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Nikon, Patriarch


(16051681), patriarch of Moscow and all Russia; implemented a program of church reform that inspired vociferous opposition, ultimately culminating in the schism and the emergence of Old Belief.

Nikita Minich or Minov (as a monk, Nikon) was born to a peasant couple in the village of Veldemanov near Nizhny Novgorod. His mother died shortly after his birth, and the child was sent to a local tutor who taught him to read. As a youth, he continued his studies at the Makariev Zheltovodsky monastery, not far from Nizhny Novgorod. The author of Nikon's Life reports that the young man was an avid student and attracted to the monastic life. Nonetheless, in 1625 he obeyed his dying father's request to return home. He married a year later and obtained a position as a deacon at a nearby village church. Soon he was ordained a priest, and he and his wife moved to Moscow.

In 1636 Minich persuaded his wife to enter a convent. He himself departed for the Anzersky skete in the far north. Upon arrival he took monastic vows and the name Nikon. In 1649 a disagreement with the elder Eliazar prompted Nikon to transfer to the Kozheozersky monastery. Within three years he was made abbot. In 1646 Nikon traveled to Moscow on monastery business. There he attracted the attention of the young Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. The tsar ordered him to remain in Moscow and made him abbot of the New Savior monastery. Energetic and talented, Nikon soon became a confidant and spiritual advisor of the tsar. He also became an important figure in the Zealots of Piety, the circle of reformers gathered around the tsar's confessor, Stefan Vonifatiev.

In March 1649, Nikon was named metropolitan of the important of see of Novgorod. He maintained contact with the reformers in Moscow and sought to implement their program in Novgorod. Mnogoglasie, the practice of simultaneously performing different parts of the liturgy in order to complete it more quickly, was abolished. Greek and Kievan chants replaced the traditional style of singing. Metropolitan Nikon's sermons at the episcopal cathedral attracted great crowds. In 1650 severe grain shortages caused famine and inflation in Novgorod. The people responded with violence, and Nikon played an important role in bringing the situation under control without bloodshed.

In the spring of 1652, Metropolitan Nikon was entrusted with the task of traveling to the Solovetsky monastery, collecting the relics of St. Philip, and returning with them to Moscow. The translation of St. Philip's relics exemplified the views of the Zealots of Piety. As metropolitan of Moscow, St. Philip had died a martyr's death for publicly rebuking the cruel and unchristian acts of Tsar Ivan IV ("the Terrible"). St. Philip's example highlighted the duty of the clergy to remind the laity, including tsars, of their Christian duties. The translation of his relics emphasized the dignity and importance of the church. Nikon was on the return path to Moscow when he received a letter from Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, informing him that Patriarch Joasif had died and assuring him that he would be selected as the next patriarch. A church council convened and duly elected Nikon. On July 25, 1652, Nikon was consecrated patriarch of Moscow and all Russia.

Nikon was chosen patriarch to direct a reform program advocated by the Zealots of Piety and supported by the tsar. If all reformers concurred on the need to elevate popular piety and reform popular religious practices, the revision of the liturgical books to bring them into conformity with contemporary Greek practice and the exercise of power within the church were more sensitive issues. Consecrated patriarch, Nikon moved decisively to advance the liturgical reform with all possible speed. In February 1653 a revised edition of the Psalter was printed, minus two articles present in earlier editions. An instruction calling for sixteen full prostrations during a Lenten prayer was modified, and a section teaching that the sign of the cross should be made with two fingers was removed. Correctors (spravshchiki ) at the government Printing Office, men long associated with the work of the Zealots of Piety, protested the changes. They promptly were removed from their posts and replaced by supporters of Nikon. By the end of the year, Patriarch Nikon assumed direct control of the Printing Office.

In addition, according to later accounts of Nikon's opponents, shortly after the appearance of the new Psalter, the patriarch sent a communication to Ivan Neronov, archpriest of the Kazan Cathedral, calling attention to the revisions and ordering that they be introduced into the liturgy. Confronted with what he perceived to be an error, Neronov prayed for guidance and then discussed the order with his associates, including Archbishop Paul of Kolomna and the archpriests Avvakum, Daniil, and Login. Avvakum and Daniil gathered evidence against the revisions in the newly printed Psalter and presented a petition to the tsar. The tsar ignored it. By the end of 1653 the archpriests Login and Neronov had been defrocked and exiled. Avvakum escaped defrocking through the personal intervention of the tsar but was transferred to the distant post of Tobolsk.

