The Controversy of the Possessors and Non-Possessors in Renaissance Russia

During the years of the Renaissance, issues surrounding the relationship between the Church and the State as well as between the Church and the world at large came into high relief throughout Europe. The status quo of the Middle Ages was both widely questioned and vigorously upheld by opposing groups. At one end of the spectrum of opinion concerning these relationships were groups like the Spiritual Franciscans, who advocated ecclesiastical poverty and the renunciation by the Church of all secular power. At the opposite end of the spectrum of opinion were organizations like the Inquisition, which sought to expand the temporal power of the Church and to use that power against the Church’s enemies. One manifestation of this debate occurred in Russia, where the Orthodox Church was split between the Possessors, who advocated the ownership of land and serfs by the Church and a close relationship of the Church with the State, and the Non-Possessors, who advocated the spiritual poverty of the Church and a distancing of the Church from secular powers.

The relationship between Church and State in Russia had been a close one from the beginning of Christianity there. According to Medieval Russian Orthodox tradition, the conversion of Russia from paganism to Christianity took place in the year 988 at the behest of Prince Vladimir the Great (958-1015).1 After having himself baptized, “he then mandated the baptism of all his subjects and had all the idols of the Russian gods destroyed.”2 This mandate by Prince Vladimir is commemorated in modern Russia as the national holiday of “Christianization Day;” it is celebrated on 28 July, the same day that Prince Vladimir, a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church, is commemorated on the Church’s liturgical calendar.3

The relationship between Church and State in Russia continued to grow throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages, finally culminating in the second half of the fifteenth century with the conception of Moscow, the seat of both the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church, as the “third Rome.”4 According to Russian ideologues of the time, the first Rome, the city of Rome on the Italian peninsula and identified with the Roman Catholic popes, had fallen away from the true faith into heresy with the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in 1054;5 the second Rome, the “New Rome” of Constantinople, had fallen into Muslim hands in 1453,6 ostensibly due to God’s judgment after the Council of Florence held in 1431-45, in which the bishops of the Byzantine Orthodox Church agreed to a reunion with the Roman Catholic Church.7 Moscow and, by extension, all of Russia, then, was the third Rome, “the sole remaining stronghold of the true faith in the world.”8

This close relationship and even identification of the Church with the State in Russia at the beginning of the Renaissance was especially facilitated by elements within the Russian monastic tradition. The figure most associated with this increasing collaboration between the monastics and the government of Russia was “Sergius of Radonezh (?1314-92), the greatest national saint of Russia.”9 Though monks, nuns, hermits, and other similar figures had existed in Russia for many years before Sergius, he is undoubtedly the most significant representative of the Medieval Russian monastic tradition. Not only did he contribute greatly to the development and spread of a distinctly Russian spirituality, but also to the development and enlargement of Muscovite Russia:

Sergius played an active part in politics. A close friend of the Grand Dukes of Moscow, he encouraged the city in its expansion, and it is significant that before the Battle of Kulikovo the leader of the Russian forces, Prince Dimitry Donskoy, went especially to Sergius to secure his blessing.10

This close relationship between the monastics of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government, as well as the close relationship of monastics with the secular world that their relationship with the State necessitated, caused a good deal of tension within the Church over the proper application of Christian values, finally leading to the outbreak of controversy in 1503.11 At a Church council held that year, Nil Sorsky (1433-1508), “one of the saintliest of Russian ascetics”12 and “a monk from a remote hermitage in the forests beyond the Volga, rose to speak, and launched an attack on the ownership of land by monasteries.”13 “Joseph of Volokolamsk” (1439-1515), also known as Joseph Volotsky, abbot of a monastery in Volokolasmk and “one of the most notable churchmen of the time,” rose to oppose him and vigorously defended the ownership of land by monasteries.14

The debate that began between the two at that council would last for another 20 years, splitting the monastics and others in the Church into two camps, that of the Possessors, originally led by Joseph of Volokolamsk, who advocated land ownership by the Church, and that of the Non-Possessors, originally led by Nil Sorsky, who opposed it. The issues at stake in the debate between the two parties naturally expanded during that period of time to include other topics connected to the two positions and disagreements necessitated by the original dispute; the overarching issues were what relationship the Church, and especially the monastic movement within the Church, should have with both the State and with the world outside of the monastery.

