In 1898, alone on a Norwegian navy ship, Johan Oscar Smith gave his life to God. More than one hundred years later, thousands of people have a debt of thankfulness for Smith’s life.
In October 1871, the same year Germany became a nation and the French surrendered to Prussia, Johan Oscar Smith was born in the quiet Norwegian port city, Fredrikstad. He grew up in a Christian home in a Norwegian community, 34 years before the end of the Swedish-Norwegian union.
After completing primary school, young Johan started secondary school. Here, his inherent sense of righteousness was awakened. The schoolteachers of that time openly discriminated between the children of rich and poor families. Johan could not tolerate that. He quit school after half a year and went to sea on the brig “Ørnen” at the young age of 15. After two difficult years at sea, he enlisted in the Royal Norwegian Navy, where he served for nearly 40 years.
Smith’s new friend
In Horten on May 19, 1898, Smith wrote a letter to his family in Fredrikstad.
“Now I can tell you, dear parents, brothers, and sisters, some wonderful news: I am very happy. And why? Because I have received Jesus as my Friend and Brother, and now He is my all in all. Before, I could find no peace anywhere; but now, thanks be to the God of heaven, I find peace everywhere.
“You will probably be wondering how I got such peace. Well, I’ve understood for a long time that there is no true joy outside of God. It so happened one Sunday afternoon that I met O., who joined the Navy the same day I did, and we went to a Methodist church service. While we sat there, I asked him if he would like to come home with me for supper after the meeting, which he did. During the conversation at home, I was deeply moved. Weeping, we took one another’s hands, and he prayed for us both. I will never forget how I felt. The devil came as usual, of course. But the prayer had done its work, because the following night, during middle-watch on board the Monitor, inside a little gun turret, I began praying. Everything seemed so bleak, but suddenly I was filled with such joy that I felt like my feet were hardly touching the deck when I walked. Only God can make us that happy. May He be praised everywhere!”
Revelation about God’s truths
After his conversion, Smith had a strong desire to commit his life to God. He felt there were things on his conscience that he had to put in order, but when he asked preachers for advice, they explained that he and his past were under the covering of Jesus’ blood. He could rest from all these thoughts, they said, because we should not try to save ourselves. A dissatisfied Johan Oscar Smith could not agree. He began putting his affairs in order with God and man. By doing so he laid what would later prove to be a solid foundation for the rest of his rich life as a Christian.
The obedience of faith. One of the first scriptures that came alive for Smith was Romans 1:5, “Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name…” Smith understood that for a Christian to experience sanctification, he had to obey Jesus’ commandments.
Christ manifested in the flesh. This expression sparked a great controversy; many people labeled Smith’s explanation as being false doctrine. Nevertheless, how Jesus was viewed was of greatest importance to Smith. If he was to follow Jesus, who committed no sin, he had to know whether Jesus in fact had been tempted as he was. If it had not been equally challenging for Jesus as it was for him, he believed it would have been unreasonable to expect people to live in the same way.
In Smith’s mind, living according to your own will and living according to your flesh were the very same thing. Jesus had a flesh (self-will) just like mankind (Matthew 26:39), but He always denied it so that He never sinned. “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15. Understanding that Jesus denied sin when He was tempted gave Johan Oscar Smith faith in complete victory over the sin in his own life.
Christ manifest in the flesh is the great mystery of Godliness. “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit…” 1 Timothy 3:16.
Victory over conscious sin. Smith experienced that by the power of The Holy Spirit, it was possible to overcome all conscious sin (which the Bible calls “works of the flesh”), because Jesus had opened a way for us. The scripture in Hebrews 2:18, “For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted,” means that Jesus Himself had the Holy Spirit and overcame by His power when He was tempted. When we come to Jesus, we are also able to do the same.
Sanctification. Johan Oscar Smith understood that there was a way on which to go after being converted, receiving forgiveness for your sins, and putting your affairs in order. This way is the way of transformation toward perfection so that you can become like Jesus. The Holy Spirit shines light on the things that are not perfect in God’s eyes. If you condemn and hate the things the Spirit shows you, you come into a divine development – sanctification.
Christ and the church. The church is the body of Christ, Christ is the head, and each member has his or her place in the body. “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.” 1 Corinthians 12:27. Smith said at the occasion of his 70th birthday that the most important part of his ministry was to gather the members to the head, Christ.
From the time Smith began receiving these revelations from God, he began talking with people. He felt that it was imperative for him to share with others what God taught him. His efforts did not produce immediate results; in the religious circles in Norway at the time, there were plenty of charismatic and popular preachers who gathered far more people than the teaching about Christ manifest in the flesh did. Smith was neither interested in holding back the truth in order to draw many people, nor in putting on a great show to attract attention to himself. “God longs for people who will live before His face. There are already plenty of those who live before people,” he wrote to his brother on April 29, 1909.
The first “friends”
In a letter dated May 31, 1933, Smith gave a brief account of the church’s humble beginning.
