Members and missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly called Mormons) have been especially interested in the relationship of Russian Mormonism to the American Mormon movement. This section recounts a short history of Russian Mormonism’s name in the context of the LDS Church.
The American Mormons, led by their prophet Joseph Smith, received international recognition in the 1840s as news of their peculiar faith and history became known. Members of Smith’s following most often called themselves Latter-day Saints, although the nickname Mormons became general after the 1830 publication of the Book of Mormon, a scriptural record Smith claimed to have translated. The Mormons became widely known not only for the Book of Mormon, but also for their unusual religious beliefs about community of property, prophetic revelation, and marriage. The principles of their social structure depended on close participation and even communitarianism to varying degrees. Joseph Smith and his successor Brigham Young were considered prophets to the Mormon people, and Smith often dictated revelations that the Mormons accepted as being the words of God. In addition, Joseph Smith gradually developed an entirely new order of marriage, resulting in religiously sanctioned plural marriage.
After Smith was assassinated on June 27, 1844, many of his followers joined Brigham Young in an exodus to the Salt Lake Valley in present-day Utah. Polygamy was openly practiced there, and word quickly spread about the sect’s unusual family practices. By the 1860s, religious scholars across the world were familiar with the popular account of Mormonism’s rise in the American West.
Priests of the Russian Orthodox faith became familiar with American Mormonism through newspaper accounts, religious journals, and contact with Western Baptist, Stundist, Methodist, and Quaker missionaries. Although the Protestant Reformation did not profoundly influence Russian religious thought, by the 1600s a mystical religious revival began to take root in the tsar’s empire. A deep schism split Russian Orthodoxy on issues of liturgy and priesthood. In time, dissident groups themselves divided into numerous sects. Many retained a tradition rooted in the Greek rites, and were called Old Believers. Others, however, established mystical sects based on secret rites of initiation and ecstatic worship. These mystical sectarians were often called Khlysts. Russian sects that worshiped using the Bible and more rationalistic patterns were predominantly known as Molokans. The Old Believers, Khlysts, and Molokans all played an important role in what later became known as Russian Mormonism.
The lands that were organized as Russia’s Samara Province in 1851 consisted of a wild, sparsely populated steppe, bounded on the west by the Volga River, and on the southeast by nomadic Turk tribes. Non-Orthodox Russians found a refreshing degree of religious and economic freedom on the open steppe, and many religious dissenters had settled there by the beginning of the 19th century.
The Khlysts and Molokans of Samara Province lived in close contact with each other, often sharing small villages with other Western sects (such as Baptism), along with a growing Orthodox population. Eventually, some village religious leaders began incorporating ideas from both Khlyst and Molokan traditions into a new faith. In the southern half of the province, a man named Ivan Grigorev Kanygin developed an amalgam of ideas based on his extensive travels and exposure to a variety of religious faiths. Central tenets of his sect included community of property, polygamy, and a framework of prophetic revelation under his charismatic leadership. He called his followers Methodists, and the sect quickly spread to several villages clustered around the trading town of Novouzensk.
The Orthodox clergy actively opposed Grigorev’s Methodists. One man in particular spent much of his energies in combating the growing heresy. Khrisanf Rozhdestvenskiy, an educated priest from the town of Pestravka (located in the center of Samara Province), preached and wrote against the Methodists from the sect’s inception in 1855 until Grigorev’s enigmatic death in a Samara prison in 1872. Probably noting the similarities between the Methodist doctrines and what was then known of the American Latter-day Saints, Rozhdestvenskiy in 1869 referred to the movement as Mormonism.
Although the Methodists were never popularly known as Mormons, Rozhdestvenskiy’s idea was soon used to name another group of sectarians living in the northern half of the province, immediately southeast of Samara. These “Khlyst-Molokans” were similar to Grigorev’s followers in many ways. They were diligent in proselytizing others to their faith, and avoided persecution by an oath of secrecy at the time of their initiation into the sect. By the early 1870s these northern religionists were regularly being called Mormons in the local religious press and by Orthodox villagers.
Efforts to establish any connection between the Russian Mormons and the LDS Church have proved unsuccessful. Other than doctrinal similarities, the Russian Mormons have no historical link to American Mormonism. In fact, modern Russian Mormons have universally avoided speaking to LDS missionaries about their faith. However, the fact that the appellation of “Mormon” was significant in remote Russian villages of the 1860s is an important observation in the study of religious motifs and their dissemination.
At least two appearances of “Mormon” sects in Russia can be attributed to direct influence from American Mormonism. In one case, a religious sect in the Caucasus called itself Mormonism and possessed printed papers and books that outlined Mormon teachings. These Caucasus Mormons held to several beliefs closely tied with the American Mormon Church, and likely derived their name solely from that association. In another village in the Crimea, Molokans who began practicing polygamy were called Mormons in derision by their neighbors.