The dispute finally reached a boiling point in 1526 due to the actions of the leaders of the Non-Possessors after the death of Nil Sorsky; these leaders were Vassian Cross-Eye, who had been a disciple of Nil Sorsky, and Maxim the Greek, one of whose teachers during his travels in Western Europe had been the Florentine reformer Girolamo Savonarola, the leader of a movement similar to the Non-Possessors.15 In that year, Vassian and Maxim made the mistake of openly criticizing Czar Basil III for his divorce, which had been unlawful according to the canons of the Orthodox Church. As a result, the Czar imprisoned both Vassian and Maxim and ordered the monasteries which had supported them to be closed. The Non-Possessor movement was nearly crushed and never recovered its former size and strength while the Possessors were granted official favor by the government.16 Both factions, however, would leave an enduring mark on the Russian Church as well as the nation as a whole; that legacy will be examined after a discussion of the central issues which divided the two groups, the respective stances of the groups on these issues, and the place of these issues in the Orthodox Church previous to the outbreak of controversy in the early 16th century.

Before the official suppression of the Non-Possessors in 1526, three issues in particular had been at the heart of the debate between the two groups: property ownership by monasteries, the proper relationship between Church and State, and the correct treatment of heretics by the Church.

The initial issue of disagreement, as has already been seen, was the question of whether the Church, and especially the monasteries, should own property. Nil Sorksy and the Non-Possessors who followed in his footsteps argued that the “monk’s primary task is to help others by praying for them and by setting an example.”17 The monk should not involve himself with worldly concerns, such as land ownership and the obligations of management that result, but should pursue God in prayer and silent meditation. Any engagement with the world, according to Nil Sorsky, was hazardous to the spiritual health of the monk. “When one allows any distraction to disturb the mind,” he wrote, “such draws the mind away from silence.”18

Nil’s disciple Vassian wrote even more vehemently against those monasteries who took part in the system of serfdom in Russia through the acquisition of land and peasants, demanding of them:

Where in the traditions of the Gospels, Apostles, and Fathers are monks ordered to acquire populous villages and enslave peasants to the brotherhood? … We look into the hands of the rich, fawn slavishly, flatter them to get out of them some little village … We wrong and rob and sell Christians, our brothers.19

Joseph of Volokalamsk, as leader of the Possessors, argued equally vehemently for the opposite position. Monks serve social functions, he said, in addition to the spiritual ones spoken about by the Non-Possessors; not only do monks pray for the world and set an example for nonmonastic Christians, they also have the obligations of charity, nursing the sick, hospitality, and teaching.20 How, Joseph and the Possessors asked, could monks fulfill these functions if they did not have the material resources necessary to do so? Joseph and his followers adopted for themselves the slogan, “The riches of the Church are the riches of the poor.”21

At the root of the debate on the ownership of property by monks was a difference in perspective between those monastics who adopted the cenobitic, or communal, way of living in a monastery and those who adopted the eremetic, or hermit, way of life in a skete or hermitage. It is significant that the leader of the Possessors, Joseph of Volokolamsk, as well as his followers were cenobitic monks whereas Nil Sorksy and the rest of the Non-Possessors were eremetic monks.22 Their respective ideas reflect the tendencies inherent in each form of monasticism and are also reflective of differences that had existed between the two Orthodox monastic traditions from their beginnings in Egypt in the fourth century.

Anthony the Great (251-356), one of the first Christian hermits, often credited with being the founding figure of Christian monasticism, wrote, in a passage which sounds very much like the words of Nil Sorsky quoted above, that

Fish die if they stay on dry land, and in the same way monks who stay outside their cell or remain with secular [non-monastic] people fall away from their vow of quiet. As a fish must return to the sea, so we must go to our cell, in case by staying outside, we forget to watch inside.23

According to those monks who followed this way of life, the primary tasks of the monk were those laid out by the Non-Possessors: praying for the world and setting an example.

