Spiritual Christians in Los Angeles, 1929

The Russian Molokan Community in Los Angeles
Accurate title:
The Spiritual Christians from Russia in Los Angeles

Pauline V. Young
American Journal of Sociology
Vol. 35, No. 3 (Nov., 1929), pp. 393-402
In an interesting sociological study, Pauline V. Young of the University of Southern California, described the main characteristics of immigrant Spiritual Christians from Russia the Russian  Molokan community in Los Angeles. These This groups which have grown to of about 5,000 Russians belonged to a sects in conflict with the Russian Orthodox Church, and left their was left forced to leave its native country because of economic, political and religious factors persecutions. The groups settled in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1900s twentieth century.

Source: American Journal of Sociology. vol. 35 (1929), pp. 393-402.

Reprinted in: Ethnic Chronology Series, Number 24. The Russians in America: A Chronology and Fact Book. Compiled and edited by Vladimir Wertsman. 1997. Brooklyn Public Library. Pages 67-76

The Spiritual Christian groups from Russian Molokan colony in Los Angeles evidences many of the effects of cultural assimilation in spite of the resistance of the older members of the group to culture fusion.

Urbanization.— Changes in occupational level, geographic dispersion of the colony, education of the children in American public schools, activities of American social agencies, city missions, etc., are undermining the traditional control of the elders, the effectiveness of the family, of mutual aid mechanisms, and the influence of their various Spiritual Christian world views Molokanism as conflicting a systems of belief.

Cultural hybridism.— The younger generation, after 20-25 twenty-five years of American experience, displays much of the restlessness, disorganization, and social confusion characteristic of immigrant groups in which traditional controls have been only partially displaced by American urban ideals and habits. Present indications point to ultimate complete assimilation with probably decreasing disorganization in the future. [See: The Pilgrims of Russian-town Seventy Years Later, by Stephen E. Scott, Old Order Notes, Fall-Winter 2002, Pages 7-34]

THE SPIRITUAL CHRISTIAN MOLOKAN community in Los Angeles for over a quarter of a century has struggled ceaselessly to maintain unimpaired the peculiar communal life and native cultural organization which it brought from northern Caucasus. It is increasingly evident that the battle is lost. The defenses of this group against the assimilation of the younger generation are more powerful perhaps than those of any other peasant known to American life. They have a long tradition if social isolation, deeply rooted habits of collective action, social customs which are backed by well-defined religious sanctions, intelligent native leadership, and a consciously developed and oft repeated determination to avoid contacts with a "sinful world." Nevertheless, they are unable longer to maintain their cultural integrity and strikingly exhibit the effects of American urban life upon native cultures. Their fate lends further weight to the thesis that American city life permits no permanent segregation of cultures but invincibly fuses the most refractory social elements.

Briefly, the Spiritual Christians Molokans are Russian peasants of unusually sturdy physique and of strikingly dignified intelligent appearance.* They are religious sectarians. With a host of other sects [Russian : sekt = heretic], they dissented from the Greek Orthodox church of Russia nearly three hundred years ago. They refer to themselves as the "Spiritual Christians of the Sect of Holy Jumpers." [Russian : dukhovniye krestiane sekt pryguny : пригуны] Their more common name, the Molokans, or the "Milk-drinkers," was given to them in contempt by the Russian Orthodox clergy because the group after dissension did not abstain from the use of milk and dairy products during Lent.

[After 1928, Pryguny and other zealous Spiritual Christian faiths in Southern California began to transform to a family of faiths
called Dukh-i-zhizniki — named for their common holy book: Kniga solntse, dukh-i-zhizn', published in 1928. This paper is clearly about the emerging Dukh-i-zhiznik faiths in Los Angeles.]

