Members Of The Russian Molokan Church Hold Religious Services In Their New Church Building

On Sunday, September 14, 1938, members of the Russian Molokan Church held religious services in their new church building on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, California.

Folklorist Sidney Robertson Cowell recorded the distinctive preaching and singing that characterized the service. Molokan singing is derived from patterns of Gregorian chants that were sung in the Russian Orthodox Church during the sixteenth century when the Molokans emerged as an ethnically and religiously distinct group. The Russian Molokans, also called "milk drinkers," were Russian peasants who dissented from the Russian Orthodox Church beginning in the seventeenth century.

In the eighteenth century, the Molokans were identified with a larger peasant movement that protested the practices of Russia's tsarist government and the role that the Russian Orthodox Church played in that government. The Molokans and other members of the Christian Spiritualist movement questioned whether it was Christian to own property, exploit the labor of others, or treat women as inferior to men. After a series of pitched battles with the government, the Molokans were exiled to the frontier regions of the empire, first to the Ukraine, and later to the Russian Caucasus. Despite the difficulties that they encountered at what was then the far reaches of the Russian Empire, the Molokans prospered. By 1900, they were the largest sect of dissenters from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Molokans (Russian for "milk-drinkers": молокане) are sectarian, Bible-centered Christians who evolved from "Spiritual Christian" Russian peasants that refused to obey the Russian Orthodox Church, beginning in the 1600s. They were so named for their heresy of drinking milk on most of the approximately 200 fasting days, especially the Great Fast (Lent). In contrast, they called themselves "true Spiritual Christians", rather than "milk-drinkers", because they could no longer accept the Russian Orthodox version of Christianity, nor that of the other sects. They may have been influenced by an earlier religious sect of Armenian "Paulicians", who became known as the "Bogomils" of Thrace, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Serbia.

In a sense Molokans are Protestants for rejecting Orthodoxy, and like Presbyterians in that they have volunteer lay-ministers and a loose council of dominant elders. Though Molokans are somewhat similar to the European Quakers and Mennonites — for their pacifism, communal organization, spiritual meetings, and sub-groupings — they are ethnically much closer to Doukhobors and Sabbatarians (Subbotniki) because they evolved from the same Russian Spiritual Christian movement of Khristovers and Ikonobors (icon-wrestlers), and migrated together with some intermarriage.

The presviter [preacher], his assistants, and the best male singers sit on benches placed around a table covered with a white cloth. On this table, there is usually a Bible…Women sit separately on benches placed horizontally from the table to the door.”

— Ethel Dunn and Stephen P. Dunn,