The Stoglav Convenes

The Stoglav, or Council of One Hundred Chapters, an assembly of Russian clergymen, was convened by the czarist government to combat the vestiges of pagan practices in Russia, to strengthen the church against heretical movements, to increase clerical and administrative discipline, and to bring the church under the jurisdiction of the secular authorities.

Summary of Event

The Stoglav, or Council of One Hundred Chapters, was a church council held in Moscow in January and February, 1551 (although the work of the council was not fully completed until May of that year). The council is named after the collection of documents it published, which were compiled into one hundred chapters. It was summoned by Czar Ivan the Terrible, who was assisted in ecclesiastical matters by Metropolitan Macarius—the head of the Russian Church—and his protégé, Sylvester, a priest in the Annunciation Cathedral of the Kremlin, where the czars were crowned and where the metropolitan often officiated at liturgies in the presence of the czar. Stoglav
Orthodox Church, Russian
Ivan the Terrible
Volokolamsk, Saint Joseph of
Ivan the Terrible
Joseph of Volokolamsk, Saint

In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the grand princes of Moscow had completed the “gathering of the Russian lands” by taking direct political control of the important commercial and cultural centers of Novgorod (1478) and Pskov (1510) on the northwestern frontier of Russia. Religious control was not yet so centralized, however. While it was always under the nominal authority of the metropolitan, who was based first in Vladimir and then in Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church throughout the medieval period had been divided up among dioceses and archdioceses, which were often largely autonomous and maintained their own administrative structures and liturgical practices. Thus, to absorb these areas religiously as well as politically, Moscow needed to establish a uniform ecclesiastical administration and uniform liturgical practices for all Russian dioceses. Moreover, Novgorod and Pskov had experienced heresies in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the Novgorodian lands still had large pagan populations. The Orthodox Church, then, needed both to establish a strong internal administration and to combat external pagan and heretical practices.

The czar convened the Stoglav to accomplish these tasks. It was charged with combating pagan practices in Russia, strengthening the church against heretical movements, reforming the internal life of the church (especially the educational and moral discipline of the clergy), and bringing ecclesiastics under the jurisdiction of secular authorities. The reforms were presented in the form of questions from the throne, apparently drawn up by Sylvester. The members of the council understandably supported the czar’s goals. Thus they forbade folk musicians and dancers from performing at weddings (seen as a pagan practice), forbade skomorokhi (popular musicians or troubadours) from performing, and condemned various pagan rituals performed between Christmas and Epiphany, and between Easter and St. Peter’s Day.

The council standardized church rituals and liturgies, increased the authority of the episcopate (to ensure that the standardized liturgies were carried out), and increased the discipline and educational level of the clergy. Clerical reform was achieved in part through the election by the clergy in each town or district of priests’ elders, who oversaw liturgical, disciplinary, and financial matters at the local level. Monasteries, which had been granted immunity from czarist courts, were brought under the jurisdiction of the episcopal courts, further strengthening the bishops. Seminaries and religious schools were envisioned, but this aspect of the reform was not realized. However, the church was given control over scribes and icon painters so that the words and images used to teach theological principles would be controlled and standardized.

The members of the council did not accept all of the czar’s reforms, though. His efforts to secularize church lands and subjugate the clergy and other church people to the regular law courts were rejected. Most of the members of the council were Josephites Josephites (also called Possessors), followers of Saint Joseph of Volokolamsk. One of the most important figures in the church in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Joseph had articulately and forcefully supported the possession of land by the church (especially by the monasteries), and his followers dominated the church into the 1570’, when he was canonized (1578). Far from accepting the czar’s proposal to secularize church lands, then, the members of the council proclaimed church lands inviolable. They also declared that ecclesiastics were subject only to church courts, but in actuality members of the clergy accused of murder and certain forms of theft were tried in the czarist courts. In return for the czar conceding these points to the council, the church agreed to limit the number of new monastic settlements (slobody), thus limiting the growth of ecclesiastical landholdings.


Pagan practices continued into the nineteenth or even the twentieth centuries, despite their condemnation by the Stoglav (and numerous other councils). Letters from bishops later in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries indicate that clerical discipline was not fully achieved, although there was some improvement. However, the council did succeed in strengthening episcopal power and allowed the church to maintain a large degree of autonomy from the czar. A council called in 1594 in effect reissued the decisions of the Stoglav, however, demonstrating that the same problems persisted in the church and had not been dealt with effectively by the first council.

Whatever its level of effectiveness, the Stoglav was, with the Nomocanon (the code of canon law of the Orthodox churches), the fundamental source of the Russian Church’s administrative and legal norms up to the end of the Muscovite period, when Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) finally succeeded in bringing the church under secular control and destroying its autonomy. The fact that Ivan the Terrible could not carry out his entire body of reform, specifically his failure to secularize church lands and to bring ecclesiastics under the control of secular courts, also shows that the traditional view of czarist autocracy is overstated. In fact, the czar did not autocratically control the church at that time, and it was only with Peter that truly autocratic control over the church, and over broader Russian society, was fully achieved.

Further Reading

  • Bushkovitch, Paul. Religion and Society in Russia: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. A study of the changing religious views of Russian society and the church’s changing focus from a miracle-based, liturgical church to a more ethics-based church, including the part played by the Stoglav in that transformation.
  • Kollmann, Jack E. “Stoglav and Parish Priests.” Russian History/Histoire russe 7 (1980): 65-91. The impact of the Stoglav on the morality and educational level of parish priests.
  • Martin, Janet. Medieval Russia, 980-1584. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. The definitive work on medieval Russia, with a good overview of the Russian Orthodox Church, including the Stoglav.
  • Platonov, Sergei F. Ivan the Terrible. Edited and translated by Joseph L. Wieczynski. Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Academic International Press, 1974. Study of Ivan the Terrible’s reign, including discussion of the Stoglav and the role it played in his reign.
  • Vernadsky, George, and Ralph T. Fisher, Jr., eds. A Source Book for Russian History from Early Times to 1917. Vol. 1. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972. Translations of primary source material on Russian history, including excerpts of the Stoglav.
  • Weickhardt, George G. “The Canon Law of Rus’, 1100-1551.” Russian History/Histoire russe 28, nos. 1-4 (2001): 411-46. Discusses the development of canon law in Russia during the medieval period, including the Stoglav’s impact on ecclesiastical law.

1478: Muscovite Conquest of Novgorod

1480-1502: Destruction of the Golden Horde

After 1480: Ivan the Great Organizes the “Third Rome”

Jan. 16, 1547: Coronation of Ivan the Terrible

1589: Russian Patriarchate Is Established