Orthodox Christian Renewal Movements in Eastern Europe

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Aleksandra Djurić Milovanović, Radmila Radić
Christianity and Renewal - Interdisciplinary Studies
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , October
     339 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Orthodox Christian Renewal Movements in Eastern Europe is a pioneering volume focusing on the little-studied topic of renewal movements in Orthodox Christianity. The editors, Aleksandra Djurić Milovanović and Radmila Radić—two Serbian scholars (one an anthropologist, the other a historian) working in Belgrade—gathered together fifteen contributions. Part 1 covers primarily Russia, the Soviet Union, and Ukraine; part 2 covers the influence of the God Worshipper Movement on the Serbian Orthodox Church; and part 3 discusses renewal movements in the Orthodox Churches of Romania, Greece, and Bulgaria.

Meic Pearse’s Prologue provides a helpful historical overview of how Orthodox Christians reacted to western ideas and ideologies—the rise of literacy and the need for vernacular Bibles and liturgies; rising national consciousness; the inclusion of Orthodox populations in the Habsburg Empire; and the populist appeal of Protestant evangelical movements—while trying to re-assert the “unchangeable” nature of their doctrines. The political interplay among the Catholic and Protestant West, the Orthodox Russian Empire, and the Muslim Ottoman Empire played an important part in the rise of these renewal movements.

The editors’ Introduction provides some good conceptual context for the chapters that follow, while explaining briefly when, why, where, and how the renewal movements appeared. The approaches in the subsequent chapters are historical, anthropological, sociological, and theological. The goal of the volume is “to indicate, on the basis of empirical data, how Orthodox Christianity was transformed by various influences such as other non-Orthodox religious traditions, charismatic leaders, women’s agency, and new religious practices and rituals … to explore the influence that modern ideas had on Orthodox religious movements … and how traditional religions faced the challenges of modernity” (17).

James M. White’s chapter on the 19th-century figure of Ioan Verkhoveskii highlights some reasons why renewal movements appeared in Russian Orthodoxy: the ongoing tension between the Russian Orthodox Church and the schismatic Old Believers, the subservience of the Church to the Russian state as an instrument for control of the population, and a search for justice and moral purity. Svetlana A. Inikova, a specialist in the Dukhobors, highlights the rationalist and anarchist religious movement known as Tolstoyism in Russia and its use of the Dukhobors’s movement to promote its modernization agenda. The Dukhobors and other similar movements preached a return to “authentic” Christianity (not found in their contemporary institutional Orthodoxy) and what they thought were the principles of the early Church while also reacting to the emergence of modernization, industrialization, dominance of reason, and capitalism. 

Sergei I. Zhuk’s chapter on Maliovantsy in the Ukraine and late Imperial Russia highlights the role played by “Stundism”—a Pietist movement brought by German-speaking settlers to Russia—in the emergence of renewal movements throughout Eastern Europe. Bible readings and discussions took place for hours (Stunde, in German) in private houses after church ceremonies in order to further clarify what the Bible said and to deepen one’s religiosity. This practice is still rather widespread in the Orthodox renewal movements that have survived into the 21st century. Some of these movements were highly spiritualistic (emphasizing the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in everyday life, similar to the Quakers and Shakers in the West) and apocalyptic.

In the Slavic Orthodox country of Serbia, it was the Nazarenes—followers of the 19th-century Swiss Calvinist minister Samuel Heinrich Fröhlich—who inspired renewal movements. Coming from neighboring Hungary, the Nazarenes converted large numbers of Orthodox Serbs to a movement that became known as Bogomoljci (or God Worshippers). Like the Stundists, the Nazarenes encouraged Bible readings among their converts. In reaction to both Nazarene and Bogomoljci critiques of Orthodox practices, the Serbian Orthodox Church attempted to reform itself, emphasizing important pastoral duties such as preaching, catechism, and confession. The chapter by Bojan Aleksov is an excellent presentation of the history of the Nazarenes among the Serbs.

Discussions of the God Worshippers’s movement, a distinctively Serbian phenomenon, occupies the subsequent four chapters. According to the editors, after the initial Nazarene influence, the movement was embraced in large numbers by Orthodox Serbs, due in large part to the dissatisfaction of priests, lay preachers, and believers with the state of the Orthodox Church after the First World War (160). Within the official Serbian Orthodox Church some attempted to bring the movement under its control due to its popularity with the people, while others opposed it due to the Pietistic Protestant elements present in it, including the prohibition of drinking alcohol and modest clothing. The Bogomoljci were happy to oblige and help the Serbian Orthodox Church, which eventually regarded the movement as the promoter of Orthodoxy among the Serbs in the face of modernization, especially during the interwar years. 

Other chapters in part 2 emphasize what a religious awakening the God Worshippers constituted in Serbia by influencing the Serbian Orthodox Church’s language policy and religious service, prayer chanting (in a chapter written by a religious musician), the restoration of monasticism, and the revival of religious pilgrimages. Unlike the earlier, uneducated peasantry, God Worshippers today are a rather tiny group of well-educated urban believers within the Serbian Orthodox Church who regularly attend liturgy, observe prescribed fasts, and take frequent communion.

Part 3 has four chapters, two on the Romanian Lord’s Army (in Romania and in the Serbian Banat where an ethnic Romanian minority is present), one on the Zoe movement in Greece, and one on Bulgaria. While informative and somewhat scholarly, Corneliu Constantineanu’s article on the Lord’s Army in Romania is written from a theologically sympathetic perspective and, unlike the other chapters in the volume, does not provide an analysis of the sources that possibly influenced the early 20th-century renewal movement founders, including the Lord’s Army founder Iosif Trifa. One can easily recognize Stundist and Pietistic ideas in his teachings but Constantineanu does not mention them—other than two passing references to general Protestant ideas. By not clearly identifying Trifa’s ideas and practices as inspired by Pietism, the author cannot fully explain why Trifa fell out of favor with the Orthodox Church. Such oversight also gives the impression that Trifa, and two other Orthodox priests—Dumitru Cornilescu and Tudor Popescu, both of whom were excommunicated by their church—reinvented the wheel at a time when newer Protestant ideas and practices were also entering Romania from the West, as they previously had done in Serbia, Russia, Ukraine, etc. Amaryllis Logotheti’s chapter on the Zoe movement is an excellent analysis of this native movement that was so well organized and influential throughout the 20th century in Greece. The final chapter presents how the journal Christiyanka influenced the organizational and practical strategies of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in the social realm.

In conclusion, the volume brings together very fine presentations and analyses of renewal movements in the Orthodox world. It convincingly demonstrates how these movements, generally under Protestant Pietistic influence, tried to correct abuses and laxity ensconced in Eastern Orthodoxy over the centuries. In doing so, such influences breathed fresh air into this old-time religion. However, the opposition from the institutional religion tended to be strong and the changes were not always accepted. I strongly recommend the volume for a graduate audience and anybody who is interested in knowing more about Eastern Orthodoxy and its struggle for renewal.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lucian Turcescu is Professor of Theological Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aleksandra Djurić Milovanović is Research Fellow focusing on the Anthropology of Religion and Church History at the Institute for Balkan Studies – Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Belgrade, Serbia.  

Radmila R. Radić is Research Professor and Historian at the Institute for Recent History of Serbia, Belgrade, Serbia.


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