Time does not permit us to review the complexities of the Russian schism.(1) Suffice it to say that it was the seed-bed in which Spiritual Christianity Molokanism grew and throve; there were generated the interacting forces which have determined the religious, social, and moral habits and philosophy of the group. It is generally agreed by competent students of the movement[s](2) that of all the numerous sects which made their appearance at that time, the Molokans and their twin sect, the Dukhobors, are the most rational in their principles, the most conscientious in their religious practice, the most completely unified group — a group whose strength of personality and "will to differ" are unsurpassed even by the Quakers. [Quakers (Society of Friends) did not live in the Russian Empire.] However, they lack scholarship and have no historical insight. They are prejudiced against "worldly wisdom"; as a result of their "barren disputations and primitive methods of controversy they have created for themselves a sort of crude scholasticism."(3)

The Russian church and state took an extremely hostile attitude to the entire schismatic movement which fairly convulsed the empire at the beginning of the modern era. The Spiritual Christians Molokans, along with other sects, endured countless persecutions: [voluntary] exile into the wilds of Transcaucasia, imprisonment, banishment to Siberian mines, confiscation of property. Religious martyrdom is the basis of a powerful tradition in this group. Indeed, so large a part does their persecution play in their attitudes that they still seem to suffer from a "persecution complex." They have compensated for their inferior social position through strong communal unity, by religious zeal, and by many of those personal and social virtues which are the essential elements of a well-regulated social order. They soon became imbued with a passion for personal sacrifice; "their souls melted into a fraternity of souls,"(4) and as Spengler has pointed out "it is only through such grand instances of worldly passion which express the consciousness of a mission that we are able to understand those of grand spiritual passion, of dynamic charity."(4)

For the sake of their religious ideals they have migrated half way around the globe. They hailed America as the land of destiny. They saw in it religious security, freedom from an arbitrary government, and an opportunity to live a life in harmony with their understanding of divine Law. Little did they anticipate the consequences of life in a modern metropolis and the inevitable influences of the American melting-pot.

They left Russia in large family groups, or clans, guided by a clear vision of the goal they sought. Six or seven thousand souls [closer to  3000, about 2% of the population of Los Angeles], comprising less than a thousand families, settled in Los Angeles in less than two years' time [more like 5-years time, 1907-1912], about twenty-five years ago. They invaded a congested area of the city [8th Ward, then 9th Ward] within walking distance of the downtown district, displacing for the most part immigrant Japanese.

The men found work almost immediately as unskilled laborers, their wives as domestics or "hands" in the fruit orchards. The older people upon arrival in the big city did not lose their social bearings. With poise and dignity and the inflexible logic befitting a Russian peasant, they renewed their "will to differ" and restating somewhat their philosophy they condemned the city's artificial social structure, its man-made laws, its sinful ways of living, and withdrew into their own group with revived faith in their own traditional beliefs. They continued practicing their Dukh-i-zhiznik faiths Molokanism with undeviating devotion to a triumphant Christianity. Their culture acquired a new moral direction and gained in motive power.

There is a certain idealism about the Dukh-i-zhizniki Molokan community which seeks to exemplify the early Christian principles of the "natural order of things" and to perpetuate the divine character of human institutions. "The Lord is our spirit and guide, God's law is the only law which must be obeyed. Law must be moral law, inner law" (an elder).

Thus they have crudely restated the Kantian moral law which has its source and sanction in the very nature of men. They have thus established a kind of theocratic democracy in which they recognize no ministers, or bishops; all are equal by divine dispensation. Basing their teachings almost literally on the Scriptures every aspect of life is an object of religious attention; hence their chief institutions are religious. Indeed their only formal social organizations are the family and the church. Communal efficiency in the minds of the Dukh-i-zhizniki Molokans does not depend on number of organizations but on control through custom.

Custom has long imperiously regulated the social life of the Dukh-i-zhiznik Molokans. From the method of cutting their hair and the kind of food they eat to the manner of marrying their children and burying their dead the Dukh-i-zhizniki Molokans have persistently followed the footsteps of their forefathers. The lives of the older Dukh-i-zhizniki Molokans are so strongly systematized that the individual's principles and conduct rarely need to be consciously or forcibly regulated for him. Personal habits are prescribed and sanctioned by his religious code. Control through the folkways and mores extends to all details of his simple daily life.

The older Dukh-i-zhizniki Molokans are not stirred by the desire for personal achievement or by the hope of the attainment of individual success. They do not strive for social position or for economic advancement, which in an immigrant group may become almost an obsession. Their social hierarchy is based on age, personal merit, religious activity. They have never developed social classes, or castes.

The group well illustrates how potent a social force religion becomes among the massed in the rural environments once it has been thoroughly democratized and its adherents no longer delegate their religion to church functionaries, but hold themselves personally accountable for the performance of their religious duties.

