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The term "Spiritual Christianity" (Russian: духовное христианство) refers to "folk Protestants" (narodnye protestanty), non-Orthodox indigenous to the Russian Empire that emerged from among the Orthodox, and from the Bezpopovtsy Raskolniks. Origins may be due to Protestant movements imported to Russia by missionaries, mixed with folk traditions, resulting in tribes of believers collectively called sektanty (sects). When discovered, these tribes of heretics were typically documented by Russian Orthodox Church clergy with a label that described the heresy – not fasting, meeting on Saturday, rejecting the spirit, genital and breast mutilation, self-flagellation, etc.
These heterodox (non-orthodox) groups "rejected ritual and outward observances, believing instead in the direct revelation of God to the inner man". Adherents are called Spiritual Christians (Russian: духовные христиане) or, less accurately, malakan in the Former Soviet Union, and "Molokans" in the United States, often confused with "Doukhobors" in Canada. (Molokane proper comprised the largest and most organized of many Spiritual Christian groups in the Russian Empire).
Historian Pavel Milyukov traced the origins of Spiritual Christianity to the Doukhobors, who were first recorded in the 1800s but originated earlier. Milyukov believed the movement reflected developments among Russian peasants similar to those underlying the German Peasants' War in the German Reformation of the 1500s. Many Spiritual Christians embraced egalitarian and pacifist beliefs, considered politically radical views by the Imperial government.
The Russian government deported some groups to internal exile in Central Asia. About one percent escaped suppression by emigrating (1898–1930s) to North America forming a diaspora which divided into many sub-groups.
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Spiritual Christians believe that the validity of an individual's observance of God's Law was suppressed and prohibited as Israel became politicized; they believe that Jesus Christ promoted the New Covenant of Jeremiah by sacrificing his life to initiate the Messianic Era. The religion of the Spiritual Christians encourages individual spiritual interpretation and substitute observances of Biblical Law, with individual approaches to be understood and respected by all. Spiritual Christians have taken an inclusive approach to Christianity; they embrace all relevant aspects of the collective human experience which can be related to timeless Biblical themes.
Rejecting bureaucratic church hierarchy, they considered their religious organization as a homogeneous community, without division into laymen and clergy with respect to all but practical understanding of the Biblical tradition. Because of their rejection of hierarchy and authority, the Imperial government considered them suspect. In the modern era, some Spiritual Christian churches hardened their own doctrine and practices, reducing the flexibility first found in this sect.
Among the sects considered to practice Spiritual Christianity are the Doukhobors, Dukh-i-zhizniki, Molokans, Subbotniks, Pryguny (Jumpers), Khlysts, Skoptsy, Ikonobortsy (Icon-fighters, "Iconoclasts") and Zhidovstvuyushchiye (Жидовствующие: Judaizers). These sects often have radically different notions of "spirituality" and practices. Their common denominator is that they sought God in "Spirit and Truth" (Gospel of John 4:24) rather than in the Church of official Orthodoxy or ancient rites of Popovtsy. Their saying was "The church is not within logs, but within ribs". The movement was popular with intellectuals such as Tolstoy. Nikolai Leskov was also drawn to Spiritual Christianity after visiting Protestant Europe in 1875.
Separate from Spiritual Christianity were other strands of Russian sektanstvo ("sectarianism" in the sense "splitting into sects" rather than "sectarian bigotry") including the Popovtsy and "Evangelical Christianity".
- Camfield, Graham P. (October 1990). "The Pavlovtsy of Khar'kov Province, 1886-1905: Harmless Sectarians or Dangerous Rebels?". The Slavonic and East European Review. Modern Humanities Research Association and University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies. 68 (4): 692–717. JSTOR 4210447.
- Berdyaev, Nikolai (1999) . translated by S. Janos. "Духовное христианство и сектантство в России" [Spiritual Christianity and Sectarianism in Russia]. Russkaya Mysl (Русская мысль, "Russian Thought") – via berdyaev.com.
- Klibanov, A.I. (1982). History of Religious Sectarianism in Russia (1860s – 1917). New York: Pergamon Press. ISBN 0080267947.
- Camfield (1990) p.694 fn.4
- Norman R. Yetman (Summer 1968). "Doukhoborism and Reitalization". Kansas Journal of Sociology. Allen Press. 4 (3): 153. JSTOR 23255160.
- Dunn, Ethel; Stephen P. Dunn (November 1978). "The Molokans [Molokane, Pryguny, and Dukh-i-zhizniki] in America". Dialectical Anthropology. Springer. 3 (4): 352–353. JSTOR 29789944.
- Lottridge, Stephen S. (Autumn 1974). "Nikolaj Leskov's Moral Vision in the Prolog Tales". The Slavic and East European Journal. American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages. 18 (3): 252–258. doi:10.2307/306256. JSTOR 306256.
- Berdyaev (1916)