The Religion Of The Great Candle

On the outskirts of Jaransk, in the Viatka district, a race called the

_Tcheremis_ has dwelt from time immemorial. While Russian scholars,

like Smirnov, were employed in unveiling all the mysteries of their

past, the authorities were endeavouring to imbue them with Russian

conceptions of religion and government. But these people were not

easily persuaded to walk in the right way, and from time to time there

arose vio
ent differences of opinion between them and the

representatives of officialdom.

In 1890, at the time of the Scientific and Industrial Exhibition at

Kazan, an appeal was made to the Tcheremis to send some objects of

anthropological and ethnographical interest. They responded by sending

those representing their religion, for, having rejected orthodoxy, they

wished the beauties of their "new faith" to be admired. They therefore

exhibited at Kazan large spoons and candles, drums that were used to

summon the people to religious ceremonies, and various other articles

connected with their mysterious beliefs, and the Committee of the

Exhibition awarded them a medal for "a collection of invaluable objects

for the study of the pagan religion of the Tcheremis."

The natives, knowing nothing of the complicated organisation of

scientific awards, simply concluded that the medal had been given to

them because their religion was the best, and the leader of their

community wore it round his neck, and recounted everywhere how "out of

all the religions that had been examined at Kazan, only that of the

'Great Candle' had been found to be perfect." All the believers

rejoiced over the prestige thus won by their faith, and a wave of

religious ecstasy swept over the country. Three of the fathers of the

church affixed copies of the medal to their front doors, with the

inscription: "This was given by the Tsar to the best of all religions,"

and the people made merry, and gave themselves up to the bliss of

knowing that they had found the true and only way of salvation, as

acknowledged by the representatives of the Tsar himself.

Poor creatures! They were not aware of the contents of Article 185 of

the Russian criminal code, which ordained that the goods of all who

abandoned the orthodox faith should be confiscated, until they

expressed repentance and once more acknowledged the holy truths of the

official church. So it came about that in spite of the triumph of

their religion at the Exhibition of Kazan, legal proceedings began, and

in 1891 and 1892, as many as fourteen actions were brought against the

adepts of the Great Candle, and numbers of them were sentenced to

imprisonment and to the confiscation of their goods. All this in spite

of the fact that their beliefs did not in any way threaten to undermine

the foundations of society.

"There are six religions contained in the books which the Tsar has

given to his people"--they said, when brought before the tribunal--"and

there is a seventh oral religion, that of the Tcheremis. The seventh

recognises neither the sacraments nor the gospel. It glorifies God in

person, and the faith which has been handed down from father to son.

It has been given to the Tcheremis _exclusively_, because they are a

poor, unlettered people, and cannot afford to keep up priests and

churches. They call it the religion of the Great Candle, because in

their ceremonies a candle about two yards in length is used; and they

consider Friday a holiday because on it are ended the prayers which

they begin to say on Wednesday."

When questioned by the judge, the accused complained that the orthodox

clergy expected too many sacrifices from them, and charged them heavily

for marriages and burials, this being their reason for returning to

"the more merciful religion of their forefathers."

According to the _Journal of the Religious Consistory of the Province

of Viatka_, the Tcheremis were guilty of many other crimes. They did

not make the sign of the cross, and refused to allow their children to

be baptised or their dead to be buried with the rites of the orthodox

church. Truly there is no limit to the heresies of men, even as there

is none to the mercies of heaven! Further, the missionaries complained

with horror that, in addition to seven principal religions, the

Tcheremis acknowledged seventy-seven others, in accordance with the

division of humanity into seventy-seven races.

"It is God," they said, "who has thus divided humanity, even as He has

divided the trees. As there are oaks, pines and firs, so are there

different religions, all of heavenly origin. But that of the Tcheremis

is the best. . . . The written Bible, known to all men, has been

falsified by the priests, but the Tcheremis have an oral Bible, which

has been handed down intact, even as it was taught to their forbears by

God. . . . The Tsar is the god of earth, but he has nothing to do with

religion, which is not of this world."

The prayers of these dangerous heretics, who were punished like common

criminals, mirror the innocence of their souls. They implored God to

pardon all their sins, great and small; to grant good health to their

cattle and their children. They thanked Him for all His mercies,

prayed for the Tsar and all the Imperial family, for the soldiers, for

the civil authorities, and for all honest men; and finally for the dead

"who now labour in their celestial kingdom."

The tribunal, however, implacably brought the law to bear upon them,

and thinking their punishment too great for their crimes, they had

recourse to the Court of Appeal, where they begged to be judged

"according to the good laws of the Tsar, not the bad ones of the

Consistory." But the sentence was ratified, and the religion of the

Great Candle procured for its followers the martyrdom that they had so

little desired.