Monday, October 19, 2015

Leo Tolstoy's view of Mormons as teaching 'The American Religion'

(by Susan McCloud 9-21-14)

In his diary, Leo Tolstoy wrote: “God is that infinite All of which man knows himself to be a finite part.”

Enigmatic, moved by great passions and inconsistencies, this man is considered a creative genius; perhaps as significant in the literature of the world as Shakespeare is.

Born on Sept. 9, 1828, he was the fourth child in a family of old, respected nobility. But his mother, and then his father, Count Nicolai Tolstoy, died while he was still young, and he and his siblings were raised by two aunts, in succession.

In 1844, around 16 years of age, Tolstoy began the study of law and the pursuit of Asian languages. As seems often the case with extraordinary people, a teacher described him as “both unable and unwilling to learn!”

In 1857, when nearing 30, Tolstoy visited Paris and happened to be witness to a public execution. Greatly moved, he wrote in a letter to his friend, Vasily Botkin: “The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens. ... Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere.”

Politics he endured, but religion had its own hold upon him. He married Sophia Tolstaya — 16 years his junior — in 1862. Thirteen children were born to them, and there were many challenges in this tumultuous relationship. Yet, interestingly, Tolstoy said and wrote things such as the following: “Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world; all else is folly” (see "War and Peace"). And again, “And all people live, not by reason of any care they have for themselves, but by the love for them that is in other people” (see "Tales from Tolstoy").

Tolstoy was a free, forward-looking thinker. In 1861, after visiting the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who was living in Brussels, Belguim, under an assumed name, he was so impressed by some of the ideas and possibilities discussed between them that he went home and arranged for the building of 13 schools for the children of his serfs.

Tolstoy believed that worship of God and our approach to God can be varied, but that God is there — and accessible to all men of all classes and conditions. He was curious, and sought for religious truths wherever he went, with whatever group or nationality of people he encountered. Rejecting organized religion himself, he was known for his support of and concern for those who did strive to practice their religion — especially for religious minorities who were struggling or suffering persecution.

Thus Mormonism. He first mentions this little-known religion in his diary while he is traveling in Western Europe. He is young, and relatively unknown except in Russia. But 30 years later, in an unusual way, Mormonism was again brought to his attention. He received an unexpected letter from an American woman, who happened to be Brigham Young’s daughter, Susa Young Gates. She was sending him a copy of the Book of Mormon, compelled by an article she had read the year before (in June of 1887), in “Century,” a leading magazine of the time. Tolstoy had spoken in an interview of the U.S. government’s measures to crush polygamy, and Susa was astonished that “extensive as your reading and knowledge is, it should still reach so far, and compass so seemingly small a factor in the world’s present history," according to the article "Tolstoy and Mormonism," by Leland A. Fetzer.

This impassioned young woman could not resist telling the history of her people from their own point of view. Her letter was well-written and both sweet and persuasive. She sent three letters in all to the great writer, and these were apparently answered, as was his habit, by his daughter, Tatyana. Tolstoy had scrawled the one word "answer" in Russian on the last page of Susa’s letter. So he was definitely, to some extent, drawn to this daughter of the famous Mormon leader and to what she was saying. In his journal Tolstoy referred to the “beautiful letter of the American woman,” according to "Tolstoy and Mormonism."

It was five years later when a notable reference to Mormonism came up in Tolstoy’s life. But before this time Tolstoy had obviously spoken of Mormons in interviews, perhaps read more, asked questions — even of himself. Quakers, Russian Old Believers, Buddhists — many groups which may be considered exotic sects — were of interest to him. When he read the book Susa sent on Joseph Smith he found what he called deception in it, as he did in all organized religion. He disliked the trappings of churches which he believed got in the way of the personal experience, rather than facilitating it. Dogma and ritual raised red flags for him. He deeply distrusted institutions, and the concept of being told what he had to do and how he had to do it in order to express religion — or even to feel it within. He found particularly repulsive churches associated with and supported by the state.

When Tolstoy met with Andrew D. White in March of 1894, White was President of Cornell University and had been a minister to both Germany and Russia, and also the American delegate to the Hague Conference of 1899. He was independently wealthy, a man of power, sure of his position and confident of himself.

When their general discussion came around to Mormonism, Tolstoy was interested that White had visited Salt Lake City two years before, and expressed some positive opinions about the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and about what he had read of them. In White’s words, which were published in McClure's Magazine (April 1901) and quoted in Tolstoy and Mormonism”: “He thought two thirds of their religion deception, but said that on the whole he preferred a religion which professed to have dug its sacred books out of the earth to one that pretended that they were let down from heaven ... he spoke of the good reputation of the Mormons for chastity, and asked me to explain the hold of their religion upon women.”

Much was obviously going on in Tolstoy’s mind. He was an insightful thinker, in many ways he was a realist, but he could feel as deeply and passionately as he could think. These interviews between the two men took place over several days. And White’s responses were as astute and in many ways as enlightened in thought and perception as were Tolstoy’s.

An additional, albeit third-hand, account of the meeting comes from one-time Cornell student Thomas J. Yates. It was published by the Improvement Era in February 1939. According to Yates, White shared the story with him after learning that Yates was Mormon.

What brought Tolstoy to this final statement, if accurate, will, of course, never be known. The absoluteness, the definitive nature of his words, imbues them with a ringing power that sends a thrill through the reader’s mind. Given all that Tolstoy was, all that struggled within himself that was unknown to others, his statement on Mormonism can be considered nothing less than remarkable.
According to Yates' account, Tolstoy began by asking White to tell him of his American religion. White explained that there was no such thing, but Tolstoy persisted, saying, “ 'I know all of this, but I want to know about the American religion. Catholicism originated in Rome; the Episcopal Church originated in England; the Lutheran Church in Germany, but the Church to which I refer originated in America, and is commonly known as the Mormon Church. What can you tell me of the teachings of the Mormons?’

“ 'Well,’ said Dr. White ‘I know very little concerning them. They have an unsavory reputation, they practice polygamy, and are very superstitious.’

“Then Count Leo Tolstoy, in his honest and stern, but lovable manner, rebuked the ambassador. ‘Dr. White, I am greatly surprised and disappointed that a man of your great learning and position should be so ignorant on this important subject. The Mormon people teach the American religion; their principles teach the people not only of Heaven and its attendant glories, but how to live so that their social and economic relations with each other are placed on a sound basis. If the people follow the teachings of this Church, nothing can stop their progress — it will be limitless. There have been great movements started in the past but they have died or been modified before they reached maturity. If Mormonism is able to endure, unmodified, until it reaches the third and fourth generation, it is destined to become the greatest power the world has ever known.’ ”

Apparently White, after his return home, secured a set of LDS Church works to be placed in the library at Cornell.


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