“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 Three

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In this third and final part of the post on former Presbyterian missionary and Azusa resident Mary A. Clarke’s very interesting article in the May 1908 issue of the Pacific Electric Railway’s P.E. Magazine, we resume with her comparison of the Molokans, or Spiritual Christians, who recently settled in large numbers in Los Angeles, mainly in the Flats area of Boyle Heights, the neighborhood east of the Los Angeles River founded in 1875 by William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Workman, and his partners John Lazzarovich (a native of what is now Croatia) and Isaias W. Hellman (an early Jewish resident of the Angel City who came from today’s Germany.)

The writer continued her comparison of the Molokans of this area with others who settled in Canada, but who were “distinctly inferior” because of “their ignorance and fanaticism.” With it reported that half of the Los Angeles Molokans were literate, Clarke asked one of them how this happened while they were in Russia. The reply was that “there are schools in all the Molokani villages,” even as the imperial government would jail anyone with too much education, and it was added that “we have been able to do what we have done in the way of intellectual and religious progress only because we lived in a remote part of the empire.” Still, Bibles in Russia had to be obtained on the black market from those published in England.

As for the young Molokans in Los Angeles they “are said by their teachers to be bright students” and the author attested to this as she observed they learned English well, wondering if this was “due to the fact that the Russian language contains every sound found in any other language.” Moreover, Clarke went on, “when they first came to Los Angeles, the parents were constantly on the watch to see that their children were not taught anything that their religion forbids,” including drilling, because of the concern that this might constitute military training, or physical exercises “because, as the children explained these to the parents, it seemed as though they were being taught to make the sign of the cross.” These fears, however, were dissipating as time went on.

Referring to the Molokans as “a quiet, sober, inoffensive, industrious people,” Clarke asked if they would be good citizens should they choose to seek naturalization and thought they would, though she expressed two concerns The first had to do with possible proscription in the armed forces, which was actually under a decade away when the United States entered the First World War, but she felt the younger members of the community might see the matter differently later. The other was “their aversion to rulers” because of bitter experience in their homeland and, while she added “they believe in absolute equality,” she also wrote that “they think a theocracy, like that of the Old Testament, [is] the idea form of government.” Clarke also observed that the Molokans did not seek marriage licenses because “they find no precedent for it in the Bible,” but she continued,

But these people are intelligent and well meaning, and they will soon come to see the obvious necessity of conforming to such laws as this. As for their ideas of morality, they are decidedly high, though probably there no people under the sun with grosser morals than the Russian nobility and middle class.

After noting that the Molokans (as were most groups) were a patriarchal society, Clarke recorded that “their family life is beautiful” and that parents were particularly fond and proud of their children, while Sunday services were not onerous to the younger Molokans as it was for the Puritans of the 17th century. She noted that, aside from these religious observances of the Sabbath, “there is much of visiting and tea drinking; the children always play in the streets; and they always have money to spend on Sundays and other holidays.”

The writer briefly mentioned the Molokans’ affection for tea and sweets as well as their predilection for keeping the windows of their houses closed in all weather, while she also stated that their appearance was little changed after migrating from Russia, including the men wearing beards when it was not at all in fashion at the time in America. Yet, when Clarke closely questioned them on the Biblical citations for this and other practices, she reported that “one of the most of their leaders,” though he was not literate, “was so distressed because he could not satisfactorily answer our questions on this point,” of facial hair and dress, “that he punished himself by refusing tea when it was passed” around at a gathering Clarke attended.

Having mentioned this, though, the author then allowed that “the Molokani are diligent students of the Bible, and their knowledge of that Book is really remarkable,” with one young men telling her that “if we do not read the Bible and pray every day, how are we better than cattle?” Clarke remarked that her visit was in 1907, “during the worst of the financial depression” that severely impacted the country, and noticed many Molokan men “earnest discussing the situation,” while others were found “sitting quietly at home, bent over ponderous Bibles.”

