When John Gossner studied the words of John Michael Sailer and Martin Boos, they warmed his heart as no other religious teaching had. As a young Catholic priest in Germany late in the 1790s, he longed for a Christianity that would make him alive. Sailer's evangelical movement within Catholicism pointed him toward the spiritual understanding he had craved.
Eventually he wrote that one cannot inherit salvation by birth in a Christian family or a Christian education. Faith must come from God. The natural birth is a natural birth. A new birth is needed, a life from above.
He began to teach others what he had learned. By 1802, his earnest endeavors to show people that they could have new spiritual life directly from God (rather than through the agency of priests and the church) landed him in hot water with his denomination. The Jesuits brought him into a church court. Still unsure of how to reconcile evangelical thought with traditional Catholic teaching, John agreed to toe his church's line. (When he sought to leave his church, a highly-placed Lutheran advised against it.)
The young priest had a real gift for speaking. Soon he was packing assembly halls with listeners. His reputation led to an invitation to come and pastor the Germans who lived in Russia. In St. Petersburg from 1820-1824 he preached evangelical sermons after each mass. Four and five hundred listeners packed the church every time. He invited sincere seekers to his apartment and when that could not hold everyone, he rented assembly halls. He worked closely with Prince Golitsyn, an evangelical.
Because the Dominicans distrusted him, Johannes provided private teaching outside of the church building. This proved so successful that Russia's Orthodox leaders grew alarmed. Metropolitan Serafim of the Orthodox church pleaded for John's expulsion from the country. The Tsar ordered John out; but the evangelical seed had been planted. It spread into neighboring Estonia and Finland, and was strong in St. Petersburg two generations later.
When John returned to Germany, the Catholic church expelled him. He became a Lutheran and pastored Berlin's Bethlehem church. There he continued his successful work, leading large numbers of people to seek a deeper Christian life. He created kindergarten schools, founded a hospital, and started the mission organization which bears his name.
John Gossner died in Berlin on this day, March 20, 1858. His mission work lives on, having converted hundreds of thousands to Christ in India.
- Brandenburg, Hans. The Meek and the Mighty; the emergence of the Evangelical movement in Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
- "Gossner, Johannes Evangelista." Encyclopedia Britannica. 1911.
- "Gossner, Johannes Evangelista." Kirchenlexikon. http://www.bautz.de/bbkl/g/gossner_j_e.shtml.
- Various internet articles.
Last updated June, 2007