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Patriarch of Moscow (1652-1658; d. 1681)

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Nikon, Patriarch of Moscow (1652-1658; d. 1681). He was of peasant origin, born in the district of Nishni-Novgorod in 1605, and in early life was known as Nikita. Educated in a monastery, he married, became a secular priest, and for a time had a parish in Moscow. After ten years of married life, his children having died, he persuaded his wife to becomea nun and he entered the Solovetski monastery on the White Sea, according to Orthodox custom, changing his name to Nikon. In accordance also with a common custom he next became a hermit on an island near by, dependent on the monastery. But a disagreement about the alleged misuse of some alms caused him to break with the Solovetski monks and join the Kojeozerski community in the same neighourhood, of which he became hegumen in 1643. Later he made a great impression on the emperor, Alexis, who made him Archimandrite of the Novospaski Laura at Moscow in 1646, and in 1649 Metropolitan of Novgorod. Here he founded almshouses, distinguished himself by his many good works, and succeeded in putting down a dangerous revolt in 1650. Meanwhile he was in constant correspondence with the Tsar, at whose court he spent part of each year. Already during this time he began to prepare for a revision of the Slavonic Bible and Service books. In 1652 the Patriarch of Moscow died and Nikon was appointed his successor.

As head of the Church of Russia Nikon set about many important reforms. One of the first questions that engaged his attention was the reunion of the Ruthenians (Little Russians) with the Orthodox Church. When Poland held Little Russia, the Synod of Brest (1596) had brought about union between its inhabitants and Rome. Under Alexis, however, the tide turned; many Ruthenians arose against Poland and united with Russia (1653). A result of this was that the Russians were able without much difficulty to undo the work of the Synod of Brest, and to bring the Metropolitan of Kief with the majority of his clergy back to the Orthodox Church. This greatly increased the extent of the Russian patriarch’s jurisdiction. Nikon was able to entitle himself patriarch of Great, Little, and White Russia. During the reign of Alexis, Nikon built three monasteries, one of which, made after the model of the Anastasis and called “New Jerusalem,” is numbered among the famous Lauras of Russia.