In a group so intimately bound together it is inevitable that each member should participate in the religious activities and thinking of the group. Few peasant communities take as much time in rehearsing their history and tradition as the Dukh-i-zhizniki Molokans. Their quasi-spontaneous religious ritual is rich in feeling and full of the emotional tone of the southern Slav. Uplifted by a sense of the presence of the Holy Ghost they fall into ecstatic trances in which "jumping" and "speaking with tongues" are the characteristic modes of behavior. The exchange of the "brotherly kiss" adds effectiveness to their ceremonies and binds them together into a strong "we-group." [Russian : nashi, наши]

The Dukh-i-zhizniki Molokans have attained considerable success in their system of self-government and mutual aid. Their success may be partly ascribed to the efficiency and native intelligence of their elders. The group is accustomed to follow its leaders and respond to their call with the sensitivity and naοvetι of the peasant sectarian. However, leadership is not arbitrary in the Dukh-i-zhiznik Molokan group. It arises naturally on the basis of unity of sentiment and social habit. The leaders are also presbyters and act as social reformers perpetually active in the inauguration of a "heavenly city on earth."

The qualifications for leadership among Dukh-i-zhizniki Molokans are relatively simple: age, experience, practical efficiency, religious inspiration, virtue — these are the paramount values. The Dukh-i-zhiznik Molokan leader is the community personified. He in himself sums up the virtues and aspirations of the group. Most elders can be readily recognized in a crowd. They have an uprightness of bearing, a sharp, penetrating look, an efficiency and directness of action which command attention and respect.
It is difficult to explain such concepts as "organization," or "community," to the Dukh-i-zhizniki Molokans as they associate these terms with formal government, the rule of which they have traditionally rejected for their own group. They define the various social situations which arise in the colony by discussion, by popular opinion and group sentiment. The social opinion of the group is expressed through gossip, by personal criticism of the younger by the older, by appeal to tradition. It is formulated during their social and religious gatherings, festivals and conferences and other countless spontaneous meetings characteristic of peasant life. "We have not a single newspaper in any of our communities, and we don't need any. News travels faster by word of mouth. And the 'living word' carries deeper than the printed word."

The various faiths of Spiritual Christians Molokans have now been in Los Angeles for nearly twenty-five years and the first chapter in the history of their urbanization can be written. For a long time the groups failed to realize that by their unwitting choice they had come to the very antipodes of their former life. Village life in Russia had been personal and intimate, characterized by economic self-sufficiency and primary group organization and control. In America they faced a social-economic organization characterized by impersonal, anonymous, secondary relationships with an endless variety of strange activities, customs, and beliefs. Industry, school attendance, real estate agents, clever salesmen, public officials, social reformers, slowly and subtly penetrated the colony, lured their children into the outer world and gradually broke down the social isolation and cultural integrity of the group. The Spiritual Christians soon found themselves in the thick of "American materialism." They brought with them to America a set of social attitudes, values, and psycho-social traits which are the result of long-cherished sentiment, of habitual ways of action which cannot be discarded readily at will even under the most urgent circumstances of life. The whole process of adjustment of an immigrant group to American life involves not only an intellectual understanding of our ways of acting and thinking but it most frequently involves an uprooting of old habits, deep-seated emotions, and lasting sentiments. A stabilized group of older men and women are incapable of such a psychological transformation, and necessarily remain aliens. Their children due to the same psychological limitations cannot establish habits of acting, thinking, and feeling which would coincide with those of their elders. Each generation has a peculiar set of social experiences which determines its conduct habits. Conflict of cultures is a result of such polarity of social experience.

The younger generation of Dukh-i-zhizniki Molokans display the general "cultural temperament"(5) of their elders, greatly modified, however, by numerous daily contacts with American city life. School, recreation, industry, exert their influence at an early age. Life under these conditions gradually changes in content and philosophy, and the Molokan youth soon becomes the typical cultural hybrid characteristic of many immigrant groups; that is, he is not fully incorporated into either of the cultures which he represents.

