Leo Tolstoy: Mormonism as the “American Religion”

Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, also known as Leo Tolstoy, born 9 September 1828 in Yasnaya Polyana, Russia, was a Russian writer, philosopher and political thinker who primarily wrote novels and short stories. It is said that Tolstoy referred to Yasnaya Polyana as his “inaccessible literary stronghold”. It was there that he penned two of his greatest literary works, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), and also where he was buried upon his death in Lev Tolstoy, Russia on 20 November 1910. He is widely considered one of the greatest novelists of all time.

Tolstoy, Mormonism, and the “American Religion”

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

The late Elder David B. Haight, serving as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in his message titled “He Is Not Here. He Is Risen,” shared the account of a conversation in 1892 between Count Leo Tolstoy and Andrew D. White who was the United States Foreign Minister to Russia at that time.

In the course of that conversation, Tolstoy said to White, “I wish you would tell me about your American religion.” White replied that there is no state church in America and that each person is free to practice the religion of his choosing. Tolstoy, becoming somewhat annoyed, replied, “I know all of this, but I want to know about the American religion. … 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?” White then admitted that he knew very little about the Mormons or their faith.

Tolstoy, displeased with the ambassador’s response, then said:

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. 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.

A Special Gift from a Prophet’s Daughter

Leo Tolstoy - AuthorLeo Tolstoy will long be remembered as a great novelist, short story writer, and dramatist, but perhaps what should be remembered most about this literary genius whom Russians consider to be of the same caliber as Shakespeare in world literature, is the fact that he was a thinker. In his middle-age years after facing a devastating life crisis, he became engrossed in reading, thinking about, and writing about the pressing ethical, social, and religious issues of his day, with particular concentration on religious issues. It is said that in his quest to find answers to religious and moral questions, he penned some 7,000 letters in his lifetime.

Leland A. Fetzer, in his article titled “Tolstoy and Mormonism” wrote the following about Tolstoy:

One of the characteristics of Tolstoy’s thoughts in his later years, when he was convinced that his mission lay in the moral conversion of mankind, was a profound commitment to religious belief. Tolstoy was convinced, quite simply, that to live was to believe. He accepted the existence of God, and, indeed, without the surety of God’s presence, he says, he would have shot himself in the birch woods on his estate or hanged himself in his study; the existence of God justified his own existence. What is more, he believed that God is accessible to all men of all social classes and all races and the celebration of His presence might take many forms.

In his quest for religious truth he became acquainted with Mormonism. His first mention of the subject can be found in his diary when he was a young writer known only to Russian readers, as he was traveling in Western Europe in 1857. He wrote again on the subject in an essay published near the end of life in 1901.

There were no missionaries in Russia during Tolstoy’s lifetime, however, according to Emily Schmuhl, reporting for Mormon Times, Tolstoy had a copy of the Book of Mormon in the library at his estate, Yasnaya Polyana. How did he obtain this precious volume? Frederick and Nataliya Felt, who at that time were attending the Laurel Ward of the Silver Spring Stake in Washington, D.C. set out to find an answer to that question after being told about the Book of Mormon in Tolstoy’s library by a Russian member. They went to Yasnaya Polyana, now a Tolstoy museum located four hours south of Moscow, to learn more about the book. Nataliya had a vested interest because she was born in Moscow, Russia, and has knowledge of the language and the country’s rich literary history. In a Deseret News article dated 22 June 2010, she commented, “I knew and respected Tolstoy’s works before I joined (the church),” Nataliya said. “I was really happy to know such a talented writer took an interest in the church.”

The Deseret News article continues:

A librarian at the museum searched her records and photocopied a catalog reference to the Book of Mormon. “It identified the exact cabinet, shelf and volume number,” Frederick said.

More importantly, the reference indicated that the book was a gift given to Tolstoy by Susa Young Gates, daughter of Brigham Young, women’s rights advocate and a writer once referred to by R. Paul Cracroft as “the most versatile and prolific LDS writer ever to take up the pen in defense of her religion.”

“It was surprisingly heavy,” Frederick said. He identified the copy as an 1881 Second Electrotype Edition published in Liverpool, England.

