What actually happened to Johan O. Smith’s letters?

After the youth in BCC experienced an exciting evening program about the letters Johan Oscar Smith left behind, there has been great interest in the topic.  Here we share more about the history of the original letters, and the reason why these are now published in their entirety.

By: Berit H. Nilsen / Photos by BCC

Johan O. Smith died on May 1, 1943. Up until his death, he was the responsible publisher and editor of the church’s monthly pamphlet, Skjulte Skatter [Hidden Treasures]. This task then passed on to his son, Aksel J. Smith. According to what we know, both Aksel J. Smith and those who had been close to Johan O. Smith wanted that parts of the letters could be used as content in Skjulte Skatter [Hidden Treasures].

An extensive correspondence, including questions about doctrine

Johan O. Smith was part of the Norwegian Navy for almost 40 years of his life. He was stationed aboard naval ships, and away from home for long periods of time. He kept in touch with close friends and coworkers through written correspondence. His parents and brother Aksel lived in Kristiansand, and it was especially with Aksel that he discussed doctrinal issues.

His brother Aksel died childless in 1919, and the original documents from their correspondence remained with Johan O. Smith’s family.

Using the letters for edification

In the period after Johan O. Smith’s death, some of his letters were printed and distributed as spiritual literature in Hidden Treasures. The originals were retained by his son Aksel J. Smith and his family, and later put in a safe.

In the early years after Johan O. Smith’s death there were no plans to publish his letters as a book, nor was there any interest in highlighting all the historical details from these letters.

During this time the church (later called BCC) consisted of only a few hundred members, who knew each other very well. Most of them knew that there had been extensive correspondence, and thus knew that the articles printed in Hidden Treasures were only a small part of Johan O. Smith’s writings. Moreover, they were also well aware that the letters were adapted for publication for the purpose of edification.

The Norwegian newspaper Vårt Land with an extensive article  on the republishing of orginal letters Johan Oscar Smith left behind:
The New truth about Smith´s Friends

Letters of J.O. Smith – expansion and significance

When the book Letters of J.O. Smith was published in 1949, it was merely a continuation of Hidden Treasures’ earlier publications of his letters. The book contained approximately 280 letters, and at that time the letters had no other purpose than to serve as edifying literature. No one could imagine the book would become so widely distributed and significant, with translation into 12 languages ​​and readers from around the world.

The letters are an important part of the church’s heritage. They are written from Johan O. Smith’s heart, to help his family and friends gain a better understanding of their faith. The exchange of letters is very extensive and gives unique insight into the thoughts of this God-fearing man.

A greater amount of revisions than previously known

Although many in the church knew that some letters had never been published, a few years ago it was decided that these letters should be transcribed.

However, Smith’s letters from earlier years, which had been printed in Skjulte Skatter [Hidden Treasures] and published in the book Letters of J.O. Smith, had been norwegianized.

The original language of J.O. Smith’s writings was either Danish or old Norwegian. In the process of transcribing all the letters, the question of norwegianization, and how this should be carried through, became an issue.  In the process, it became relevant to examine  more closely how this was done when Johan O. Smith’s letters were printed in Skjulte Skatter [Hidden Treasures], and when the book Letters of J.O. Smith was published. It was then discovered that the printed letters had not only been clothed in a more Norwegian language, but there was a greater magnitude of editorial changes than had been known previously.

Based on this, it was decided that a complete collection of Johan O. Smith’s letters would be published in original form without any editing. The responsible editor Kåre J. Smith wanted the project to be handled in a professional manner, with a clear premise and framework.

All the letters will now be printed exactly as Johan O. Smith wrote them. In addition, church members have been encouraged to make available copies of letters they are in possession of, whether written to or from Johan O. Smith. The goal is to collect even more content than what has been known and published so far.

READ ALSO: How to present Church History to 15-year olds? 

What changes have been made – and why?

As mentioned above, many church members in the 1940s knew that the letters had been abbreviated, and that private information had been anonymized. These changes must be seen in context; there was a desire to use the letters as edification, but the format had to fit in the Hidden Treasures paper.

There are two significant revisions in the new upcoming edition of Johan O. Smith’s letters:

  1. Letters which were not published earlier are now included.
  2. Revised letters already published in Letters of J.O. Smith, for example:
    • Everyday episodes and experiences of family and other private actors which were deleted, are now included.
    • Names and places which were made anonymous are now included, unless the owner of the letters explicitly requested continuous anonymity. For some of the letters written during the 1940s, BCC does not possess the originals and therefore cannot reveal the names and places which are redacted.
    • There were several paragraphs about Jesus’ Atonement which were also redacted, and these are now included. Several of these edits can be understood from the need to shorten the letters so they could be printed as articles in Hidden Treasures. But without these paragraphs, the letters still appear incomplete. It seems likely that the editors of Skjulte Skatter wished to highlight sanctification as a personal lifelong process, since the content that was included pointed specifically in that direction.
    • Changes related to the conceptual use of words to describe the man Jesus are now reversed. His own children have said that near the end of his life Johan O. Smith was very occupied with Romans chapter 8 verse 3 and its clarification that Jesus had come in the likeness of sinful flesh. Smith has not written any additional articles or material indicating he wished to clarify anything on this topic, so at this point we have little historic material which we can relate to. We have taken the point of view that the editorial revisions of the letters which were done in this context, were made precisely in order to safeguard Smith’s clarifications and insights related to Romans 8:3.

Does Brunstad Christian Church have to write about its history?

We were already aware that adjustments were made to Johan O. Smith’s letters and knew why this was done; what has emerged now does not dramatically change our story. When we began mapping the material, we were surprised by its scope, but not so much by its content.

It is wonderful that readers now have access to the authentic and unedited versions of these personal letters. Our findings have been received with great interest by church members and can help provide an even better understanding of who Johan O. Smith was and what he stood for.

READ ALSO: From one Man to a Worldwide Church

Are Johan O. Smith’s letters central to the church’s teachings?

For many decades, the contents of the letters by Johan O. Smith have been a great inspiration for our members and therefore have been given a central position in our spiritual literature. The letters are by no means a textbook or theological exposition but are rather a form of practical guidance for many of life’s difficult questions.

We have often received questions and comments from people outside our community who perceive Smith’s letters as authoritative orders and guidelines. By reading the letters, however, one will quickly understand that this is not the case.

In our church gatherings, we use the Bible exclusively for spiritual edification, and it is usually only biblical texts that are included as references during our meetings. Quotes from Johan O. Smith occur occasionally, but are usually linked to a specific Bible topic.

The legacy of Smith – read and judge for yourself

The work is underway to complete proofreading, a graphical layout, and printing of all the original letters.

We will provide updated information about when the new books will be published, but for now can recommend downloading the e-book Letters of Johan O. Smith.

Johan O. Smith likely had no idea that the very personal letters he wrote to his closest friends and family would one day become a book. When all his observations and comments from everyday life are now included, not to mention the educational content, readers will have an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the person Johan O. Smith. His descriptions are revelations that can be of great help to believers even in our time.

BCC has a leadership that desires openness in the church, and autonomy in members’ personal lives. The ability to evaluate and make personal choices was also reflected to a considerable degree by both Johan O. Smith and his brother Aksel Smith.

The decision to openly share all the letters with all members is a natural result of the legacy of Johan O. Smith, and it emphasizes the importance of precisely such values.