The Dukh-i-zhizniki Molokan elders, however, due to an ardent desire to maintain their traditional life and scheme of social control, have developed no mechanisms for dealing effectively with cultural hybridism. In an urban environment systematization of life and traditional behavior are cumbersome and highly ineffective. Still that is all the older generation understand and hence they are forced to a policy of passive resistance and aloofness in the face of the invasion of the strange culture. Strongly dominated by religious faith they have not developed mechanisms of coercion and persuasion of the young. They have appealed to the young to maintain their "glorious past." The young people have not responded to the appeal to tradition and religious principles. These ideals are now too abstract for these city-bred children. Culture is acquired through contact and participation, and vicarious experience does not readily and fully transmit attitudes and values or social reality. The young boys and girls among the Dukh-i-zhizniki Molokans have often expressed great curiosity as to their history, but the group traditions are fast becoming mere folk lore to them. The tales of martyrdom and persecution seem to them even too gruesome to repeat. They are affected by the emotional tone of the ritual but are greatly embarrassed by the ceremony of the "brotherly kiss." They are imbued with the presence of the Holy Ghost but they quit going to church as soon as "the Holy Ghost makes them jump." They consider it humiliating to jump and cannot reconcile this behavior with American practices and attitudes.

Living in social isolation the older generation have never developed a system of criticism or reflection upon established custom. The young people, however, reflect seriously upon their behavior in the light of the reactions of their American neighbors to whose attitudes they are sensitive.

You see, my parents read the Bible to me and tell me I must do as it's written. God gave you a mind, why don't you use it? Why don't you figure out the Bible for yourself? My mother says: "Keep still, child, you are ignorant, you must do as your forefathers did before you." Sure, it's all right, if you're going back to them old times. But I ain't going to — in this country [a young Dukh-i-zhiznik Molokan man].

The factors which assured the family unity of the older generation are no longer operative upon the young people. They have developed traits of personal initiative and ingenuity; they have acquired new skills and aptitudes and feel the need of making their own way in the world. Their elders are no longer the only people who exert influence upon them. Life is now infinitely more complex. They are responsive to a variety of institutions and form new and well-defined ideas of their duties and responsibilities. Not infrequently the young people are torn between two divergent standards. Hence, they become confused. In the conflict between the new and the old way of thinking and acting they find little help either at home or in the outside world since both the home and the larger community prescribe their own code and are indifferent or hostile to that of the other. Frequently a new and different mode of behavior emerges, subject to neither the old nor the new system of control. Some of the young people never make adjustments satisfactory to either group; they become demoralized, restless, mobile, delinquent. And as the age for marriage increases, as economic independence becomes harder to secure, and the insistence on prolonged school training is more strictly enforced, offenses become more frequent and more serious in character — their stabilization becomes more uncertain.

The failure of the Dukh-i-zhizniki Molokans to participate in the life and institutions of the larger community has resulted in indifference on the part of the city government with the result that the section of the city occupied by the colony [The Flats] is very poorly serviced, and many signs of communal deterioration are in evidence. Health problems, housing conditions, policing problems are becoming more and more acute in that district. Bootlegging has a strong hold in the community. Factories, warehouses, railroad yards are edging in closer and closer converting this residential section into a semi-industrial district. Cheap amusement houses are encroaching upon the puritanically spirited Dukh-i-zhiznik Molokan inhabitants. A mixture of races — Negroes, Mexicans, Armenians* — with a variety of dialects and standards of living surround, the Dukh-i-zhiznik Molokan colony on all sides. Still, the older Dukh-i-zhizniki Molokans have heretofore tried to maintain their spiritual brotherhood much as if they were in rural Russian isolation, closing their eyes, as it were, to everything surrounding them.
[* Some Armenians joined the Pryguny faith before immigration, and  a congregation in Los Angeles is transforming to their own Dukh-i-zhiznik faith.]

Yet this has proved impossible, for the "spiritual brotherhood," firm in its stand against Russian bureaucracy, is unable to withstand the influence of the city slum. They have come more recently to recognize the problems of their district; they quite properly regard it as an "infected area." The behavior of their children in the fascinating but bewildering city streets sorely perplexes them. They discuss the "degradation of their souls and their shameful, pagan conduct." When the elders get together these problems lead to much serious thinking and discussion. Little of practical consequence results since they have no experience or technique for dealing with such problems. When the situation becomes extremely aggravating they petition the school authorities, the police commission, the anti-saloon organizations. But their petitions have little effect since they come from a group of aliens, non-voters, "just Russians."