Patriarch Nikon's reform activities were not limited to liturgical reform. During the six years of his active patriarchate, he worked to bring the church under episcopal control, freeing the clergy and church affairs from the interference of secular authorities and creating a hierarchy of authority flowing from the patriarch to the laity. As contemporaries noted, however, Nikon freed the prelates and other clergy from secular powers only to subordinate them to his own. Too often he neglected to consult a church council before he acted, provoking resentment and resistance where he needed support. Nikon also was energetic in the area of monastic reform, sternly punishing those who flouted the monastic rule. Perhaps Nikon's more important contributions in this area were the three monasteries he founded: the Monastery of the Cross, the Monstery of the Iveron Mother of God, and the Monastery of the Resurrection (or New Jerusalem). Richly endowed, both materially and spiritually, the latter two were centers of learning as well as piety. All were subordinated directly to Nikon. Finally, Nikon did not ignore the shortcomings in the popular practice and celebration of religion. He initiated campaigns against the wandering minstrels and jesters, with their profane music and ribald jokes, and also against icons he deemed painted in an improper manner. Such campaigns manifested his zeal to dignify popular piety and reform popular religious practices, but they often offended the powerful as well as the humble.

Scholars have disagreed as to whether Nikon's goal was to assert the superiority of church over state, or simply to achieve the symphony between church and state that is the Byzantine ideal. In reality, Nikon's power depended on the tsar's favor. As long as Nikon enjoyed the confidence and support of the tsar, those whom he offended in his zeal were powerless against him. By 1658, however, the tsar's attitude towards Nikon had cooled. On July 10, 1658, feeling snubbed by the tsar's failure to invite him to an important state reception, Nikon celebrated the liturgy in the Cathedral of the Dormition, donned simple monastic garb, announced to those assembled that he would no longer be patriarch, and walked away.

Nikon's action was without precedent. After two years, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich convened a church council to address the situation. All agreed that a new patriarch should be chosen, but no consensus could be achieved on what to do with Nikon. Nikon complicated the matter by asserting that he had renounced the patriarchal throne but not his calling, and that he alone had the power to establish a new patriarch.

In 1666, after lengthy exchanges, the patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch agreed to travel to Moscow to participate in a church council to resolve the affair. Before the eastern patriarchs arrived, delegates assembled and reaffirmed the correctness of the reform program itself. Those who opposed the reform were condemned as heretics. Thus officially began the church schism. The eastern patriarchs arrived, and on November 7 another church council convened for the purpose of deciding the case of Nikon. On December 12, 1666, Nikon was found guilty of abandoning the patriarchal throne; of slandering the tsar, the Russian Church, and all the Russian people as heretics; of insulting the eastern patriarchs; and of deposing and exiling bishops without a church council. He was removed officially as patriarch, stripped of his priestly functions, demoted to the rank of a simple monk, and exiled to the Ferapontov monastery in the far north. In 1676 he was transferred to the Kirillov monastery, also in the north. In 1681, as a result of the intercession of Tsar Fyodor Alex-eyevich, Nikon was given permission to return to Moscow. He died on the return journey, on August 17, 1681, and was buried in the Monastery of the Resurrection.

See also: alexei mikhailovich; avvakum petrovich; old believers; russian orthodox church; zealots of piety


Lobachev, S.V. (2001). "Patriarch Nikon's Rise to Power." Slavonic and East European Review 79(2):290307.

Lupinin, Nickolas. (1984). Religious Revolt in the Eighteenth Century: The Schism of the Russian Church. Princeton, NJ: Kingston Press.

Meyendorff, Paul. (1991). Russia, Ritual, and Reform: The Liturgical Reforms of Nikon in the Seventeenth Century. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Press

Michels, Georg B. (1999). At War with the Church: Religious Dissent in Seventeenth-Century Russia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Palmer, William. (1871). The Patriarch and the Tsar. 6 vols. London: Trübner.

Soloviev, Sergei M. (2000). History of Russia, Vol. 21: The Tsar and the Patriarch: Stenka Razin Revolts on the Don, 16621675, tr. and ed. T. Allan Smith. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press.

Cathy J. Potter

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