Personally, I have always been amazed at the power by which the church has spread around the world. I have wondered what caused the conversion of one man, Gunnery Petty Officer Johan Oscar Smith, on board the artillery ship Thor in 1898, to have such far-reaching consequences. I have been still more amazed that so many of the Navy's gifted officers and non-commissioned officers became a part of the church so early on. This applies not least to Elias Aslaksen, a brilliantly gifted cadet and outstanding member of the Naval Academy, who gave up his entire career to become a preacher - and never for a single moment regretted it.
While working with a completely different book, Naval Officer and Pillar of Society (published in Norwegian in February 1995), I continually came across names and places that were connected to the church. To a certain extent, I was able to follow the spreading of the church by studying the ship logs. Wherever the naval vessels docked, new "friends" came along. This was especially evident during the Navy's coastal patrol in defence of Norway's neutrality, during World War 1 1914-1918. At that time, a number of brothers from the church served four long years in the Navy, and sailed up and down the entire length of the Norwegian coast. Many of the local newspapers of the time carried advertisements proclaiming the following:
"Lieutenant Elias Aslaksen will preach ... " "Theodor Ellefsen will speak ... " "Johan 0. Smith to speak at the Fram Hall ... " "Dentist Aksel Smith to speak at the Evangelical Meetings ... "
And speak they did! Often with such great power and expression that the newspapers made quite a deal about it in their reports.
In my role as a journalist, I have observed the church over a period of fourteen years. During that time I have come to value many of the friends, and not least leaders such as Aksel J. Smith and Sigurd Bratlie. They live what they preach, and demonstrate an honesty in the situations of life that I can but admire. From the days of my childhood and youth I also have memories of Elias Aslaksen, who from time to time visited my grandfather. He kept a bundle of Aslaksen's postcards and letters, and these have contributed to make writing this book easier than I had feared. Luckily, many things were noted down and put in writing, so I feel that the past has come more to life because of these.
But it was the lack of any systematic presentation of the church that gave me the idea of writing a book. A search for printed material about the church yields poor results, with the exception of newspaper articles. Yet almost nothing is written about the church's history, faith and everyday life. At first it was the history and growth of the church that fascinated me. But as time passed, my interest in the church as it is today and its people has come more to the fore.
In the preparation of this book, I have travelled practically the world over and visited churches and families in numerous different countries with contrasting cultures. I have posed every imaginable question under the sun, both easy and difficult, noted down the answers, and made comparisons. Approximately 850 interviews and conversatioiis, plus many observations have been made. A good 40 of these interviews have been with people who have left the church, both with children who grew up in the church, and with adults who left during the powerful revival that began in 1991, and really got wind in its sails at the besinning of 1992.
This book is neither a scientific work nor a dissertation on church history. First and foremost, it is a journalistic book about this church without a name, without membership, and without employees. It is quite simply a report about a Norwegian church that began in the Norwegian Navy and which spread all over the world.
I owe many people thanks for their help and contributions. I am particularly indebted to Aksel J. Smith, who over the course of a number of years has piloted me through the church's history and questions related to its faith, and whose friendship, wisdom and humour I would not have wished to be without. Similarly, my thanks are extended to several of the church's leaders who have helped me in every way. And last but by no means least, I am deeply thankful for the way I have been received and helped in every possible way by the friends all over the world; I have a lot of good memories from the many visits and from the people 1 have met. My acknowledgements also to the church in Horten, which I always think about with fondness and to which I feel a very special bond. Special thanks are due to Dr. Lowell D. Streiker, recognised expert in the field of cults and sects, and former director of the Freedom Counseling Center in California, who has made available the results of his research into sects and also Smith's Friends. Without all this help, it is unlikely that the book would have been finished this year.
The English edition of this book is somewhat larger than the Norwegian. This is because it contains a short introductory chapter about the church's growth and development in English speaking countries and I have included some extra photographs in this connection. In january 1996 Sigurd Bratlie, who was the church's leader, passed away, so this edition also includes material about his funeral. In addition one of the Norwegian Church's (the Lutheran State Church) foremost and leading theologians, Dr.theol. Professor Steinar Moe has done some research into Smith's Friends from a theological standpoint. His observations have also been included in the English edition.
