Identification. Old Believers are a religious group of People who pattern their worship and way of life on the Old Rite of the Russian Orthodox church. The vast majority are ethnic Russian. In North America, there are two independent groups of Old Believers: a "priestless" group ( Bexpopovtsy ) centered in the eastern part of the United States, and a "chapel" group ( Chasovanniye ) in the western United States, with kin groups of the latter also in Canada and Alaska. The two groups tend to be mutually exclusive, which stems from the particular characteristic of Old Believers. Even at its inception in the seventeenth century, Old Believerism was not, and indeed has never been, a coordinated movement or a cohesive, consolidated religion, although all advocates observe the same religious rite. Instead, the term Oíd Believerism refers to large numbers of Russian peasants and many of their village priests who, on a person-to-person and family-to-family basis, refuse to conform to the church reforms of the mid-seventeenth century. Characteristically, various groups agree on doctrinal decisions in order to cope with their existing realities. The variations in doctrinal practices ("agreements") give rise to differing branches of Old Believers. Often groups of differing agreements do not consider themselves "in union," which is to say they do not recognize the doctrinal validity of each other. This article refers mostly to the Chasovanniye, Old Believers in the western United States, inasmuch as they are recent immigrants to North America and more closely portray the original ethic of Old Believers.
Location and Demography. The "priestless" group that settled in the area of Erie, Pennsylvania, arrived first in North America around 1913. They number approximately fifteen hundred. In 1964, quite independently, "chapel" groups of Old Believers settled in Oregon. Originally three thousand, they now have grown to some five thousand. Several families of the Oregon group moved on to the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska in 1969 to establish a more remote village. There are now a number of small villages in that area, with an overall population of some seven hundred. Several years later, another group of families established a village near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The population there is about three hundred. In addition, there are families and small groups of Families affiliated with one or the other of the above groups who live separately but maintain contact on principal religious holidays.
Linguistic Affiliation. Old Believers speak a fairly Standard Russian, a Slavic Indo-European language. Their Religious services are read in Church Slavonic, an early version of Russian, but differing to the extent that special training for the young is required in order to master the orthography as well as differences in pronunciation and some word usage. With the extended residency in North America, however, there has been a tendency among the Oregon group to use English more and more in everyday conversation. In Pennsylvania, conversion to English is complete; services are, for the most part, in English.