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To the Decree of the Synod of February 20-22
and to Letters Received by Me on That Occasion

by Leo Tolstoy

“He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all.”


At first I had no intention of answering the decree of the Synod concerning me, but this decree called forth a very large number of letters, in which correspondents who are unknown to me either scold me for denying what I do not deny, or admonish me to believe in what I have not stopped believing in, or express their fellowship of ideas with me, which hardly exists in reality, and their sympathy, to which I have hardly a right.  And so, I have decided to answer the decree itself, pointing out what is unjust in it, and the letters of my correspondents, whom I do not know.

The decree of the Synod has, in general, very many faults.  It is illegal, or intentionally ambiguous.  It is arbitrary, ungrounded, untruthful, and contains libel and incitements to evil sentiments and acts.

It is illegal or intentionally ambiguous because, if it is meant to be an excommunication from the church, it does not satisfy those ecclesiastic rules by which such an excommunication may be pronounced.  If it is a declaration that he who does not believe in the church and its dogmas does not belong to it, that is self-understood, and such a declaration can have no other aim except that, though it is in reality not an excommunication, it may appear as such, which actually happened, for it was understood as such.

It is arbitrary, because it accuses me alone of unbelief in all the points mentioned in the decree, whereas not only many persons, but almost all educated people share such unbelief, and have constantly expressed it in conversations, in writing, in pamphlets, and in books.

It is ungrounded, because the chief cause for its issuance is the great dissemination of false doctrine, which corrupts people.  It is well known to me that there are hardly a hundred men who share my views, and that the dissemination of my ideas about religion, thanks to the censorship, is insignificant.  The majority of men who have read the decree of the Synod have not the slightest idea as to what I have written about religion, as may be seen from the letters which I have received.

It contains an obvious untruth, because it says that the church has made attempts at appealing to my conscience, but that they were not successful.  Nothing of the kind has ever happened.

It represents what in juridical language is called libel, because it contains professedly untrue statements that are intended to injure me.

It is, finally, an incitement to bad sentiments and acts, because it has provoked in unenlightened and unthinking people, as was to have been expected, malice and hatred against me, which rise to threats of assassination as expressed in the letters received by me.  “Now you are given over to anathema, and after your death you will go to everlasting torments and will die like a dog – anathema, old devil – be cursed,” writes one.  Another rebukes the government for not having yet locked me up in a monastery, and fills his letter with curses.  A third writes, “If the government does not take you away, we will ourselves make you shut up,” and ends the letter with curses.  “To make an end of you, scavenger, we shall find the means for it,” writes a fourth, and indecent curses follow.  I have observed similar signs of malice in meeting certain people since the decree of the Synod.  On the very 25th of February, when the decree was published, I heard as I crossed a square, “Here is a devil in human form.”  If the crowd had been differently composed, it is very likely that I should have been beaten, as some years ago they beat a man near Panteleymónov Tower.

Thus the decree of the Synod is altogether bad.  The fact that at the end of the decree it says that the persons signing it pray that I may become such as they are does not make matters any better.

So it is in general.  In particular, this decree is not just because it says, “The world-famous writer, Russian by birth, Orthodox by baptism and education, Count Tolstóy, in the blindness of his proud mind, boldly arose against the Lord, His Christ, and His sacred charge, and openly, in the presence of all men, renounced the Orthodox Mother Church, which has nurtured and educated him.”

That I have renounced the church that calls itself Orthodox is quite true.

But I have not renounced it because I arose against the Lord.  On the contrary, I renounced it because I wished with all my heart to serve Him.  Before renouncing the church and its union with the people, which had been inexpressibly dear to me, I, having from certain symptoms come to doubt the truth of the church, devoted several years to the theoretical and the practical investigation of church doctrine.  I read everything I could about church doctrine in the theoretical investigation, and studied and critically analyzed dogmatic theology.  In the practical investigation I strictly followed all the prescriptions of the church for more than a year, observing all the fasts and all the church celebrations.  And I came to the conclusion that the doctrine of the church was in theory a cunning and harmful deceit, and in practice a collection of the grossest superstitions and sorcery, which completely conceals the whole meaning of Christian teaching.[1]

I actually renounced the church, stopped executing its rites, and asked my relatives in my will not to admit any church servants at my death, and to take my body away as quickly as possible, without any magical formulae and prayers, as they take away every nauseating and useless thing so that it may not trouble the living.

But as to its saying that “I devoted my literary activity and God-given talent to the dissemination among the masses of teachings which are contrary to Christ and to the church,” and that “in my writings and letters, which are scattered by me and my disciples in great numbers all over the world, but especially within the boundaries of our beloved country, I preach the overthrow of all the dogmas of the Orthodox Church and of the very essence of the Christian religion with the zeal of a fanatic” – that is not true.  I have never had any thought as to the dissemination of my teaching.  It is true, I have for my own sake expressed my understanding of Christ’s teaching in my writings, and have not concealed these writings from men who wished to become acquainted with them, but I never printed them myself, and I told people about the way I understood Christ’s teaching only when I was asked about it.  To such people I told what I thought, and I gave them my books, if I had any.