“I was attending a Methodist church at that time, but wasn’t getting enough nourishment. I began some small meetings with a few young people. We prayed and read the Bible. God’s Spirit worked powerfully in me, urging me to cleanse myself. Things didn’t go so quickly, but I took everything as being from God, and He gave me strength. Two years after my conversion, in the year 1900, on board the gunboat Sleipner, God’s Spirit came upon me. After that, the Scriptures became much easier to understand than before. But the strange thing was that none of the believers I knew, understood me. I became lonely. But then I met different people here and there on ships and in the naval yard. We would come together in the evenings and pray and read the Scriptures.”
Six years passed after Smith’s conversion before he first met someone with a kindred spirit.
Quarter Gunner Theodor Ellefsen, a quiet man from Grimstad, met Smith at a meeting in Indremisjonen (The Inner Mission, a conservative branch of the Norwegian Church) in 1904. They talked together. Ellefsen was part of a group who wanted Smith to be their leading preacher. They liked Smith’s teaching but were not so concerned with living according to the teaching. Smith had no interest in this – he did not want to be the preacher of a passive assembly.
Finally, at a meeting where they were discussing this, he asked everyone who did not want to live the same life to leave the hall. No one stayed – not even Ellefsen, who apparently did not have the courage to stay. After everyone had left, Smith was prompted about a scripture in Proverbs 24:11, “Deliver those who are drawn toward death, and hold back those stumbling (trembling, Norwegian translation) to the slaughter.” Therefore, he went to see if there were any “trembling” people outside. He found Ellefsen weeping. Ellefsen did not want to leave the help for living a true godly life that he had found with Smith. Ellefsen thereby became the first of “Smith’s friends.” The rest of their lives, they shared a close fellowship as Jesus’ brothers.
During the same time, Smith began working with his nine-year younger brother, the dentist Aksel Smith, through conversations and letters. In 1905, Aksel wrote a letter to his brother, saying that he had given his life to Jesus. With this, Smith started to instruct his brother thoroughly. He wrote much of this instruction in the form of letters, which have been gathered into a book, Letters of Johan O. Smith.
Three years later, in 1908, Smith met an extraordinary young cadet, Elias Aslaksen. Aslaksen was the top student at the military academy, and had a bright career ahead of him. Nevertheless, when he met Smith and heard the truths Smith had received from God, he dropped everything to serve Jesus. Aslaksen later became one of Smith’s closest co-workers, and overtook the main responsibility of the church after Smith’s death in 1943.
Pauline and the children
In 1901, Smith started to notice an especially godly and honest woman, Pauline Pedersen. She worked for a merchant in Horten. Because of her righteousness and honesty, she had earned the merchant’s trust and operated one of his stores. She and Smith were engaged the same year, and in November 1902, they were married in a simple ceremony at the Methodist church in Kristiansand. They had six children together.
“Skjulte Skatter” (“Hidden Treasures”)
The brothers Aksel and Johan Oscar Smith actively wrote for Christian publications; but as Smith’s teaching developed more and more opposition, their articles were frequently rejected. This led to them to start thinking about publishing their own paper. There is a need for a “working” paper that directly leads to godliness, Smith thought – it was not enough to have a “story-telling” paper, of which there were plenty. On January 1, 1912, Smith published the first issue of “Skjulte Skatter” (“Hidden Treasures”). This paper has been the church’s most important publication ever since, translated into 28 languages and distributed to all corners of the world.
“Labored more abundantly than they all”
For the rest of his life, Smith’s only interest was these two revelations: Christ manifest in the flesh, and Christ and the church. Everyone he interacted with could see how his life mirrored his teaching. Everything that God revealed to him and that he began to carry out in his life, he taught with great fervor. In contrast to many other preachers who often put a strong emphasis on gathering many people, he worked diligently with each individual soul. He was more interested in having a few brothers and sisters who developed personal relationships with Christ, than in having many followers. Smith refused to accept any other development, and he would have rather spent his life alone with his faith than to water down the truth.
In the spring of 1943, Smith’s life came to an end. He was weakened by diabetes, had poor eye-sight, and some days he was unable to get out of bed. During the early hours of May 1, Johan Oscar Smith went home to Jesus – he died of a heart attack while walking across the floor of his room. In that way, the prophecy of Smith’s brother Ludvig was fulfilled. At his own death bed in 1931 Ludvig had said, “When you die, Johan, you will die standing.”
After his death, Elias Aslaksen gave this testimony of Smith, “I have never seen anyone like him! Never in my whole life have I heard or seen a person who could tell of such a man, whether in this country or any other!”
Smith’s funeral was the biggest Horten had seen despite the strict travel restrictions due to the war. There was a flood of thankful people, telegrams, and flowers.
“We have not become followers of a form of doctrine, but followers of a living faith that brings life…. Brother Smith has been a pioneer, a man of battle, not for forms of doctrine but for true Christianity, for a genuine Godly life, for righteousness, truth, and love, God’s wisdom, purity, goodness.” This is how Aslaksen summed up Johan Oscar Smith’s life, which had eternal significance for him and for those who by God’s grace he won for Christ.
“Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.”1 Timothy 4:16.