In the process of writing the book, I considered using two different titles. The first, A Living and Vibrant Brotherhood, is identical to the title of an article that appeared many years ago in the Horten newspaper, Gjengangeren, and is both a good and correct characterisation of a church in constant growth. Nonetheless, I have chosen my second working title, The Way of the Cross, because that is actually what it is all about.
What has been written is first and foremost intended for those who want to know more about how a tiny little group of friends with their roots in the Navy grew to become a big church. But the reader should bear in mind that the story is written by a journalist viewing everything from the outside. So if anyone feels that the story does not go deeply enough into spiritual questions and theological dissertations, he has made a correct observation. Such has never been my intention.
Kjell Arne Bratli, June, 1996
In reality, the church that most people know as "Smith's Friends" has no name. They simply call themselves "the church" or "the friends". However the term "The Christian Church at Brunstad" is used with respect to the conference centre at Brunstad in Stokke, because there the church had to be registered by name in the title deeds. Also "The Church, the Body of Christ" has been used, a term that reflects the spiritual concept of Christ as the Head and the church as His body. But the friends have come to terms with being called "Smith's Friends" after the founder, Johan Oscar Smith.
The name Smith came into the family through Johan's father, Christian Johansen, the son of a carpenter and builder, Johan Christiansen, from Fredrikstad. Those were the early days of emigration, and young Christian had thought to cross the seas to Oceania (Australia and New Zealand), and so added the name Smith to his own name. Such was not uncommon at the time. The story goes that he missed the boat he was to have sailed on and so remained in Norway, though there is no written record of this. We know, however, that he was admitted as a student (apprentice) to the gunnery school for non-commissioned officers in Fredrikstad in 1860, and there took his examinations in 1865, at the age of nineteen and a half.
Outside of Norway, besides "the friends" or "the fellowship", the church is known as "the Norwegian Brethren", "the Norwegian Movement", or simply as "the church" (USA and Canada).
The church in Norway is not registered as a religious fellowship, and therefore misses out on the subsidies that are available. From the beginning, the church has been organised solely in a "spiritual" way (according to the New Testament pattern), and has no set organisation. On the contrary, the whole movement is loosely structured. However, since 1993 a set of regulations/bylaws that are associated with the Brunstad Conference Centre has come into being, to which a number of churches have chosen to align themselves. There are no such things as membership rolls or membership dues, so when it comes to organisation, the friends can hardly be compared to any other Christian organisation or any other membership association. In the midst of this lack of organisation, it is nevertheless impressive to see what close contact there is between the individual churches both within each country and also internationally. A very large number of friends outside of Norway have learned Norwegian, which fact has led to Norwegian being jokingly called the language of the church. Of course, this makes it easier to maintain close contact. On the other hand, very many Norwegian brothers and sisters have learned foreign languages, and it is relatively common for them to take a job overseas and live with the friends there for shorter or longer periods of time. Foreigners do the same in Norway. The friends often meet one another at conferences, or travel to one another's meetings, and a number travel around evangelising. First and foremost, however, contact is maintained through direct contact between individuals, and next through the church's literature and tracts, along with the periodical Hidden Treasures and audio cassettes from conferences and meetings.
Nonetheless, the church has no paid preachers or leaders. In fact, the only individual employed by the church is the caretaker on the conference grounds at Brunstad; everyone else has their own job. Service in the church is voluntary and unpaid, though a brother's travel expenses would be covered either by the local church that has invited him or by a common evangelical fund. No form of monetary reward exists for those who travel around for the sake of the church. On the contrary, it is far more common to dig into one's own pocket on such trips.
Revenue used for the building and remodelling of meeting halls, for maintenance, evangelism, and missionary work is generated from collections during meetings. Such offerings are taken in each individual church and at central conferences. At the same time these collections are not like tithing at all because they don't take place on a regular basis. Every collection is voluntary; people are to give gladly and according to their means. The collection always has a predetermined purpose, so that people know to what cause they are giving their money. How much has been given in the collection is announced publicly, and it is relatively easy to get an account of what the money is used for and how it is managed. However, very few ask for an account. Smith's Friends is a church where the level of trust in one another is strikingly high. Historically, there has been a measure of reticence when it comes to collections, simply because it seems that the church has never been interested in building up a financial surplus. Thus, collections are taken only for the purpose of supplying funds to causes needing them. From time to time, money is collected for the many large and demanding jobs that have to be done, such as additions to conference grounds and meeting halls.