In the monasteries, among those monks who adopted the cenobitic way of life, first founded by the monk Pachomius (292-348), however, the attitude was somewhat different. It was recognized from an early date that a communal way of life would necessitate not only increased interaction between the monks but an increased interaction with the world outside the monastery. As a result, more emphasis was placed on charity, care for the sick, hospitality, and related works. The monks of Pachomius’s monastery, for instance, saved the leftovers from each of their meals for “the sick and aged, because the neighborhood is poor and populous.”24 That there were leftovers to be had from meals, indicating that the meals must have been of a sizable portions, and that there was apparently a neighborhood nearby the monastery are both substantial differences from the way of life recorded concerning the contemporary eremetic monks. This focus on charitable activities, it was recognized very early, required that monasteries have a certain measure of material resources. In the same ancient work already quoted on Pachomius’s monastery, for instance, it is recorded that the monastery included “fifteen tailors, seven smiths, four carpenters, twelve camel-drivers, and fifteen fullers” among its monks, indicating that the monastery must have also had the materials necessary for these jobs. The same work goes on to say that “they keep pigs too.”25 The controversy between the Possessors and the Non-Possessors on the issue of property ownership is reflective of this difference, and resultant tension, between the cenobitic and eremetic schools of monasticism, the foundations of which were laid in Christian monasticism’s earliest days.

The second major issue dividing the Possessors and the Non-Possessors was the nature that the relationship between the Church and the State should assume. This issue was closely related to the issues of land ownership and monastic relations with the world and, like those issues, was an enduring source of tension in historical Christian thought that came to the forefront of controversy throughout Europe during the Renaissance.

The Possessors advocated a close relationship between the Church and the State, following the Byzantine model, with Church and State acting in a symbiotic manner; the idea of Moscow as the third Rome held a particular and very real importance for the Possessors.26 The Non-Possessors, on the other hand, argued for a stricter separation of the two; “in general Nilus drew a clearer line than Joseph between the things of Caesar and the things of God.”27

The third issue, that of the proper treatment of heretics, gave concrete implications to this difference between the two groups on the issue of Church-State relations. Joseph of Volokolamsk argued vehemently in favor of the use of power by the State against heretics, demanding that the czar have them burned at the stake after they had been convicted by a Church tribunal, in much the same fashion as the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church functioned in Western Europe.28 “Supported by Grand Princess Sophia, he secured the condemnation and burning” of the leaders of a popular heretical group in 1504.29 Nil Sorsky, on the other hand, “condemned all forms of violence and coercion against heretics.”30 He argued instead that the Church should work to win them over through persuasion and compassion.

Like the issues of land ownership and Church-State relations, this issue also had deep roots in previous Christian thought. The prevailing attitude throughout Christian history was that expressed by John Chrysostom (349-407), Archbishop of Constantinople, very near the beginnings of the rise of the Christian Church to official status in the Roman Empire and the resultant symbiotic relationship between Church and State:

I do not persecute the heretic bodily, but I wage war against him with words — and not even against the heretic, but only against his heresy: I do not disdain the man; it is the error I hate, and I seek to pull him out of it….I am accustomed to being persecuted, not to persecute others….Thus did Christ triumph; He did not crucify, but rather it was He that was crucified. He did not smite others, but was Himself smitten.31

This attitude, however, has not always been adhered to consistently in the history of Christianity as a whole or in Orthodox Christianity specifically. The Byzantine Empress Theodora (815-867), for instance, had used the power of the State against the heretical sect known as the Paulicians, ordering the military to intervene, which resulted in the massacre of a large number of them.32