The chief event of Nikon’s reign was the reform of the service books. The Bible and books used in church in Russia are translated from Greek into old Slavonic. But gradually many mistranslations and corruptions of the text had crept in. There were also details of ritual in which the Russian Church had forsaken the custom of Constantinople. Nikon’s work was to restore all these points to exact conformity with the Greek original. This reform had been discussed before his time. In the sixteenth century the Greeks had reproached the Russians for their alterations, but a Russian synod in 1551 had sanctioned them. In Nikon’s time there was more intercourse with Greeks than ever before, and in this way he conceived the necessity of restoring purer forms. While Metropolitan of Novgorod he caused a committee of scholars to discuss the question, in spite of the patriarch Joseph. In 1650 a Russian theologian was sent to Constantinople to inquire about various doubtful points. One detail that made much trouble was that the Russians had learned to make the sign of the cross with two fingers instead of three, as the Greeks did. As soon as he became patriarch, Nikon published an order introducing some of these reforms, which immediately called forth angry opposition. In 1654 and 1655 he summoned Synods which continued the work. Makarios, Patriarch of Antioch, who came to Russia at that time was able to help, and there was continual correspondence with the Patriarch of Constantinople. At last, with the approval of the Greek patriarchs, Nikon published the reformed service books and made laws insisting on conformity with Greek custom in all points of ritual (1655-1658). A new Synod in 1656 confirmed this, excommunicated every one who made the sign of the cross except with three fingers, and forbade the rebaptizing of Latin converts (still a peculiarity of the Russian Church). This aroused a strong party of opposition. The patriarch was accused of anti-national sentiments, of trying to Hellenize the Russian Church, of corrupting the old faith. Nikon’s strong will would have crushed the opposition, had he not, in some way not yet clearly explained, fallen foul of the tsar. It is generally said that part of his ideas of reform was to secure that the Church should be independent of the state and that this aroused the tsar’s anger. In any case in the year 1658 Nikon suddenly fell. He offered his resignation to the tsar and it was accepted. He had often threatened to resign before; it seems that this time, too, he did not mean his offer to be taken seriously. However, he had to retire and went to his New Jerusalem monastery. A personal interview with Alexis was refused. The patriarchate remained vacant and Nikon, in spite of his resignation, attempted to regain his former place. Meanwhile the opposition to him became stronger. It was led by a Greek, Paisios Ligarides, Metropolitan of Gaza (unlawfully absent from his see), who insisted on the appointment of a successor at Moscow. All Nikon’s friends seem to have forsaken him at this juncture. Ligarides caused an appeal to be made to the Greek patriarchs and their verdict was against Nikon. In 1664 he tried to force the situation by appearing suddenly in the patriarchal church at Moscow and occupying his place as if nothing had happened. But he did not succeed, and in 1667 a great synod was summoned to try him. The Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch came to Russia expressly for this synod; a great number of Russian and Greek metropolitans sat as judges. The tsar himself appeared as accuser of his former friend. Nikon was summoned and appeared before the synod in his patriarch’s robes. He was accused of neglecting his duties since 1658, of having betrayed his Church in a certain letter he had written to the Patriarch of Constantinople (in which he had complained of the Russian clergy), of harsh and unjust conduct in his treatment of the bishops. Nikon defended himself ably; the synod lasted a week; but at last in its eighth session it declared him deposed from the patriarchate, suspended from all offices but those of a simple monk, and sentenced him to confinement in a monastery (Therapontof) on the White Sea. The archimandrite of the Trinity Laura at Moscow, Joasaph, was elected his successor (Joasaph II, 1667-72). Joasaph confirmed Nikon’s reform of the Service books and rites. The party that opposed it formed the beginning of the Russian dissenting sects (the Raskolniks).

For a time Nikon’s imprisonment was very severe. In 1675 he was taken to another monastery (of St. Cyril) and his treatment was lightened. Alexis towards the end of his life repented of his harsh treatment of the former patriarch, and from his deathbed (1676) sent to ask his forgiveness. The next tsar, Feodor II (1676-82) allowed him to return to his New Jerusalem monastery. On the way thither Nikon died (August 17, 1681). He was buried with the honors of a patriarch, and all decrees against him were revoked after his death. His tomb is in the Cathedral church of Moscow. Nikon’s fall, the animosity of the tsar, and of the synod that deposed him remain mysterious. The cause was not his reform of the Service books, for that was maintained by his successor. It has been explained as a successful intrigue of his personal enemies at the court. He certainly had made enemies during his reign by his severity, his harsh manner, the uncompromising way he carried out his reforms regardless of the intensely conservative instinct of his people. Or, it has been said, Nikon brought about his disgrace by a premature attempt to free the Russian Church from the shackles of the state. His attitude represented an opposition to the growing Erastianism that culminated soon after his time in the laws of Peter the Great (1689-1725).

This is no doubt true. There are sufficient indications that Alexis’ quarrel with Nikon was based on jealousy. Nikon wanted to be too independent of the tsar, and this independence was concerned, naturally, with ecclesiastical matters. Some writers have thought that the root of the whole matter was that he became at the end of his reign a Latinizer, that he wanted to bring about reunion with Rome and saw in that reunion the only safe protection for the Church against the secular government. It has even been said that he became a Catholic (Gerebtzoff, “Essai”, II, 514). The theory is not impossible. Since the Synod of Brest the idea of reunion was in the air; Nikon had had much to do with Ruthenians; he may at last have been partly convinced by them. And one of the accusations against him at his trial was that of Latinizing. A story is told of his conversion by a miracle worked by Saint Josaphat, the great martyr for the union. In any case the real reason of Nikon’s fall remains one of the difficulties of Russian Church history. He was undoubtedly the greatest bishop Russia has yet produced. A few ascetical works of no special importance were written by him.


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