Leo Tolstoy, Evangelist Basil Malof, and the Effects of Historical Criticism on One Man’s Soul

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

In Pastor Basil Malof’s book, Sentenced to Siberia, he tells of an encounter he had with Leo Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina,  and how the great novelist had rejected the authority of the Bible. (For more history on the evangelistic missions of Pastor Malof click here.)

This led the conversation to the subject of personal religion. Under the influence of the writings of some German “New Theology” or modernistic writers of the Fifties and Sixties of the nineteenth century, Tolstoy had come to reject the doctrine of atonement by the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, inspiration of the Bible and other fundamental evangelical doctrines, and when Pastor Malof referred to the New Testament the novelist said, “My New Testament is much shorter than yours. I reject a great deal of that which you accept.” In fact he had compiled a New Testament of his own, cutting out all the miracles and the resurrection of Christ. “By what authority?” demanded Pastor Malof. “Ah!” replied Tolstoy, “by the authority of my own reason.” (1)

Russian Pastor Basil Malof
Russian Pastor Basil Malof

In The Gospel in Brief, Tolstoy explained that the only words in the Bible that he could truly trust were the words of Jesus. All the other words of the Bible had doubt cast on them due to the historical critics.

Malof noted the connection between biblical doctrine and society. When humanity rejects God and his Word, invariably society becomes destructive rather than constructive. He realized there was a link between sound doctrine and a sound society.

Here was noticeable the destructive results of the poison of the early German modernistic teachings upon the Russian mind which later with such terrible results spread in the theological schools and universities of Great Britain and America. The “New Theology” . . . like a terrible octopus of hell spread its poisonous tentacles over the thinking of . . . students and professors and preachers. Modernism in religion is the same revolutionary process as Bolshevism and anarchy in politics. No more does the infallible and holy God decide, but the fallible human reason. Modernism, just as communism, is an uprising against authority. (2)

Malof continued to challenge Tolstoy until “looking at the Pastor with his penetrating, grey mystical eyes, in his deep bass voice, as if speaking to himself, [Tolstoy] solemnly said: ‘Ya yesh-cho ish-chu.’ (‘I still seek.’)”  (3) To this, Malof commented that Tolstoy’s answer expressed “the true spiritual face of the whole Russian nation–people who are still seeking, who have church, but not Christ.” (4)

This searching attitude would be reflected in Tolstoy’s Confessionin which he described in great detail, his search for God. He said he dabbled in all the latest philosophy. He had studied all the great thoughts of men and determined, as Solomon, that they were all vanity. He studied all the world’s religions (even all forms of Christianity) and concluded that they weren’t true because of their hypocrisy. They didn’t live out the morality that they espoused.

But this made him feel hopeless and suicidal. What was the meaning in life? Why did he exist? So then Tolstoy turned to poor laborers to understand the faith that sustained them in their hardship and realized he may have been hasty in rejecting faith because of the hypocrites.

And remembering how those very beliefs had repelled me and had seemed meaningless when professed by people whose lives conflicted with them, and how thses same beliefs attracted me and seemed reasonable when I saw that people lived in accord with them, I understood why I had then rejected those beliefs and found them meaningless, yet now accepted them and found them full of meaning. (5)

He then described the intelligentsia who questioned the commandments of God, rather than accepting them as the uneducated peasants did.

If a naked, hungry beggar has been taken from the cross-roads, brought into a building belonging to a beautiful establishment, fed, supplied with drink, and obliged to move a handle up and down, evidently, before discussing why he was taken, why he should move the handle, and whether the whole establishment is reasonably arranged–the beggar should first of all move the handle. If he moves the handle he will understand that it works a pump, that the pump draws water and that the water irrigates the garden beds; then he will be taken from the pumping station to another place where he will gather fruits and will enter into the joy of his master, and, passing from lower to higher work, will understand more and more of the arrangements of the establishment, and taking part in it will never think of asking why he is there, and will certainly not reproach the master.

So those who do his will, the simple, unlearned working folk, whom we regard as cattle, do not reproach the master; but we, the wise, eat the master’s food, but do not do what the master wishes, and instead of doing it sit in a circle and discuss: “Why should that handle be moved? Isn’t it stupid?” So we have decided. We have decided that the master is stupid, or does not exist, and that we are wise, only we feel that we are quite useless and that we must somehow do away with ourselves. (6)

Tolstoy said that he couldn’t agree with philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Kant. He believed that God couldn’t be found in the material world through sensory experience. He must be found in a realm outside of time and space, therefore their dismissal of God as the Cause didn’t impress him. Instead, Tolstoy sensed the presence of love in the universe. He said this love was like the love of a mother.

But again and again, from various sides, I returned to the same conclusion that I could not have come into the world without any cause or reason or meaning; I could not be such a fledgling fallen from its nest as I felt myself to be. Or, granting that I be such, lying on my back crying in the high grass, even then I cry because I know that a mother has borne me within her, has hatched me, warmed me, fed me, and loved me. Where is she–that mother? If I have been deserted, who has deserted me? I cannot hide from myself that someone bore me, loving me. Who was that someone? Again “God?” He knows and sees my searching, my despair, and my struggle.

“He exists,” said I to myself. And I had only for an instant to admit that, and at once life rose within me, and I felt the possibility and the joy of being. (7)

David F. Strauss, liberal theologian who claimed the miracles of Christ were merely myths.
David F. Strauss, liberal theologian who claimed the miracles of Christ were merely myths.