It is perhaps not ironic that the Possessors, who favored the use of State power against heretical sects and in Church matters in general, eventually became the favored party by the Russian government, whereas the Non-Possessors, who opposed State intervention in Church affairs, were eventually suppressed and had their leaders imprisoned by the government. In spite of the drastically different fates of the two groups as regards their respective official relationships with the State, however, both would have a lasting influence on the Russian Church and culture. It is especially significant in this regard that both Joseph of Volokolamsk and Nil Sorsky were canonized as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church.33

Later thinkers in the Russian Church were able to see both positive and negative aspects in the writings and ideas of both the Possessors and the Non-Possessors. The Possessors’ focus on charitable activities by the monasteries, for instance, is certainly a laudable thought. However, with too much focus on this element of the monastic vocation the Possessors came close to under-emphasizing the importance of silence, prayer, and the spiritual life for monks. On the opposite side, the Non-Possessors’ focus on the spiritual life and the practice of high ideals for monks was certainly a boon to the Russian spiritual tradition, and Nil Sorsky’s works were a major contribution to Orthodox spirituality, but simultaneously came dangerously near an individualist and quietist spirituality which ignored the need for practical work and care for others.

Similarly, the Possessors were right, if judged by the lens of previous Orthodox Christian practice, to attempt to establish something of a symbiotic relationship between Church and State in which the Church could fulfill its mission of care and service with the State’s assistance, but their ideology inevitably led to a subordination of the Church under the State, as would occur later in Russian history under Czar Peter the Great, stripping the Church of its independence and so inhibiting its mission.34 With their ideas of Moscow as a third Rome, they came very close to identifying the Church with the State as had nearly happened with the Roman Catholic Church and the Papal States in Italy at nearly the same time. And with their desire to bring the power of the State to use against heretics, they also came dangerously near replicating the activities of the Roman Catholic Church’s Inquisition.35

The Non-Possessors, on the other hand, were right to demand that the Church not use the military powers of the State and that the State not intervene in matters of the Church, but their ideas, if taken to their logical conclusion, were liable to result in an absolute separation of the Church and the State, resulting possibly in an opposition between the two and probably in a state like that which the division of the Protestants from the Roman Catholic Church caused in Western Europe, with the Church and the State often working in ways contrary to each other.36 In addition, the Non-Possessors’ adoption of spiritual poverty alongside this tendency against cooperation with the government had the risk of becoming something similar to the heretical movement of the Spiritual Franciscans in Western Europe.37

There can be little doubt that it has been a very positive influence in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church that its leaders in the centuries following the controversy between the Possessors and Non-Possessors were able to recognize both the good and the bad of each side’s teachings and to attempt to find a middle road between the two extremes. The Possessors and the Non-Possessors, like their kin in the Western European movements respectively resembling each position, each helped to shape the form that both Church and the State as well as the relationship between the two entities would take during and after the Renaissance.


1 David Bentley Hart, Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith (London: Quercus, 2007), 131.

2 ibid., 132.

3 “Russia to celebrate Christianization as official holiday,” Russia Today (28 July 2010) (Accessed 9 February 2011).

4 Serge Zenkovsky, “The Russian Church Schism,” in Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume I: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700, 2nd ed., ed. Thomas Riha (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 144.

5 John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 229-30.

6 ibid., 372-81.

7 James Patrick, Renaissance and Reformation (Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2007), 427-30.

8 Zenkovsky, “Russian Church Schism,” 144.

9 Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: New Edition (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 84.

10 ibid.

11 ibid., 104.

12 Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 98.

13 Ware, 104.

14 Pares, 99.

15 ibid.

16 Ware, 104.

17 ibid., 105.

18 “Nil Sorsky’s Rule for Hermits,” The Hermitage (2007) (Accessed 10 February 2011).

19 Pares, 99.

20 Ware, 105.

21 ibid.

22 David Goldfrank, “Old and New Perspectives on Iosif Volotsky’s Monastic Rules,” Slavic Review 34, no. 2 (June 1975): 279-301.