Gates’ inscription simply read: “Count Leo Tolstoy, from Susa Young Gates. Salt Lake City, Utah.”

He noted that other than the inscription, there were no other notes on any of the pages.

The curator helped the Felts consult Tolstoy’s diary where they found an entry mentioning that he had received the book from Gates and had “read the book.”

It is not clear however, if Tolstoy read the Book in its entirety or only in part.

Susan McCloud, in her 21 September 2014 Deseret News article “Leo Tolstoy’s view of Mormons as teaching ‘The American Religion’” commented:

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.

Susa Young GatesThus, his keen interest in Mormonism. Brigham Young’s daughter had been enthralled by an article that she had read in the June 1887 issue of Century, which was a leading magazine of that time. Prior to writing Tolstoy, he had spoken in an interview of the U.S. government’s measures to crush polygamy, and according to Leland A. Fetzer’s article “Tolstoy and Mormonism,” she was amazed and wrote Tolstoy 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.”

She sent him a copy of the Book of Mormon along with her letter which told of the history of Mormons from their point of view. Susa sent a total of three letters to Tolstoy which were answered by his daughter, Tatyana, as was his custom in responding to correspondence. According to Fetzer’s article, Tolstoy referred to the “beautiful letter of the American woman” in his journal.

Although he found the letters to be intriguing, according to the 21 September 2014 Deseret News article “Leo Tolstoy’s view of Mormons as teaching ‘The American Religion,” “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.”

Leo Tolstoy: A Man of Deep Thought and Reasoning

When Tolstoy met with Andrew D. White in March of 1894, and the discussion turned to the subject of Mormonism, White recalled the following as 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.

Thomas J. Yates, once a student at Cornell University, also shared his account of the meetings between Tolstoy and White which was published by the Improvement Era in February 1939. It is also reported that upon returning home, White secured a set of LDS Church works for the Cornell University library.

Leo TolstoyCount Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was a thinker. And though he abhorred organized religion, he maintained a determined interest in Mormonism, and considered it to be a religion that would flourish and influence the world as no other religion ever had before. Of all the religious sects in America, Leo Tolstoy considered Mormonism to be the “American Religion.”



Rare Mormon Artifacts Recount History and Faithfulness of Early Church Saints

During the early days of the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, members experienced and endured unjustified suffering and persecution. On numerous occasions, they were driven from their homes and forced to leave behind many of their precious possessions. Among those things that were left behind, lost, or destroyed were books, coins, notes, and documents which have long since been salvaged as a means of preserving history.

1830 First Edition of the Book of Mormon – How Rare a Possession

1830 Book of Mormon and ReferencesAmong the rare artifacts that have been recovered from early Church history is an original 1830 first edition of the Book of Mormon. Although the edition is not considered the rarest LDS publication, it is in fact a treasured commodity to be had by serious collectors as it marks the beginning of the Lord’s true Church in this dispensation. Only five thousand copies of the first Book of Mormon were printed, and each sold for the cost of 75 cents. Today it is estimated that only a few hundred copies remain in any condition, and a majority of those are not complete copies. It is interesting to note that in 1998, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, purchased an 1830 first edition copy of the Book of Mormon.

Two back-to-back pages, which became referred to as “References to the Book of Mormon,” were placed inside copies of the first copies of the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon to be used as a navigation tool – an index – by missionaries as they used the Book of Mormon to teach the gospel. The pages were not attached which made it easy for them to be lost or destroyed. Together with the pages from the 1830 first edition, these have become some of the rarest and most expensive printed pages in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ.

1833 Book of Commandments – First Record of Printed Revelations

In July 1833, the early Church was to publish the first collection of printed revelations in a book titled “Book of Commandments.” The press and the thousands of pages waiting to be folded and cut was located on the upper floor of the home of William W. Phelps. The publication was abruptly disrupted on 20 July 1833 when a mob broke in, chased Phelps’ wife and children out, and destroyed the press. The printed pages were dumped into the street with the intent of the mob to destroy them.

