The Religion Of The Great Candle
On the outskirts of Jaransk, in the Viatka district, a race called the
_Tcheremis_ has dwelt from time immemorial. While Russian scholars,
like Smirnov, were employed in unveiling all the mysteries of their
past, the authorities were endeavouring to imbue them with Russian
conceptions of religion and government. But these people were not
easily persuaded to walk in the right way, and from time to time there
arose violent differences of opinion between them and the
representatives of officialdom.
In 1890, at the time of the Scientific and Industrial Exhibition at
Kazan, an appeal was made to the Tcheremis to send some objects of
anthropological and ethnographical interest. They responded by sending
those representing their religion, for, having rejected orthodoxy, they
wished the beauties of their "new faith" to be admired. They therefore
exhibited at Kazan large spoons and candles, drums that were used to
summon the people to religious ceremonies, and various other articles
connected with their mysterious beliefs, and the Committee of the
Exhibition awarded them a medal for "a collection of invaluable objects
for the study of the pagan religion of the Tcheremis."
The natives, knowing nothing of the complicated organisation of
scientific awards, simply concluded that the medal had been given to
them because their religion was the best, and the leader of their
community wore it round his neck, and recounted everywhere how "out of
all the religions that had been examined at Kazan, only that of the
'Great Candle' had been found to be perfect." All the believers
rejoiced over the prestige thus won by their faith, and a wave of
religious ecstasy swept over the country. Three of the fathers of the
church affixed copies of the medal to their front doors, with the
inscription: "This was given by the Tsar to the best of all religions,"
and the people made merry, and gave themselves up to the bliss of
knowing that they had found the true and only way of salvation, as
acknowledged by the representatives of the Tsar himself.
Poor creatures! They were not aware of the contents of Article 185 of
the Russian criminal code, which ordained that the goods of all who
abandoned the orthodox faith should be confiscated, until they
expressed repentance and once more acknowledged the holy truths of the
official church. So it came about that in spite of the triumph of
their religion at the Exhibition of Kazan, legal proceedings began, and
in 1891 and 1892, as many as fourteen actions were brought against the
adepts of the Great Candle, and numbers of them were sentenced to
imprisonment and to the confiscation of their goods. All this in spite
of the fact that their beliefs did not in any way threaten to undermine
the foundations of society.
"There are six religions contained in the books which the Tsar has
given to his people"--they said, when brought before the tribunal--"and
there is a seventh oral religion, that of the Tcheremis. The seventh
recognises neither the sacraments nor the gospel. It glorifies God in
person, and the faith which has been handed down from father to son.
It has been given to the Tcheremis _exclusively_, because they are a
poor, unlettered people, and cannot afford to keep up priests and
churches. They call it the religion of the Great Candle, because in
their ceremonies a candle about two yards in length is used; and they
consider Friday a holiday because on it are ended the prayers which
they begin to say on Wednesday."
When questioned by the judge, the accused complained that the orthodox
clergy expected too many sacrifices from them, and charged them heavily
for marriages and burials, this being their reason for returning to
"the more merciful religion of their forefathers."
According to the _Journal of the Religious Consistory of the Province
of Viatka_, the Tcheremis were guilty of many other crimes. They did
not make the sign of the cross, and refused to allow their children to
be baptised or their dead to be buried with the rites of the orthodox
church. Truly there is no limit to the heresies of men, even as there
is none to the mercies of heaven! Further, the missionaries complained
with horror that, in addition to seven principal religions, the
Tcheremis acknowledged seventy-seven others, in accordance with the
division of humanity into seventy-seven races.
"It is God," they said, "who has thus divided humanity, even as He has
divided the trees. As there are oaks, pines and firs, so are there
different religions, all of heavenly origin. But that of the Tcheremis
is the best. . . . The written Bible, known to all men, has been
falsified by the priests, but the Tcheremis have an oral Bible, which
has been handed down intact, even as it was taught to their forbears by
God. . . . The Tsar is the god of earth, but he has nothing to do with
religion, which is not of this world."
The prayers of these dangerous heretics, who were punished like common
criminals, mirror the innocence of their souls. They implored God to
pardon all their sins, great and small; to grant good health to their
cattle and their children. They thanked Him for all His mercies,
prayed for the Tsar and all the Imperial family, for the soldiers, for
the civil authorities, and for all honest men; and finally for the dead
"who now labour in their celestial kingdom."
The tribunal, however, implacably brought the law to bear upon them,
and thinking their punishment too great for their crimes, they had
recourse to the Court of Appeal, where they begged to be judged
"according to the good laws of the Tsar, not the bad ones of the
Consistory." But the sentence was ratified, and the religion of the
Great Candle procured for its followers the martyrdom that they had so
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