Other traits that she mentioned was that no Molokans smoke or drank alcohol and their frugality was a reflection of the fact that they had “no recreations or vices on which to spend money.” With a propensity for heavy saving, it was observed that they “have something like $100,000 in Los Angeles banks.” As to their hospitality, Clarke noted that “it was pleasant to see the consideration shown on all occasions to one of their number, a woman, who is blind” with respect to hosting her at tea and sweets “until there was no room for more.”

The title of the article came from the writer’s recollection that the Spiritual Christians were very apt to cite the words of Deuteronomy 14:2, which states that “for thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all peoples that are upon the face of the earth.” Clarke added that these words concerned the Jews, but the Molokans assured her the passage applied to them and they were proud of the difference they felt from other people.

She went to write that “my calls were all most pleasant, and the courtesy of the people was so great, that I was able to learn much about them.” Still Clarke also commented that “there was a feeling of sadness in my heart” because she thought of the older Molokans and what they would do “as they see the inevitable drifting away from their standards of the younger people.” This reality, common to almost all immigrant groups was “only what we see all the time and everywhere,” but the author noted that the Molokans came from a rural, isolated area and, with their deeply held views putting them in opposition to prevailing attitudes and laws in Russia, even with their lives at stake, they remained “very firmly fixed in their beliefs” and suspicious of the possibility of any of their people being lured from their practices.

That isolation in Russia also kept the younger Molokans firmly entrenched in the community, but “here in America it is different,” especially for young men. For instance, Clarke recorded that at all of the religious services she attended, “I saw half-grown boys about the door laughing at what the very breath of life to their fathers and mothers.” One of them said, “I don’t want to be [a] Dukhoveny,” or Dukh-i-zhiznik, “because if I feel like hitting a fellow I want to hit him,” while another was quoted as uttering, “when I am a man I shall shave, as the Americans do.”

The author added that “it is a serious and sad moment when any person realizes that there is something ludicrous or something lacking in the religion in which he was brought up.” She noted that these impressions would change or lesson eventually, but observed that “meanwhile the Molokani young men, with no legitimate diversions, are being led into positive danger in the saloons and pool rooms.” Given the impetus toward severely curtailing or prohibiting alcohol consumption that, driven largely by religious leaders, was making inroads in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the country, leading to Prohibition a little over a decade later, Clarke’s comment here is notable.

The writer then ended her essay by commenting that,

Seeing these things, the older people more than ever long to get away from the city. They feel that they were divinely guided in coming to Los Angeles, consequently they think that they are failing to acquire land because of sin that they have committed. So their profits have commanded them to fast, to burn all their pictures, and in other ways to deny themselves, in the hope that, though this mortification of the body, the desire of their hearts may be granted them.

Whatever the accuracy of her reporting or how she represented the views of the Molokans, Clarke was among the first to devote any significant attention to these recent arrivals to the Angel City and, for that, she deserves to be credited with her effort to provide readers some understanding of her subject.

Why the Pacific Electric’s magazine decided to publish her article is a question that might bear asking, but it, also, should be lauded for having the topic included. Other features in this issue concern the second part of an article on the fruit industry in California, penned by Charlotte M. Hoak (who operated a private school for children of employees of Arthur Letts and his The Broadway department store); a two-page piece on “Indian Madonnas” by George Wharton James, recently featured in this blog; and references to the Cawston Ostrich Farm and the Los Angeles Alligator Farm at Eastlake (soon renamed Lincoln) Park; and more. So, we may return at a future date to highlight more of the contents from this issue.

As for Clarke, as was noted in the first post, she continued writing occasional articles for the Los Angeles Times, including its Sunday magazine, but that ended by about 1913. In 1932, several years after the death of her husband, William Colquhoun, she advertised in the Pasadena Post for a collaborator to help her develop “stories for two thrilling motion-picture plays” for production, stating that “I understand the foreign countries in which the plots are laid,” presumably Persia and others where she worked as a missionary and teacher for much of the last two decades of the 19th century. She died in January 1957, just shy of her 98th birthday, yet there were no located death notices, or obituaries nor is it known where she was buried.

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