Book of CommandmentsIn an act of courage, 15-year-old Mary Elizabeth Rollins and her 13-year-old sister Caroline grabbed up as many sheets as they could hold and ran. They were discovered and chased by the mob, but were never found. The pages that they were able to salvage were hand cut and bound into 15 incomplete copies of the Book of Commandments with covers made out of leather, goat hair, and even wood. In 2001, a rare complete copy of the Book of Commandments was sold at auction at Christie’s in New York for the hefty price of $391,000 – the most money ever paid for a nineteenth century American book.

The destruction of the Book of Commandments did not thwart the work of the Lord from progressing, nor His Word from going forth. The Brethren immediately began work on compiling another Book of Commandments. However, after deliberating that the book contained more than just commandments, it was agreed that the new book should be titled “Doctrine and Covenants,” and in an 1835 conference, the Doctrine and Covenants was accepted as scripture.

Kirtland and Early Mormon Currency

Kirtland Safety Society NoteIn 1836, the first attempts of producing Mormon currency took place in Kirtland, Ohio when the young growing Church decided to establish a bank. The Ohio legislature denied their charter, and so they created the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company. The currency that was distributed, known as Kirtland Safety Society Notes, were signed by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon.

Coins were also made and used as currency. In 1846, while camped in Iowa Territory, Peter Haws created a brass coin which became known as “Do Your Duty” Coin which was used by members of The Church of Jesus Christ throughout Pottawattamie County. According to the LDS Living.com article dated 8 August 2014, “He embossed one side with a beehive and the slogan “Do Your Duty.” On the other side, he embossed hands clasped together with the motto “Union Is Strength.””

In 1848, after the Saints had settled in the Great Salt Lake Valley, President Brigham Young directed the Brethren to establish a mint for the production of gold coins. The production of the coins began in 1849. The LDS Living.com article describes the coins as follows:

Like all 1849 gold Mormon coins, the ten dollar denomination features an open eye and a crown surrounded by the words “Holiness to the Lord.” The reverse side of the coin shows two hands clasped. “Pure Gold” and “Ten Dollars” is written around the hands.

Unfortunately, the life of the gold coins was short-lived because of their rejection in non-Mormon territories due to their substandard weight. Some banks did accept them at a 25 percent discount, but most were melted.

1842 Book of Mormon – Last Edition Published Under Direction of Joseph Smith

The 1842 edition of the Book of Mormon has become the scarcest of all copies of the Book of Mormon as it was the last edition that was published under the direction of the Prophet, Joseph Smith, in Nauvoo, Illinois. Joseph’s father had passed away before the volume was complete, and so it is the only volume that credits him without the usual suffix of “Junior.”

The Legacy of the Early Church

The Saints lived under constant persecution, and were often attacked and forced to flee for their lives to find solace in unexplored territories. Oftentimes they took flight with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, and their children at their side. Many valuable and meaningful journals and documents had to be left behind, and in time were completely lost or destroyed. With such precious losses, a part of their legacy was also lost. Nevertheless, they continued to press forward by faith. We can be thankful that with the discovery of rare artifacts from early Church history, a large part of that legacy can be reclaimed. We can also be thankful that in spite of the opposition, the work of the Lord continues to roll forth. The Prophet Joseph Smith declared:

The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.

Jesse Smith’s Lost Book of Mormon Found

by Shaun Heaton

It had been 60 years since any Jesse N. Smith’s family member knew what had happened to the Book of Mormon that Joseph Smith fondly gave to his 7-year-old youngest cousin Jesse. It was a treasured family heirloom and a symbol of Grandpa Jesse’s love for the restored Gospel. Had it been lost, stolen, or misplaced? Here is the incredible story.

 A photograph portrait of Jesse Smith.

Jesse N. Smith

In 1839, Grandpa had lost his father Silas Smith Sr., brother to Joseph Smith Sr., and his 6-year-old brother John, as a result of Missouri persecution. Joseph and Hyrum and Uncle John Smith took it upon themselves to take care of the tiny family of Mary Aiken, mother to young Silas Jr. and Jesse. In adult life, Silas Jr. is remembered for being called by Erastus Snow to lead the San Juan Saints to the San Juan as detailed in Gerald Lund’s book Undaunted.

