The historical event that gave rise to the Old Believers is known in Russian history as the Great Schism, or Raskol. At root in the schism was the introduction of church reforms during the period 1651-1667. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church, Patriarch Nikon, assumed the responsibility for revising the church books in use at the time. The reforms transcended the written word, for Nikon extended the reforms to include matters of the service ritual. Large segments of the populace, deeply offended by being told they must change aspects of their traditional ritual, rebelled and remained faithful to the Old Rite. Of the items reformed, one in particular became an identifying symbol of Old Believers, namely, crossing oneself with two fingers instead of the reform-mandated three fingers. Peasant attitudes were strong in opposition to other issues of the reforms as well.
This quickly led to social strife that was so serious that Tsar Alexei exiled Nikon. Nonetheless, in one of history's ironic twists, the tsar approved the reforms. Refusal to accept the reforms became a violation not only of church law but also of civil law. Those refusing to adopt the reforms were considered separatists ( raskolniki ). Priests who refused were arrested and often executed. The Old Ritual became synonymously referred to as the Old Belief. Hence, adherents called themselves and became known as Old Ritualists or Old Believers, and the reformers called them raskolniki.
Old Believers, fleeing persecution, established themselves in remote areas, and they still tend to eschew contact with surrounding populations. After the communist revolution in Russia, many escaped over the border into China where they settled in remote areas of Manchuria and Sinkiang. Some years after the communist revolution in China, Old Believers were able to escape to, or received permission to exit to, Hong Kong. The vast majority went on to South America, principally Brazil. After four discouraging years of poor agricultural conditions, many were able to secure voluntary passage to the United States and eventually settled in an ever-growing community of Old Believers located in Oregon. Here they were joined by another recent Immigrant group of Old Believers who had been residents in Turkey and Romania for some two hundred years.