Then it says that I deny “God, the Creator and Provider of the universe, glorified in the Holy Trinity, and the Lord Jesus Christ, the God-man, the Redeemer and Savior of the world, who suffered for the sake of us men and for the sake of our salvation, and who rose from the dead,” and that I deny “the seedless conception of the Lord Christ in His manhood, and the virginity of the Immaculate Mother of God before and after His birth.”  It is quite true that I deny the incomprehensible Trinity, the now senseless fable about the fall of the first man, and the blasphemous history of a God born of a virgin, who redeems the human race.  I not only do not deny God the Spirit, the God of love, the one God, the beginning of everything, but even do not recognize anything as actually existing outside of God, and see the whole meaning of life only in the fulfillment of God’s will, as expressed in the Christian teaching.

Again it says, “He does not recognize the life after death, and retribution.”  If the life after death is to be taken in the sense of the second advent, hell with its everlasting torments and devils, and a heaven of constant bliss, it is quite true that I do not recognize such a life after death.  But the eternal life and retribution here and everywhere I recognize to such an extent that, standing on the brink of the grave on account of my years, I often to make efforts in order not to wish for carnal death – for a birth to a new life – and I believe that every good act increases the true good of my everlasting life, and that every bad act diminishes it

It also says that I deny all the sacraments.  That is quite true.  I consider all the sacraments a low, coarse sorcery, which does not harmonize with my conception of God and the Christian teaching, and, besides, is a violation of the most direct precepts of the Gospel.  In the baptism of children I see an obvious distortion of all that meaning which baptism may have had for adults, who have consciously accepted Christianity.  In the performance of the sacrament of marriage on people who are known to have come together before, in the permitting of divorces, and in the sanctification of marriages of divorced people I see a direct violation of the meaning and the letter of the Gospel teaching.

I see an injurious deception in the periodic forgiveness of sins at confessions, which only encourages immorality and destroys the fear of sinning.

In the unction with chrism[2], as well as in the anointment, I see methods of gross sorcery, as also in the worship of images and relics, and also in all those ceremonies, prayers, and incantations with which the ritual is filled.  In communion I see the deification of the flesh and a distortion of Christian teaching.  In priesthood I see, besides an obvious preparation for deceit, a direct violation of the words of Christ, who directly forbade any one to be called teacher, father, or instructor (Matthew 23:8-10).

Finally, the Synod’s decree says that, as the last and highest degree of my guilt, “I make light of the most sacred objects of faith, and have not stopped before ridiculing the most sacred of sacraments, the Eucharist.”  It is quite true that I have not stopped before describing simply and objectively what a priest does for the preparation of this so-called sacrament, but it is quite untrue that this so-called sacrament is something sacred and that it is blasphemy to describe it simply, just as it is done.  It is not blasphemy to call a partition a partition and not an iconostasis, a cup a cup and not a poterion, and so forth.  But it is a terrible, unceasing, shocking blasphemy for people to use all the possible means of deceit and hypnotization, and to assure the children and the simple masses that, if bits of bread are cut in a certain way and while pronouncing certain words, and are put into wine, God enters into these bits; that if a bit is taken out in the name of someone who is living, he will be well, and that if such a piece is taken out in the name of someone who is dead, he will fare better in the world to come; and that God will enter into someone who eats one of these pieces.

That is terrible!

No matter how one may understand Christ’s personality or His teaching, which destroys the evil of the world, which so simply, easily, and indubitably gives the good to men, if only they shall not distort it – this teaching is all concealed and changed into a gross sorcery of bathing, smearing with oil, motions of the body, incantations, and swallowing of pieces of bread so that nothing is left of the teaching.  And if any man tries to remind these people that Christ’s teaching is not in these sorceries, Te Deums, masses, tapers, or images, but in loving one another, not repaying evil with evil, not judging, and not killing one another, there arises the indignation of those to whom this deception is advantageous, and these men say in the churches in the hearing of all and print in books, newspapers, and catechisms with incredible boldness that Christ never forbade swearing (an oath of allegiance), never forbade murder (executions, wars), and that the doctrine of nonresistance to evil was invented by Christ’s foes with Satanic cunning.[3]

What is terrible above all else is that people to whom this is advantageous deceive not only adults, but also children, since they have the power to do it – those same children of whom Christ says that woe shall be to him who shall deceive them.  What is terrible is that these men do such a terrible evil for the sake of their petty advantages, by concealing from men the truth which was revealed by Christ and which produces good, and not one-thousandth part of which is balanced by the advantage which they derive from the evil.  They act like that robber who kills a whole family, five or six people, in order to carry off an old sleeveless coat and forty kopeks in money.  They would have gladly given him all their apparel and all their money, if only he would not kill them; but he cannot act differently.