In his April 1905 General Conference address in the tabernacle, President Jesse N. Smith, first leader of the Snowflake Stake, shared this striking and humorous experience he had in Nauvoo. Read more

Mary Whitmer: Twelfth Witness to the Book of Mormon

Mary Musselman Whitmer (August 27, 1778 – January 1856) was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, inadvertently called the Mormon Church, on April 18, 1830, shortly after the Church was organized. However, her conversion to the truthfulness of the Church’s doctrines and the divine work of Joseph Smith the Prophet occurred in 1829.

A quote "courage to be a witness" with Jesus Christ in background.Mary became acquainted with Joseph Smith through introduction by her son David Whitmer. Joseph experienced strong persecution while translating the Book of Mormon, and the Whitmer family boarded Joseph, his wife Emma, and his scribe Oliver Cowdery.  Caring for the boarders as well as her large family became quite a burden for Mary. Read more

Tamer Washburn: God Gave Her Victory Over Herself

Excerpts taken from Susannah Washburn Bowles’ biography of her mother Tamer Washburn (1805-1886). Tamer joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often inadvertently called the “Mormon Church,” in 1838 and continued faithful to the Church until the time of her death in 1886.

Tamer Washburn was a daughter of Jesse and Susannah Tompkins Washburn. She was born July 4th, 1805, at Mt Pleasant, Westchester County, New York. When she was 19 years old, Tamer married Abraham Washburn (whose grandfather was her father’s brother) on March 16, 1824, at Mt. Pleasant, New York. In their early married life, they moved to Sing Sing, where Abraham went into the shoe-making and tanning business.

Mormon Missionaries

A quote, "Always give and never regret". When Parley P. Pratt came to New York with the gospel message, Abraham Washburn was converted immediately; the message was so plain and beautiful that he believed everybody could readily be converted. Abraham took Brother Pratt home with him to explain the wonderful message to his wife. Brother Pratt told her that the Lord and His Son had visited, in person, the boy Joseph Smith, and later sent heavenly messengers who had restored the Priesthood, both Aaronic and Melchizedek, and that the Lord was giving the boy Prophet continued revelations, revealing the gospel of Jesus Christ in its fulness. He said that the Angel Moroni had delivered the history of the ancient inhabitants of this continent, written on gold plates, to the Prophet, and he had by the power of God, translated them, and that the book was now published and was called The Book of Mormon. Read more

Edmond Durfee: A Martyr for the Cause of God

Excerpts taken from Tamma Durfee Miner White’s reflections of her father Edmond Durfee (1788-1845). Edmond joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often inadvertently called the “Mormon Church,” in 1831. He was shot by an angry anti-Mormon mob at the Isaac Morley settlement at Green Plains, Hancock, Illinois in 1845.

If in the end you have not chosen Jesus Christ it will not matter what you have chosen.My father’s name was Edmund Durfee, he was born in Rhode Island on the 3rd October 1788 of Dutch decent [SIC]. My mother’s name was Magdalena “Lana” Pickle and she was born 6 June 1788. Her father and mother were from Holland. I was born 6 March 1813 in Lennox, Madison County, New York and lived there until I was about nine years old when we moved to Amboy, Oswego County. Father bought some land, built him a house, made a small farm, and worked at his trade that was mostly carpenter and millwright. We lived there until the first of June 1830, father bought more land. There were lots of maple trees. Then father wanted to go West so he sold his sugar bush and farm and started for the south of Ohio. We went through Camden Village to the canal, went on the canal to Buffalo, we went to Briggles (Ruggles) in Huron County. Read more

Mary A Savage’s Personal Account of Her Parents’ Conversion to Mormonism

A black and white photograph of Mary A SavageI, Mary Abagail White Savage, am the daughter of John Griggs White and Lucy Bailey who were born in Connecticut.

