned John the Baptist stating that, after him, there would be baptism by the Holy Spirit, so “these people call themselves Dukhoveny,” or Dukhovny (think of the actor David Duchovny, whose grandfather was a Jew from Ukraine), also rendered as Dukh-i-zhiznik. It was added that, when asked about infant baptism, the response was “Oh, we wash the baby every day, and baptism without the Spirit is not different from a bath.”

With respect to prayer circles and other practices, Clarke wrote that the Molokan observances were “a breath Apostolic times” in an era that was “busy, conventional, commercial and irreligious.” Averring that they were “an intensely religious people,” the former Presbyterian minister, who spent a decade in Persia (Iran) in two tenures between 1880 and 1898, added, their whole though seems to be on religion” including with holidays, festivals, and in other ways. Christmas was not observed “because, like our own Puritan ancestors,” to whom the Spiritual Christians were compared in their quest for freedom amid mistreatment in their homeland, “they think these savor too much of popery.”

Music was also discussed and “the passing generation does not approve of instrumental” performance, while the younger Molokans offered that “there is no sin in musical instruments, though they do not use them in their religious services.” Vocal music, however, was another matter and Clarke noted “the voices of the Russians are well known for their richness” and she testified to the power of church singing, commenting “I have never heard grander choral music than in the Russian church services, where all the singers are men.” She was not, though, impressed by the Molokan chanting, allowing that “perhaps it was due to the smallness of the rooms” in which “the shrill, high, almost falsetto voices of the women did not blend well with the deep voices of the men.”

What she did admire was that “the women [are] so nearly on an equality with the men” and that “this is a direct result of their study of the Bible, and of the uplifting influence of practical Christianity.” In 1908, there was no Molokan church structure and services were held in private houses, with some of the better off of them having dwellings “in which one room, large enough to hold from sixty to one hundred people, is designed for religious services.” These were sparse with nothing on the wall and floors other than a table with a Bible on it and around which leaders sat, while the congregants were on rough benches without backs.

Clarke attended three services with one including some 300 members present and “the services consisted chiefly of reading and exposition of the Scriptures, the repetition of prayers, and chanting.” Another important component of the service was a confession of faults to the others in attendance and the author told of how one man, sobbing, told of his drinking. After this he and his wife went to their knees in front of the pastor and everyone else did, as well. After “profound silence for some moments, save for sobs here and there,” the wife held up her hand as “a sign that the Spirit had revealed to her His willingness to pardon the transgression.” The pastor then prayed and, when done, “most of his congregation was sobbing audibly.”

After noting that the congregations finished services with kisses between those in attendance, Clarke described how, at the end of one service, a woman fell in prostration before the pastor and lamented about a letter she’d received “describing the persecution and suffering of some of her relatives in Russia,” a situation that also led large numbers of Jews at the time, as well as throughout much of history, to flee the pogroms there.

During the following prayer, “the people threw themselves on the floor in a perfect abandonment of grief, but, while there were tears and groans, the chanting of Psalm 136 included the fact that “many came forward and placed money on the table,” the funds to “be used to help relieve the sufferers in Russia and to assist in bringing them to the United States.” After that same service, some Molokans who were leaving for Baja California to settle said their farewells to the pastor and congregants and, while the former offered his benediction, “the ever-ready tears of the people flowed freely.

Clarke then turned to the fact that “one of the names given by the orthodox Russians to these people is ‘Pragoon’ (Jumpers).” This term of “Pryguny” had to do with the reported predilection for these Spiritual Christians to jump or leap in ecstatic expression during services, but the writer added, “at none of the services that I attended did I see any indication of jumping.” In another remarkable comparison, she offered that

Perhaps it was because a spirit of sadness pervaded all these assemblies, while, as with our own colored population in the South, it is only the more joyful spiritual emotions which find expression in physical demonstrations.

At the homes of Molokans who Clarke visited, she was shown a book of prayer, hymns, scriptural passages, and ritual provisions for marriages and burials (there is a Molokan cemetery in East Los Angeles next to the intersection of the 710 and 60 freeways and adjacent to Chinese and Serbian burying grounds, while another was later established in the City of Commerce on Slauson Avenue near Interstate 5.)

The writer was informed that the book was composed by a Spiritual Christian held prisoner for nearly a half-century on an island in the White Sea off Russia and Finland and she continued that “during his imprisonment this modern [John, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, begun while he was in prison for violating British law regarding religious observances outside the auspices of the Church of England—thanks to Mike Rudometkin for the reminder of the allusion] Bunyan has written seven books, which he had succeeded in smuggling to his friends,” something she added was aided by the thick Russian coats into which manuscripts could easily be stored.

After reviewing some of the contents of the work for marriages and funerals, Clarke reiterated that the Molokans “do not baptize their children, but they make much of the occasion of naming them, as did the Jews,” with the boys given theirs as six weeks and the girls at twelve. In the ceremony, “the pastor comes through the house . . . [and] in laying his hand on the infant’s head, no water is used.”

She also commented that “in some respects the Molokani resemble the Doukhabors (Spirit-wrestlers),” of whom a large contingent of some 2,000 members migrated in 1899 to Manitoba, Canada, with a son of the famed Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, as a leader, followed by a contingent of 5,000 the following year, but Clarke observed “in some important respects they are superior to that sect.”

This was because, she went on, the Doukhobors (as spelled in Canada), “have made an unenviable reputation for themselves by their ignorant fanaticism” as well as their ignorance of reading and writing, which they purportedly believed was “a snare of the Devil.” This included reading of the Bible, which, apparently, “is not inspired and not necessary, for God in the individual soul is the one guide of action.”

We will return tomorrow with the third and final part of this fascinating article, so be sure to check in and read the rest of this summary of Clarke’s rare writing of the Molokans/Spiritual Christians of early 20th century Los Angeles.

2 thoughts

  1. I really enjoyed the read on the Molokans. Probably because l am a American Russian Molokan born and raised in California. LM

  2. Hi Linda, thanks for the comment and we’re glad you enjoyed the post; this is a part of our regional history that remains little known.

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