Unfortunately, immediately after this burst of hope and joy, Tolstoy recalled what he had learned from liberal theologians. (Specifically, those of the historical critics who had the most influence on Karl Marx: Ludwig Feuerbach, who claimed that God was merely an expression of the mind of man, and David F. Strauss, who claimed the supernatural elements of Christianity were only myths.)

Not twice or three times, but tens and hundreds of times, I reached those conditions, first of joy and animation, and then of despair and consciousness of the impossibility of living.

I remember that it was in early spring: I was alone in the wood listening to its sounds. I listened and thought ever of the same thing, as I had constantly done during those last three years. I was again seeking God.

“Very well, there is no God,” said I to myself; “there is no one who is not my imagination but a reality like my whole life. He does not exist, and no miracles can prove his existence, because the miracles would be my imagination, besides being irrational.

“But my perception of God, of him whom I seek,” I asked myself, “where has that perception come from?” And again at this thought the glad waves of life rose within me. All that was around me came to life and received a meaning. But my joy did not last long. My mind continued its work.

“The conception of God is not God,” said I to myself. “The conception is what takes place within me. The conception of God is something I can evoke or can refrain from evoking in myself. The is not what I seek. I seek that without which there can be no life.” And again all around me and within me began to die, and again I wished to kill myself. (8)

Ludwig Feuerbach claimed that God was merely a conception in the mind of man.
Ludwig Feuerbach claimed that God was merely a conception in the mind of man.

It was at this time, because of the simple faith he saw in the peasants, that Tolstoy decided to attend the Orthodox Church and join in their religious rituals. He thought that if he submitted, in due time, he would understand their meaning and find joy and peace in the life of the “community” as they became one with their forefathers by following the same traditions. But the opposite happened. If he just went to church and practiced the rituals, he would experience inexplicable pain in his heart. He was able to ignore it or blame it on his own sin, yet as he studeid the “truths” he could no longer close his eyes to the faults of the Orthodox religion.

How often I envied the peasants their illiteracy and lack of learning! Those statements in the creeds which to me were evident absurdities, for them contained nothing false; they could accept them and could believe in the truth–the truth I believed in. Only to me, unhappy man, was it clear that with truth falsehood was interwoven by finest threads, and that I could not accept it in that form. (9)

The Orthodox Church’s insistence that truth resided in the performance of rituals caused Tolstoy pain in his conscience. Then he considered the existence of so many sects and divisions in Christianity and concluded:

They emphasize the fact that they have a differently shaped cross and different alleluias and a different procession round the altar. We reply: You believe in the Nicene Creed, in the seven sacraments, and so do we. Let us hold to that, and in other matters do as you please. We have united with them by placing the essentials of faith above the unessentials. Now with the Catholics can we not say: You believe in so and so and in so and so, which are the chief things, and as for the Filioque clause and the Pope–do as you please. Can we not say the same to the Protestants, uniting with them in what is most important?

My interlocuter agreed with my thoughts, but told me that such conceptions would bring reproach to the spiritual authorities for deserting the faith of our forefathers, and this would produce a schism; and the vocation of the spiritual authorities is to safeguard in all its purity the Greco-Russian Orthodox faith inherited from our forefathers.

And I understood it all. I am seeking a faith, the power of life; and they are seeking the best way to fulfill in the eyes of men certain human obligations. And fulfilling these human affairs they fulfill them in a human way. (10)

The emphasis of the Russian Orthodox Church on rituals, rather than simple love for God and neighbor, based on the central tenets of Christianity, would confound Tolstoy. As the author of such beautiful Christian stories as “Where Love Is, There God Is Also,” he would explain God to his fellow Russians, but his own pursuit of God would be clouded by doubt under the influence of liberal Christianity, philosophy, and most sadly the Russian Orthodox Church.

Pastor Malof relates the story of how two years after his first encounter with the Count Leo Tolstoy, a wagon pulled up in front of the home of the son of Madame Tschertkoff, while having a Bible study with her, when “from this carriage, to the surprise of everyone, stepped  the Countess Sophie Tolstoy, wife of Count Leo.” She had a message asking the pastor to pay a visit to her husband on that day. But Malof couldn’t go because he had a train to catch. Pastor Malof says that this was the “greatest regret” of his life, because he later received a letter “stating that Count Tolstoy had anxiously awaited him the whole of the afternoon.” (11) 

Right after this, Tolstoy left on his final search for God. The newspapers watched his every move as he traveled from monastery to monastery to speak with the “startsi” (aged saints). Deciding to never go home again, he wandered from place to place until finally dying at a railway station. Tolstoy was searching for the Narrow Way. He wanted a simple faith that would produce a relationship with God, and love for his neighbors, but he also rejected the authority of the scriptures–the only place he could have found what he was looking for.

The blame for this can be placed on the historical critics of the nineteenth century, of whom Basil Malof rightly described their theology as an “octopus of hell” stretching forth its poisonous tentacles over the minds of students, professors and preachers. The doubt they cast on the authority of the scriptures caused not only Karl Marx to lose his faith (followed by the massive destruction of millions of people), but also caused the joy in Tolstoy’s heart to be squelched, and his life to become a fruitless search for something that could satisfy his soul.

  1. Oswald A. Blumit and Oswald J. Smith. Sentenced to Siberia: The Story of the Ministry, Persecution, Imprisonment, and God’s Wonderful Deliverance of Pastor Basil A. Malof, Russian Missionary, 6th ed. (Wheaton, IL: Mayflower Publishers, 1943), 73-74.  
  2. Ibid., 75.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Leo Tolstoy, Confessions, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/tolstoy/confession.ii.xi.html (accessed 2/8/2009).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., Chapter 12.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., Chapter 15.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Oswald A. Blumit, Sentenced to Siberia, 71-81.

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