The Religious Worldview of the Indigenous Population of the Northern Ob' as Understood by Christian Missionaries

By Ablazhei, Anatoliy M. | International Bulletin of Mission Research, July 2005 | Go to article overview

The Religious Worldview of the Indigenous Population of the Northern Ob' as Understood by Christian Missionaries


Ablazhei, Anatoliy M., International Bulletin of Mission Research


On the eve of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church had at least nine missions operating among Siberia's indigenous peoples. The Red victory in the ensuing civil war led to the elimination of all missionary activity, whose resumption was possible only after the fall of the Communist regime seventy years later. The few accounts of Christian missions published in the USSR were tendentious in the extreme. Only in the post-Communist era have scholars in the former Soviet Union been free to explore the rich archival and journalistic resources left by the missionaries.

Anatoliy Ablazhei's article was chiefly addressed to scholars in Russia. It explores the extent to which the newly available missionary accounts are useful sources for contemporary scholars investigating native religion and cosmology. His work is reproduced here in translation for several reasons. It exemplifies the new wave of Russian scholarship about missions history, giving us a glimpse of the mass of documentary material available for researchers to use. Its critique of Russian Orthodox perceptions of native religion and the imperfect methods employed to spread Christianity in Siberia provides us with material from a mission field little known in the outside world. This information can prove useful for comparative missiological investigations. Above all, however, its value lies in its con tribution to the ongoing debates about contextualization and syncretism, the validity of the Gospel for all peoples, and the appropriation of Christianity by the world's indigenous peoples. It exemplifies the errors of ignorance often committed by outsiders trying to spread the Gospel within a thoroughly alien culture. As Terence Ranger reminded us in the first Adrian Hastings Memorial Lecture at Leeds University in November 2002, authentic Christianity is indeed possible among indigenous peoples. The Holy Spirit can inspire a transformation of their lives and culture, without an excess of Eurocentric accretions. (1)

The fullest possible reconstruction of traditional worldviews requires the use of a wide range of sources. Among these are the documents of the [Russian] Orthodox religious missions to the pagans that operated in the Northern Ob' region [of western Siberia] for more than three hundred years. The present article uses materials relating to the concluding period of the missions' activity, from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. The information of interest to us is found in various types of diaries, reports, and accounts emanating from missions as a whole and from individual missionaries, predominantly those who had interacted directly with the local population during their missionary trips. Most of the material used for the analysis is from the Obdorsk Mission, founded in 1854, which worked for the most part among the Nenets, Khanty, and Mansi populations, who knew very little or nothing about Christianity. There are grounds for believing that in this case we are dealing with cultural traditions little affected by the alien cultural influences that enter during conflict with a different culture, thus increasing the value of the sources used.

Missionary documents as sources bear specific characteristics stemming both from the particular worldview of the missionaries as bearers of alien cultural traditions and from the type of relationships they had with the indigenous population. As a rule, the missionaries gained their information by indirect observation, such as knowledge of one or another traditional rite obtained by chance or through disclosure during conversation with a local inhabitant. Communications of the latter type were rather rare, considering the attitude of the overwhelming majority of the missionaries to the native people's cultural riches and the staunch unwillingness of the latter to reveal their ancestral secrets to outsiders. This limitation was compounded by the almost universal lack of knowledge of local languages and customs (especially characteristic of the earlier period of Orthodox missions in the Northern Ob') and, with rare exceptions, by a general unwillingness to investigate in depth the specifics of traditional culture. …

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