Patriarch Nikon’s Reforms Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church caused a damaging schism within Russia’s major faith by trying to implement controversial reforms in areas such as church administration, clerical training, religious writings, and service rituals.

Summary of Event

In Russia’s development as a nation and organized society, Christianity played a vital role by providing religious values and worship practices that both transformed and united the population. While the fundamental theological dogmas of the Russian Orthodox Church generally remained consistent through the centuries, problems became increasingly evident, calling for clarification and correction. These included relations with Byzantine Orthodoxy, details of religious rituals and practice, and accuracy of religious texts. [kw]Patriarch Nikon’s Reforms (1652-1667) [kw]Reforms, Patriarch Nikon’s (1652-1667) [kw]Nikon’s Reforms, Patriarch (1652-1667) Religion and theology;1652-1667: Patriarch Nikon’s Reforms[1750] Organizations and institutions;1652-1667: Patriarch Nikon’s Reforms[1750] Russia;1652-1667: Patriarch Nikon’s Reforms[1750] Russian Orthodox Church Nikon

A reform movement to restore accuracy to the original forms, both in writing and in practice, emerged in the seventeenth century, notably under the leadership of Nikon, who rose to the high position of patriarch of Moscow. Finding favor with the youthful Czar Alexis Alexis , he became the metropolitan of Novgorod, the second most important clerical position in Russia. Upon the death of Patriarch Joseph in 1652, Alexis pressured church authorities to appoint Nikon as patriarch. Using his new authority, and with the Russian monarch’s support, Nikon succeeded in undertaking and implementing a series of reforms that were confirmed by church councils beginning in 1653.

These efforts were wide-ranging and had implications for the Russian Orthodox Church. Prior to Nikon’s appointment, in the 1630’, a theological seminary had been established in Kiev, a major city in the Ukraine to the south. Its scholars gained a reputation for their careful analyses of religious texts. Nikon encouraged Kievan scholars to review printed materials used in Russia, finding that errors in translation and copying had altered the originals. This process actually began several years before Nikon became patriarch, but he continued his predecessor’s reform effort. Nikon’s opponents, however, viewed Kiev and its religious scholars as outside the scope of the place they believed to be the center of true Christianity—Moscow—in contrast to the Latin Church in Rome and the Byzantine Church. That some of the Kievan scholars learned Greek and Latin, and used sources in those languages, also made them suspect in the eyes of religious traditionalists in Russia. Their opposition to Nikon’s plans also revealed Russian nationalism, opposing ties or cooperation with remote Ukraine, Catholic Poland, or the former Byzantine Empire now under Turkish and Islamic control.

A number of these changes might seem arcane. For example, one reform called for the priest to give the sign of the cross by raising three fingers instead of the traditional two. (The shift referred to the Trinity in the former while the latter signified the divine and human nature of Christ.) In another reform, the form of bowing or kneeling during prayers was reduced from twelve to four, again a change from tradition. Hallelujahs were to be sung three times, not twice, during the service. Prayers that were sung had to be in one tone, not several.

Icons, the two-dimensional representation of Christ and other religious figures, had to follow the traditional Byzantine style rather than the style followed in other countries. Many icons were seized, despoiled, and destroyed. Older guides and manuals used to regulate religious life and ritual were confiscated from churches and homes, sometimes by threats of punishment. Even the route of church processions had to follow new, approved policies, according to the location of the sun. These are only a few of the variations that Nikon sought to impose on religious life.

To fundamental and traditionalist clergy in the Orthodox Church, who had followed for decades practices they believed to be required for their glorification of God and the possible source of salvation, Nikon’s changes were heretical. Millions of followers, largely illiterate, also felt threatened by these changes in tradition. Followers became familiar with church traditions and wished that they be retained and practiced as evidence of their faith. Reform opponents came to be known as Old Believers Old Believers , who organized resistance under the leadership of the priest Avvakum Petrovich Avvakum Petrovich and other clergy. Avvakum regularly petitioned the Church and the monarch to permit the continuation of traditional rituals, and he opposed relying upon Greek and Latin sources. He also criticized Nikon’s methods and wrote a letter to Czar Alexis that read, “Nothing so much engenders schism in the churches as overbearing love of domination on the part of the authorities.”

Russian Orthodox Church patriarch Nikon.

