The name of Count Leo Tolstoy stands high in the annals of his country’s literature as the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. His memory will be cherished and his works will be read by later generations, long after the author is no more. But none will remember him with such devoted affection as will the privileged few who have watched his life and labors during the last seven years. During this period he has withdrawn from the world and its vanities and has devoted himself to the study of the teachings of Christ. Having become profoundly impressed with the Savior’s words concerning the duty of living a life of unselfish toil for the benefit of others, he has been endeavoring in a practical way to carry out his Master’s commands and has devoted himself to ministering to his fellows.
In these pages he sets forth the principles by which he is now ordering his life, and which he exhorts all men to adopt. The work has unfortunately been forbidden in Russia, but the manuscripts pass from hand to hand, doing their silent work of regeneration in the hearts of those who long for the coming of the kingdom of God on earth.
To English readers the construction of the work may appear somewhat strange and occasional statements may even seem startling, but though they may not be expressed in the conventional language to which the nations of England and America are accustomed, the right principles are inculcated and it is the translator’s earnest hope that Count Tolstoy’s words may find an echo in the hearts of all those who believe in the regeneration of humanity through the spirit and teachings of Christ.
When I began to read Tolstoy’s The
Literary purists will be unhappy that I have tried to bring Popoff’s translation up to date with the changes in grammar and usage that have been made in the last 120 years. (I am unhappy with Popoff’s use of quotation marks and semicolons, but I have left most of them unchanged.) They will be happier with Kessinger Publishing’s reprint of the original. I wanted to make this material understandable to the widest possible audience, and I felt that 19th century style, King James quotations, and outright mistakes did not serve that end. I made every attempt to remain faithful to Tolstoy’s original intention. If I have failed in that attempt, I am a reasonable fellow. Point out my errors and I will fix them.
Do I agree with everything that Tolstoy wrote? No. I think he had a romantic and unrealistic notion of peasant life. He did not account for psychopathic behavior. That is not to say that such behavior invalidates his conclusions, but it is an omission that some will certainly use against him. He has, by today’s Protestant standards, a somewhat skewed view of orthodox theology, no doubt because, at the time he wrote What I Believe, he only knew the teaching of the Russian Orthodox Church of 120 years ago. It would appear that Tolstoy did not experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which leads him to think only of ‘reason’ when writing of ‘the light that is within us,’ and does not believe in the devil. Still, much of what he had to say is as true today as the day he wrote it – and is even true of today’s Protestant churches.
This transcription is under no copyright protection. It is my gift to you. You may freely copy, print, and transmit it, but please do not change or sell it.
I am fifty-five years old and, with the exception of the fourteen or fifteen years of my childhood, I have been until recently a “Nihilist” in the proper signification of that term. I have not been a Socialist or Revolutionist, but a Nihilist in the sense of being completely without faith.
Five years ago I began to believe in the doctrine of Christ, and in consequence a great change has been wrought in me. I now no longer care for the things that I had prized, and I have begun to desire things concerning which I had formerly been indifferent. Like a man who, going out on business, on his way suddenly becomes convinced of the futility of that business and turns back; and all that stood to the right now stands to the left, and all that was to the left is now to the right; his wish to be as far from home as possible is changed to the desire of being as near home as possible – so, I may say, the whole aim and purpose of my life has been changed; my desires are no more what they have been. For me, good and evil have changed places. This experience came through my apprehending the doctrine of Christ in an altogether different way, and seeing it in quite a new light.
It is not my intention to interpret the doctrine of Christ, but simply to relate how I came to understand the simplest, clearest, and most intelligible point in that doctrine; and how, when once I had clearly grasped His meaning, it gave a new direction to all my thoughts.
I have no wish to interpret the doctrine of Christ, but I should like to prevent others from interpreting it wrongly. Christian churches generally acknowledge that all men, however they may differ from each other in knowledge or mental capacity, are equal before God; and that the truth revealed to man is accessible to all. Christ Himself has told us that the Father has hidden some things ‘from the wise and prudent, and revealed them to babes.’
All men cannot be initiated into the mysteries of dogmatic, homiletic, and patristic theologies, and so on, but all can understand what Christ taught and still teaches to simple and ignorant men. The teachings of Christ were incomprehensible to me until recently, but I understand them now, and what I have found I desire to explain to others.
The thief on the cross believed in Christ and was saved. Would it have harmed anybody if the thief had not died on the cross, but had come down to tell us how he believed in Christ?
Like the thief on the cross, I, too, believed in the doctrine of Christ, and found my salvation in it. This is not a far-fetched comparison; it worthily describes the condition of anguish and despair I was once in at the thought of life and of death, and it also indicates the peace and happiness that now fill my soul.
Like the thief, I knew that my life was full of wickedness; I saw that the greater part of those around me were morally no better than I was. Like the thief, too, I knew that I was unhappy, and that I suffered; and that all around me were unhappy and suffering likewise, and I saw no way out of this state of misery but through death.
Like the thief, I was nailed, as it were by some invisible power, to this life of suffering and evil; and the same dreadful darkness of death that awaited the thief, after his useless suffering and enduring of the evils of life, awaited me.
In all this I was like the thief, but there was this difference between us: he was dying, and I still lived. The thief could believe that his salvation would be realized beyond the grave, but I could not; because, putting aside the life beyond the grave, I had yet to live on earth. I did not, however, understand life. It seemed awful to me until I heard the words of Christ and understood them; and then life and death no longer seemed to be evils; instead of despair I felt the joy of possessing a life that death has no power to destroy.
Can it harm anyone if I relate how it was that this change was effected in me?