Under such circumstances the young people have discovered that it is possible to cross the line from Dukh-i-zhiznik Molokan to American life with comparative ease. Already a number have alienated themselves from their native culture and become "American." A few have even intermarried; others hope to do so. [Zealous Dukh-i-zhizniki shun and ostracize the intermarried.]

There is a group of young people, however, who are still in large measure subjected to the force of Dukh-i-zhiznik Molokan communal influence. They have not yet acquired sufficient intellectual power and economic independence to emancipate themselves completely and break away from the customs which their parents hold sacred. The young people in all stages and periods of life generally show intense devotion to home ties. The familial bonds of affection and solidarity are still generally strong enough to bridge the cultural gap between the two generations. And this loyalty of the child to the family wins the parents' admiration and approval. And as economic independence of the younger people grows the parents give them greater and greater freedom and reluctantly confess admiration of their success in American life. The parents thus make many adjustments to the demands of their children and unwittingly begin to share in the more conventional American life. The process of adjustment to American life necessarily results in varying degrees of accommodation and assimilation. But every stage involves a new mode of conduct, a new philosophy of life. It is this individualized behavior which disintegrates traditional Dukh-i-zhiznik Molokan organization. The older group in Russia was effectively organized to carry on the religious struggle. Its very efficacy in maintaining itself against its Russian enemies makes it incapable of dealing with the forces which disintegrate their social organization in America. They are beginning to realize now they are helpless and incapable of assuming leadership over the younger people. The only escape they can suggest is flight from the city. But this "solution" does not appeal to the young people, nor indeed to any of the groups, who have become rooted in the economic life of the city and habituated to it.

[Dr. Tony Waters in
Crime and Immigrant Youth (1998) applied Young's research to 3 other immigrant groups, showing that the dominate elders of a rural ethnic group that migrates to a large foreign city soon lose their social stature and control over their kids to new authorities (teachers, police, etc.); and if the kids don't excel in education or sports, they often excel in crime.]

The colony at present displays the operation of several divergent social systems [competing faiths], which can almost be thought of as "constellations of social forces" superimposed upon or included one within another. Conflict is inevitable between the divergent modes of behavior. Unanimity of thought and simplicity of action are breaking down. The most dominant characteristics of primary group organization are unanimity of thought and simplicity and certainty of action. Yet with the establishment of reflective thinking and the development of new skills, division of labor and of personal initiative, systematization of behavior, unanimity, and simplicity are lost. And since these peasants lack specific techniques for dealing with urban problems traditional leadership functions ineffectively. Individualized behavior arises with the multiplying of social codes. [The most zealous congregations are dividing.] The old structure is crumbling and losing its potency and nothing comparable is taking its place. The younger generation have not yet come into their own.

[In 1933, 4 years after publication of this paper, most of 3 congregations joined to form a liberal "Big Church" which inflamed the more zealous Dukh-i-zhiniki to retreat into their own faiths, resulting in a 3-way split of one.]

  1. See F. C. Conybeare, Russian Dissenters [1921]; also
    Leroy Beaulieu, The Empire of The Tzars and the Russians (especially Vol. III [1902]); and
    A. Shchapov, The Russian Raskol [Old-ritualists] (Russian). [Щапов А. Русский раскол старообрядства. Казань: 1859.]

  2. Such as Haxthausen, Kostomarov, Leroy Beaulieu, and others.[Klibanov].
  3. Leroy Beaulieu, op. cit., p. 345]

  4. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, I, 349 f.

  5. For an elaboration of this concept see Robert E. Park, "Education in Its Relation to the Conflict and Fusion of Cultures," Publications of American Sociological Society, Vol. XVII, 1918.


Pauline V. Young Bibliography and Chronology
Of her 15 articles, this is 1 of at least 2 about Pryguny. When I find the other I'll post it. The first of Young's 7 books: The Pilgrims of Russian-town, was adapted from masters and doctoral theses. In some editions of her textbook are examples of her data collection on Pryguny which is considered to be the first most thorough analysis of any immigrant population in America.

Pauline V. Young, "The Holy Jumpers of Russian Town", "Urbanization as a Factor in Juvenile Delinquency"
Proceedings of the American Sociological Society, XXIV (1930), pp. 162-166.
[2 years after the above paper, Young changes their label in her title to "Jumper."]

  The Pilgrims of Russian-town Seventy Years Later
Spiritual Christians Around the World