(Library of Congress)

Nikon persevered in these reforms, but he was able to do so because of the approval of church councils that met under his direction. He was determined to control and even destroy Avvakum and the opposition. Nikon generally succeeded in his efforts during a portion of the 1650’, assisted by Czar Alexis and the state in attacking the Old Believers. Large numbers of Orthodox Christians followed Avvakum in resistance to reform, even in the face of threats of religious excommunication or physical injury. By the latter part of the century, thousands of the Old Believers had committed suicide by self-immolation rather than accept the new rules. One estimate places the numbers at approximately twenty thousand individuals. Avvakum, failing to convince the authorities of the error of Nikon’s leadership and reforms, was exiled to Siberia. He was executed in 1682.

In the short term, Nikon won the reform battle. However, the Russian Orthodox Church was seriously weakened in the long term. The schism was not only a religious one. Nikon’s efforts to increase religious authority—especially the role of the patriarch—called into question the power of the Russian monarchy as well. Nikon sought authority equal to or even superior to the czar. Calling upon several precedents of patriarchal power earlier in the century, he criticized limitations placed on his position and on Church power. His statement could not have been clearer to the czar: “The priesthood is higher than the Tsardom. Unction comes from God, but it comes to the Tsar through the clergy.”

This confrontation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state in the seventeenth century lasted several decades, but the outcome was not seriously in doubt. Relations between Nikon and Alexis cooled, but they sometimes intensified over minor perceived slights and then finally broke when the czar visited and then confronted Nikon in 1658. Alexis criticized Nikon’s use of pressure and intimidation to make changes, saying of Nikon that, “he drove men to fast by force, but could not drive anyone by force to believe in God.”

In response to what he perceived as personal affronts to him and his lofty position, Nikon left Moscow in July, 1658, and traveled to the distant Voskresensky monastery. Apparently, he hoped the confrontation with the czar would create a crisis that would give him more authority if he was asked to return. The monarch and church officials had had enough, however, and Nikon’s efforts during the next several years failed.

There had been no active patriarch between 1658 and 1667, the year a new patriarch was elected to succeed Nikon. Nikon lived in several remote monasteries between 1658 and his death in 1681. A church council in late 1666 condemned and formally stripped him of his title. That same council also declared that Avvakum and the Old Believers were heretics, which further institutionalized the disruptive split in the Orthodox Church in succeeding centuries, a split known as the raskol (schism).


Nikon’s confrontation with the czar proved to be his ultimate defeat, but it should not have been surprising. Several European nations in the seventeenth century had been gradually expanding political autocracy, in which primary power resided in the hands of the monarch and secular authorities. Czar Alexis had no intention of being subordinate to Nikon or to Church authority. Alexis’s grandson, Peter the Great Peter the Great , continued this trend in asserting total domination over Russia’s religious institutions and officials.

No patriarch was appointed after 1708, and Peter abolished the autonomous office of the patriarch in 1721. From that time, the Russian Orthodox Church lost its independence and became a department of the Russian government.

Paradoxically, many of Nikon’s religious reforms continued for decades in Russia, showing that most of his reform efforts were successful. His dominating personality and aggressive leadership, though, convinced others that he had to be removed from power.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conybeare, F. C. Russian Dissenters. New York: Russell and Russell, 1962. Conybeare describes the controversies in the Russian Orthodox Church and provides an entire section on Nikon and Avvakum.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crummey, Robert O. The Old Believers and the World of Antichrist: The Vyg Community and the Russian State, 1694-1855. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970. One of the most influential and widely cited books in English on the Old Believers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kliuchevsky, V. O. A Course in Russian History: The Seventeenth Century. Translated by Natalie Duddington. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1994. A classic work by one of Russia’s most eminent historians. Chapter 15 deals with Nikon and the schism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Longworth, Philip. Alexis: Tsar of All the Russias. New York: Franklin Watts, 1984. A biography of the Russian monarch who first supported then opposed the reform efforts of Patriarch Nikon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lupinin, Nickolas. Religious Revolt in the Seventeenth Century: The Schism of the Russian Church. Princeton, N.J.: Kingston Press, 1984. This work covers the religious controversies and their effects in strengthening state power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meyendorff, Paul. Russia, Ritual, and Reform: The Liturgical Reforms of Nikon in the Seventeenth Century. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991. A detailed description of religious reforms and their effects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Michels, Georg Bernhard. At War with the Church: Religious Dissent in Seventeenth Century Russia. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999. Michels assesses the disruptive effects of the religious controversy and focuses on Nikon’s opponents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Millar, James R. Encyclopedia of Russian History. New York: Macmillan, 2003. A comprehensive four-volume source that includes entries on Avvakum, Alexis, and Nikon.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Alexis; Avvakum Petrovich; Nikon; Stenka Razin; Sophia. Russian Orthodox Church Nikon

Categories: History