23 Benedicta Ward, tr., The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 8.

24 Paul Halsall, tr., “Chapter XXXII: Pachomius and the Tabennesiots,” in Medieval Sourcebook: Palladius: The Lausiac History (September 1998) (Accessed 12 February 2011).

25 ibid.

26 Steven Merritt Miner, Stalin’s Holy War: Religion, Nationalism, and Alliance Politics, 1941-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 16.

27 Ware, 106.

28 David Goldfrank, “Burn, Baby, Burn: Popular Culture and Heresy in Late Medieval Russia,” The Journal of Popular Culture 31, no. 4 (1998): 17–32.

29 Pares, 99.

30 Ware, 105.

31 Metropolitan Ephraim of Boston, “Do We All Worship the Same God?,” Orthodox Christian Witness (April 2007) (Accessed 12 February 2011).

32 Norwich, 140.

33 Ware, 107.

34 Ware, 114.

35 Edward Peters, Inquisition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 40-74.

36 Leo Pfeffer, Church, State, and Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 509.

37 David Burr, The Spiritual Franciscans: From Protest to Persecution in the Century After Saint Francis (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), 1-10.


Burr, David. The Spiritual Franciscans: From Protest to Persecution in the Century After Saint Francis. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

Erlinger, Rachel. The Unarmed Prophet: Savonarola in Florence. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1988.

Goldfrank, David. “Burn, Baby, Burn: Popular Culture and Heresy in Late Medieval Russia,” The Journal of Popular Culture 31, no. 4 (1998): 17–32.

Goldfrank, David. “Old and New Perspectives on Iosif Volotsky’s Monastic Rules,” Slavic
Review 34, no. 2 (June 1975): 279-301.

Halsall, Paul, tr. “Chapter XXXII: Pachomius and the Tabennesiots.” Medieval Sourcebook: Palladius: The Lausiac History. September 1998. (Accessed 12 February 2011).

Hart, David Bentley. The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith. London: Quercus, 2007.

Kharkhordin, Oleg. The Collective and the Individual in Russia: A Study of Practices. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Medlin, William K. and Christos G. Patrinelis. Renaissance Influences and Religious Reforms in Russia. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1971.

Metropolitan Ephraim of Boston. “Do We All Worship the Same God?” Orthodox Christian Witness. April 2007. (Accessed
12 February 2011).

Miner, Steven Merritt. Stalin’s Holy War: Religion, Nationalism, and Alliance Politics, 1941-1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

“Nil Sorsky’s Rule for Hermits.” The Hermitage. 2007. (Accessed 10 February 2011).

Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.

Patrick, James. Renaissance and Reformation. Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish Corporation,

Peters, Edward. Inquisition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Pfeffer, Leo. Church, State, and Freedom. Boston: Beacon Press, 1967.

Pospielovsky, Dimitry. The Orthodox Church in the History of Russia. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998.

“Russia to celebrate Christianization as official holiday.” Russia Today. 28 July 2010. (Accessed 9 February 2011).

Sorsky, Nil. Nil Sorsky: The Complete Writings. Edited and Translated by George A. Maloney. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2003.

Ward, Benedicta, tr. The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church: New Edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Zenkovsky, Serge. “The Russian Church Schism.” Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume I: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700, 2nd ed. Edited by Thomas Riha. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

2 thoughts on “The Controversy of the Possessors and Non-Possessors in Renaissance Russia”

  1. Fascinating article! Amazing how the issue of church and state has never been one that's been agreed upon by all Christians. The discussions and debates continue in all quarters today, ranging from total withdrawal from the secular world, to opposition to the secular world, to total accommodation and intermingling with the secular world.

  2. “The Byzantine Empress Theodora (815-867), for instance, had used the power of the State against the heretical sect known as the Paulicians, ordering the military to intervene”

    I don't know if this is an appropriate example of the state intervening for religious purposes. The Paulicians were clearly militarized, allied with Arab emirs, and went to war with the Eastern Roman Empire and conducted raids upon its territory.

    Thus, this event seems more an issue of military/political threat than religious heresy specifically.

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