I was born in the State of New York, town of Parishville, Lawrence Co., March 30th, 1832. When I was about 12 years old my father moved to Ohio and settled at Fairport in Geauga Co., fifteen miles from Kirtland. My father said to mother one day, “They say the Smiths live at Kirtland and are Mormons.” They had been acquainted with the Smiths before the Book of Mormon was found and lived neighbors to John and Silas Smith, Joseph Smith’s uncles. Father said, “I’m going to see them and if honest John Smith tells me the Book of Mormon is true I will believe it for I don’t believe he has ever told a lie in his life.” Read more

Visiting the Sacred Grove

On a June day in 2012, my husband and I pulled in to Palmyra, New York. I had wanted to go to the Sacred Grove for years, and I was excited about the opportunity that had finally come to visit it and many other historical sites of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which church is often misnamed the “Mormon Church”). It was pretty early in the morning that day, so we were lucky enough to have the place to ourselves for a little bit.

joseph-smith-palmyra-sacred-groveWe walked by the Smith Family Home and back into the trees to take advantage of the fact that we were alone. As we quietly walked through the grove of beautiful trees, I thought to myself, “Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ appeared here!” Just that thought filled me with a sense of awe and reverence. I have been in holy places before, but this was a wonderful and unique experience.

I was born to parents who are both faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and, I was raised in the teachings of the Church. I have heard the story of the First Vision all my life, but being in the place where it actually occurred strengthened my personal witness of its veracity. Read more

The Translation of the Book of Mormon into Afrikaans

Translating the Book of Mormon into other languages commenced relatively soon after the first publication in 1830. As of April 2011, the Book of Mormon has been published in its entirety in 82 languages, with selections of the book available in an additional 25 languages. The first edition of the Book of Mormon after English was Danish in 1851, followed by French, Italian, Welsh, and German in 1852. [1] There was even a Deseret Alphabet version. As far as possible, the translators were to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but as the Church expanded rapidly with missionaries entering new countries, it was necessary sometimes to employ translators from outside the Church. Such was the case in South Africa. Currently Afrikaans is the native tongue of about 13% of the population in South Africa. [2]

Book of MormonJohn M. Pontius was a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in South Africa from 1971–73. He describes the yearning for Afrikaans-speakers for a translation of the Book of Mormon

I attended the special conference in Johannesburg on May 14, 1972 when the new translation of the Book of Mormon into Afrikaans (Die Boek van Mormon) was presented. It was an electric moment. People wept. Some had waited all of their lifetimes to read the Book of Mormon in Afrikaans. Many people had learned English for the sole purpose of reading this scripture. The Spirit was strong among us as we rejoiced. [3] Read more

Sidney Rigdon

By Terrie

Sidney Rigdon was an early leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often misnamed the “Mormon Church”). He was born in 1793 in Pennsylvania. When he was seventeen, his father died. His mother died when he was twenty-six, but the year prior to that, Sidney became a Baptist and left home to become a preacher. Six years later, in 1824, Sidney Rigdon, Alexander Campbell, and Walter Scott left the Baptist church over the issues of what happened to infants who died without baptism and began meeting together to discuss religion. They were known as Campbellites, although they called themselves Disciples. Sidney Rigdon continued his work as a preacher, but focused on faith, repentance, baptism, and the Holy Ghost, rather than promoting the doctrines of a specific religion.

Sidney-Rigdon-MormonIn 1830, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized and its members were largely known as “Mormons.” One Mormon leader, Parley P. Pratt, had known Rigdon previously, because Pratt had been a missionary for the Campbellites in the past. During a mission trip to the Native Americans, Pratt and his companions visited with Sidney Rigdon and received permission to give a sermon in Rigdon’s church. The sermon had a strong impact on the preacher, and Rigdon and his wife began to pray to know whether or not the Mormons had the truth. They also began to study the new religion. Two weeks after the sermon, the Rigdons were baptized along with more than 100 members of Rigdon’s congregation. The group was formed into a new Mormon congregation and Rigdon was quickly called to the ministry.

In December of that year, Sydney Rigdon was commanded by revelation to become a scribe for Joseph Smith, who had minimal education and used scribes while translating manuscripts. He worked with Joseph on a translation of the Bible that was never completed due to the assassination of Joseph Smith. Read more

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