The constant growth and expansion of the church in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, has also created a need for money. This has been especially notable in Eastern Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union, where much aid has been sent to countries such as Romania, Ukraine, and Russia - from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. The expenses incurred during the establishment of churches in these places have essentially been borne by the churches in the West, and the activity that goes on behind the scenes to provide aid is quite impressive. This aid realiy does get to those who need it, among whom are children's homes and people in distress, and is channelled through the friends or through others in the various countries. This provision of aid clearly has two effects. Providing clothes, woollen blankets, medicines, and food is simply relief work, but the friends also create a sense of worth in people by creating work places and helping them to build and upgrade their homes, etc. Besides their own help program it happens that aid from other sources, is channelled through the friends, and in particular through "Mission Alte Schule" in Germany. This is aid that amounts to millions of Norwegian kroner. In spite of all this, there is no doubt that the preaching is the most important thing to the friends, and all the other help is and remains a necessary side effect.
To figure out how many people actually belong to the church world-wide is no simple matter. The lack of organisation and registered membership make it difficult to take a head count and guesstimates range from 25,000-35,000, depending on what method you use. 25,000 is the conservative estimate taking along only those who are definitely reckoned to be in the church; but at the other end of the scale there are about 10,000 or more people who, in one way or another, feel that they are in steady contact with the church. With the exception of a few islands in the Pacific, Smith's Friends now have churches, smaller groups of friends, families and individual contacts in most countries the world over.
What started with the conversion of a naval non-commissioned officer in Horten in 1889 has become a living and vibrant brotherhood. As far as we know, Smith's Friends is the only church spread over the whole world that originated in Norway, and whose only common denominator and guideiine is the gospel. Beyond the organisation that comes as a result of the gospel itself, or what is necessary in order to keep the laws of the land, the church has shunned what it calls "human organisation" like the plague.
Gathering information about the people who make up the church is just about as difficult as counting them. Since the church keeps no records of its members, there is only one way of finding out about their education and their backgrounds, and that is to ask them. With the exception of politicians, of which there are none, there is a multiplicity of educational and professional backgrounds; the friends do not particularly stand out as being different from society in general. Academics, nurses, carpenters, plumbers, chauffeurs, officers, farmers, factory workers, fishermen and fish farmers, florists, doctors, shop assistants, dentists, salesmen, self-employed businessmen, managers, entrepreneurs, teachers, accountants, nuclear physicists,
mucicans, painters, engineers, pilots - all in one glorious mixture. In other words, it looks as if the level of education more or less reflects a cross-section of the population in general.
The teaching of the church contains nothing that gives counsel about a person's education or level of education. Each family or individual decides that matter for himself. This is not an issue of any significance in the church. All the same, there is a certain inherent "brake" with regard to careers, in the exhortation not to "seek human honour", even though many friends have reached the top within their professions.
The friends highly esteem what they call "sound doctrine". They are united through the gospel, the spirit and the life; but apart from that, people are to be given complete freedom in their lives and are encouraged to be of benefit to one another and to the society in which they live. "You must do what you have faith for" is a formula in this respect. All the same, individuals have clear and definite boundaries as to what he or she can do in society, but this clearly differs from family to family and from country to country. There is no common method of upbringing and no set of community rules that would cause the friends to stand out as carbon copies of one another. On the contrary, we experience them as individual personalities and sterling citizens who are seeking to live according to the example ofjesus Christ. At the same time, they all have the same human weaknesses, desires and longings as the rest of us.
The friends compare this Christian walk of life to the example of a little child who is learning to walk. "The child takes a step forward and falls. He gets up again, and falls again. He gets up again, takes a few wobbly steps, and falls again. And so it goes on. But the child knows that he is going to make it, so he gets up - over and over again. That's just about how it is with us too. Wc know the way, but tumble down many a time on the way. But little by little, wc get better and better at it and fall down less and less. And all the time we are pursuing the same goal."
Later in the book, the expression "brother" or "sister" occurs, precisely as the friends use the term. This reflects the spiritual concept of the terms "brother" and "sister" and normally has no bearing on the family relationship.
Skjulte Skatters Forlag. ISBN: 82-91305-23-4