The word "Doukhobor" was derived from the Russian word Doukhoborets, its literal meaning being spirit-wrestler. It was given in its plural form (Doukhobortsi) to a group of dissident Russian peasants in 1785 by Ambrosius, an Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church. This group insisted that is was wrong to worship the icons or images that were then in so much use in churches and homes; for this the church hierarchy classed the group as heretics. Though the name given to them was meant to be derogatory, the group took it on as a true assessment of their desire to use only spirit-force in their struggles against the evils inherent in church and society, rather than any form of violence.
The latter portion of the 18th century was one of bitter persecution for the Doukhobors -- many were tortured; others were exiled to monasteries or to slave labor. Sometimes whole groups were exiled, to Finland or to Siberia. When Alexander the First began his reign, a general amnesty was declared for all Doukhobors. Their lives were basically peaceful until 1895, when leader Peter Verigin declared that any Doukhobors serving in the army should lay down their arms and refuse to serve anymore; in fact, all Doukhobors were to burn all the arms in their possession. This led to mass arrests, torture and exile, wherein over 1000 (out of 9000) Doukhobors were killed. This brought world-wide attention, and Leo Tolstoy and others -- including the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) -- donated enough money to facilitate a mass migration of Doukhobors. In 1898, Cyprus was chosen as a temporary haven, but the climate there led to many deaths of the emigrants, so after hurried negotiations, mass migration to Canada was finally arranged in 1899. The main body of them came over in four shiploads, on improvised freight ships in 1899 and 1900. The military recruits who had been exiled to Siberia were released by a special imperial amnesty, and emigrated to Canada in 1905.
[excerpted from Historical Exposition on Doukhobor Beliefs by Eli A. Popoff]
In the late 1930s, the Doukhobor leader, Peter P. Verigin, created an organization called the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (also known as the Orthodox Doukhobors), which has maintained a tradition of Doukhobor activities. The Society of Friends in Canada and in the United States formed a Doukhobor Committee under the auspices of the Philadelphia (PA) Yearly Meeting, to offer moral and material assistance to the Doukhobors because of their commonly held belief in pacifism and simplicity; this Committee was in existence until at least 1945. For more information about the relationship between the Society of Friends and the Doukhobors, see Spirit Wrestlers: Centennial Papers in Honour of Canada's Doukhobor Heritage (Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1995).
Four generations of the Elkinton family, prominent Quakers in Philadelphia (PA), had numerous contacts with the Doukhobors through the years:
- Joseph S. Elkinton (1830-1905) met the first shipload of Doukhobors in Halifax in 1899.
- Joseph Elkinton (1859-1920) visited them and also wrote a book The Doukhobors, published in 1903.
- J. [Joseph] Passmore Elkinton (1887-1971) visited the Doukhobors in 1921, 1927, 1928, 1940 and 1951. His brother, Howard W. Elkinton (1892-1955) visited with Doukhobors in Western Canada; Howard's son, Peter W., visited the Doukhobors on many occasions.
- David C. Elkinton visited the Doukhobors in Canada in 1927; in 1969 to represent Philadelphia Yearly Meeting at the 70th Anniversary Jubilee in Saskatchewan; with his wife, Marian, in British Columbia; and in 1987 to visit with Doukhobor journalist and author Koozma J. Tarasoff in Ottawa.