The same is true of religious deceivers.  They could be supported ten times better, in the greatest luxury, if only they did not ruin people with their deceit.  But they cannot act differently.  It is this that is so terrible.  And so it is not only possible, but even necessary to arraign their deception.  If there is anything sacred, it is certainly not that which they call a sacrament, but this duty of arraigning their religious deception, when you see it.

When a Chuvash smears his idol with cream and scourges it, I can refrain from offending his belief and pass by with equanimity because he does this in the name of his superstition, which is alien to me, and this does not touch on what is sacred to me.  But when people with their savage superstition preach gross sorcery, I cannot look on in peace.  It does not matter how many of them there may be, how old their superstition may be, or how powerful they may be.  If I call what they do by name, I do only what I must and what I cannot help doing, in the name of that God by whom I live, and according to the teaching of Christ that gave me life and that promises to give life to all men.  But if they call the arraignment of their deception a blasphemy, that only proves the force of their deception, and must only increase the efforts of men who believe in God and in Christ’s teaching in order to destroy this deception, which conceals the true God from men.

Of Christ, who drove the oxen, the sheep, and the moneychangers out of the temple, they must have said that He was blaspheming.

If He were to come now and see what is being done in His name in the church, He would with greater and more legitimate anger throw out all those terrible corporales, Eucharist spears, crosses, cups, tapers, and images, and abolish all the sorceries by means of which they conceal God and His teaching from men.  So this is what is true and untrue in the Synod’s decree concerning me.  I really do not believe in what they say they believe.  But I believe in much of what they wish to assure people that I do not believe in.

What I believe in is God, whom I understand as Spirit, as Love, and as the beginning of everything.  I believe that He is in me and I in Him.  I believe that God’s will is most clearly and comprehensibly expressed in the teaching of the man Christ, but I consider it the greatest blasphemy to understand him as God and pray to pray to him.  I believe that the greatest true good of man is the fulfillment of God’s will.  His will is that men should love one another, and in consequence of this should treat others as they wish that others should treat them.  Indeed, it says in the Gospel that in this is all the Law and the prophets.  I believe that the meaning of the life of every man is, therefore, only in the augmentation of love in himself; that this augmentation of love leads the individual man to a greater and ever greater good in this life, and gives a greater good after death; that as love increases in mankind, the existing discord, deception, and violence will give way to free agreement, truth, and brotherly love of men among themselves; and that this love contributes more than anything else to the establishment of the kingdom of God in the world.  I believe that there is but one means for success in love, and that is prayer, not public prayer in temples, which is directly forbidden by Christ (Matthew 6:5-13), but such as Christ has given us an example of: solitary prayer, which consists in the establishment and strengthening of the meaning of our life and our independence of everything except God’s will in our consciousness.

Whether these beliefs of mine offend, pain, or tempt anyone, or interfere with anything or anyone, or displease anyone – I can change them as little as I can change my body.  I have to live myself and die myself (and very soon at that), and so I can absolutely not believe otherwise than I do, while getting ready to go to that God from whom I have come.  I do not believe that my faith is unchangeable and incontestably true for all times, but I do not see any other which is more simple and clear, and which answers all the demands of my mind and heart.  When I find such a one, I will accept it at once, because God needs nothing but the truth.  But I am equally unable to return to that from which I have just come out with such sufferings, as a flying bird can no longer enter into the shell of the egg from which it came out.

“He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all,” said Coleridge.

I went the opposite way.  I began by loving my Orthodox faith more than peace, then I loved Christianity more than my church, but now I love truth better than anything in the world.  And until now truth for me has coincided with Christianity, as I understand it   I profess this Christianity, and in the measure in which I profess it, I live calmly and joyously, and calmly and joyously approach death.

April 4,1901

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[1] We need only read the ritual and follow those ceremonies, which without cessation are performed by the Orthodox clergy and are considered to be Christian divine service, to see that all these ceremonies are nothing but various methods of sorcery, adapted for all incidents of life.  For a child to go to heaven after death, it has to be anointed with oil and bathed while certain words are enunciated.  For a woman in childbirth to be unclean no longer, certain magical formulae have to be pronounced.  For success in some affair or peaceful life in a new house, for a crop of corn to be good, for a drought to be broken, for a cure from some disease, for an improvement in the condition of a deceased man in the other world –there are certain magical formulae for all that and thousands of other circumstances, which are pronounced by a priest in a certain place in return for certain offerings.

[2] Transcriber’s note – This is commonly but not exclusively part of the baptism ritual.

[3] From a speech of Amvrósi, the Bishop of Khárkov.