Two authors who were more or less contemporaries, but who lived a world apart. Each was vegetarian, had a notable conversion experience, read widely, had a literary team that supported them, and grew frustrated with some of their followers who went to extremes. Who were these two authors? Ellen G. White (1827-1915) and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).
As far as I can tell, neither one knew about the other. Ellen G. White, if she ever heard of Tolstoy, does not reference him in any of her writings, and did not, as far as I can tell have his writings in her library. And conversely the same thing holds true of Tolstoy.
While the similarities are interesting, some of the contrasts are more revealing. Ellen G. White claimed to be God’s prophetic messenger. Tolstoy never claimed to receive visions, or even to be visionary kind of leader although some certainly felt led to follow him.
On a recent visit to Tolstoy’s family home at Yasnaya Polyana, in the Tula region of Russia, I was impressed as I learned more of his story. Tolstoy, after his conversion in the 1870s, became a Pacifist. At one point he wrote one of his novels to raise funds to help persecuted Mennonites to help them escape to the United States. He increasingly developed a sort of adapted form of Romanticism that even appears to be pantheism. He used biblical teachings to live an ethical life, and in his later life renounced his earlier writings. He was reputed, at least according by our guide, to be able to read in at least 16 languages. At one point he learned Greek and Hebrew so he could read the Bible in the original languages. With the family library he inherited, he eventually expanded it to include some 40,000 volumes. The end of our tour concluded with the room in which his funeral was held. Many serfs from the area, who he grew to love and considered himself one of them, honored his memory. On the wall was a picture of William Jennings Bryan, the American populist, who visited Tolstoy in his home toward the end of his life. As champions of the people the two admired one another, although Tolstoy was reputed to be skeptical about how such a bright and talented young man could go into politics.
What is interesting to me is that Tolstoy seems to reflect some of the broader trends, including a great deal of influence from Emerson, Thoroeau, and other American Romantic writers. His thinking seems to reflect some of the broader trends that led Dr. J. H. Kellogg and others within Adventism to embrace similar epistemological foundations that led to a mysterious embrace of nature. Ellen G. White, while she certainly saw God’s hand in nature, never fully went in that direction, and cautioned Kellogg against pantheism. At the same time, she appeared to be more apathetic than Tolstoy on military service (James White was much more forceful is this area). Each made significant contributions in their own way, developed their own views, and deftly wielded their pen. Each left a significant corpus of writings, including followers, who continue to interpret and debate the legacy of their life and writings.