Vladimir Michael Gelesnoff Memorial Part One

Faithful Laborers
(adapted from volume 13, number 2 of Unsearchable Riches magazine) 

In Memoriam

Vladimir M. Gelesnoff, 1877-1921

All-gracious God, midst scenes of strife,
We bow in adoration pure,
And ask that Thy exhaustless grace,
Which through all ages doth endure,
May grant us faith to trust Thee still
And frame our hearts to work Thy will.

All-gracious God, the hand of time,
Forever moving, as it must,
Brings man's proud boastings to the mire
And sinks earth's splendor in the dust.
That we change not, be with us still
And frame our hearts to work Thy will.

All-gracious God, this heedless world,
Absorbed in things of sense and time,
Grasps only after gods of gold,
And slights the gift of love divine.
That we respond with worship still,
O frame our hearts to work Thy will.

All-gracious God, our days are few
And spent in gathering empty lore.
So teach us wisdom that we may
Acquire Thy lessons, taught of yore,
And learn of Thee, our Teacher still
To frame our hearts to work Thy will.

Vladimir Gelesnoff

In his father’s old villa, in the beautiful city of Florence, Italy, Count Vladimir Michael Gelesnoff was born on October 19, 1877. When he was about two years of age, his mother returned to the family home in Moscow, Russia. Vladimir was the youngest of seven children. He had four sisters and two brothers, the eldest of whom was entering college at the time Vladimir was old enough to go to school.

His mother came of aristocratic British and Italian ancestry, although many of the members of her family lived in Russia. The family history of Vladimir’s father dates back as far as the year 1425. His forefathers were Tartar leaders who accepted Christianity, and were baptized and received into the Greek Church at Moscow, under Grand Duke Basil II, when they passed into the Russian service, During the centuries, a number of members of the family held important positions, either doing scientific work, or discharging official responsibilities. Vladimir’s father was a man of character and stern experience; was a member of the Russian nobility, and served in the Imperial Council, during the reign of Czar Alexander III. But, because of his very democratic ideas and public utterances, especially along the lines of education, he was frequently and severely criticized. His chief diversions were portrait painting and archaeology.


For the information regarding his early life we are indebted to a member of the English embassy at the Russian court and a classmate at the university.

Vladimir’s father and mother were both highly intellectual and versatile people, and being possessed of a considerable fortune, gave their four daughters and three sons every educational advantage. All were college graduates, spoke a number of languages, and interested themselves in some line of research or philanthropic work. Vladimir seems to have inherited more of his father’s democratic spirit than any of the others.

Returning to Vladimir’s childhood, we find him experiencing his first great sorrow when he was only four years of age. His beautiful mother died very suddenly. Although she had become a member of the Greek Orthodox Church at the time of her marriage, out of respect for her early religious views a Congregational church clergyman was called in to conduct the funeral services. Vladimir’s father never married again, so, his maiden sister undertook the direction of the household.

Before being sent to school Vladimir had learned to speak Italian, French, and German, as well as his paternal Russian tongue. He was a timid, rather serious looking boy, absorbed in his studies, and under the direction of tutors, every year he accomplished a great deal more than the average child. During the summer vacations, he happily roamed over his father’s country estates, gathering fruit and wildflowers. When only fourteen years of age he had gathered, mounted and labeled a very fine collection of wildflowers, and one of insects and butterflies. These he afterwards presented to one of the colleges. As a very little boy, he dreamed long dreams, and nature to him was always an open book, which he delighted to learn to read.

He was still very young when he entered the University of St. Petersburg. His father supervised the education of all of his sons as far as it was possible for a busy government official to do so. The eldest brother was educated as a naval engineer, the second brother as a military engineer, and the father determined that Vladimir should prepare to enter the diplomatic service, after he received his degree.

While he thoroughly enjoyed his work in languages, history, and political science, Vladimir’s deeper and greater interest was in the science of chemistry, particularly metallurgical chemistry. He showed such marked genius in doing original work in this subject, that even the college professors, one of whom was the great Mendeléef, endeavored to persuade his father that he should be allowed to do scientific work, instead of preparing for the government service. The result was that Vladimir took both courses. He learned to speak eight languages, and read twenty-one. He also showed considerable facility in the arts of poetry, music, and painting.

While pursuing his studies in history and economics at college and seeing conditions as they were in his travels during summer vacations, he became greatly agitated over existing social and economic conditions in various countries at that time. As frequently happened, he was called upon one evening, to entertain at dinner some of the University professors, while his father was unexpectedly detained by his official duties. During the course of a conversation, Vladimir unburdened his mind to these mature men, the elder of whom replied, “My boy, have you not learned that this world at this minute, is just where God wants it to be?” Vladimir was startled, but resolved to ascertain, if possible, why God wanted the world to be in this seemingly chaotic condition, and who was responsible for it. Such questions as, Whence came the universe? What is its course? What is human destiny? and Is God supreme? presented themselves for solution.


This was the starting point for Vladimir’s studies in the philosophies and religions of the world. Having read the ancient and modern philosophers and finding nothing satisfactory, he became absorbed in the study of the Hebrew Scriptures. In them, he found the only satisfactory answer to the questions which perplexed not only his youthful mind, but the minds of mature men with whom he came in contact.

At the age of seventeen, while studying the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, in the quiet of his father’s library, the love of God in the marvelous work of Christ burst upon his spirit.

He completed his university work in preparation for the diplomatic service, and in compliance with his father’s wish. He also took the work in mining and metallurgy, spending his summer vacations at mines in various parts of the empire, studying more particularly the geology and workings of nature about these places.

Having grasped the idea from, the Hebrew Scriptures that God was the source of everything, that He was the author of nature’s laws, he conceived the idea that there were not nearly as many elements as he had been taught to believe that there were, in his chemistry classes. All through his life, and in his work, there were evidences of what a tremendous power this idea proved to be in his investigations. At the same early age at which he formed the opinion that the metals and many other things were not elements, he also conceived the idea that the Hebrew language was not based on etymology, but, as a primitive language, was based on natural relations.

At this time the foundations were laid of that strict habit of mind which led him to avoid all hypotheses, however seductive, which were not supported on a sound basis of experimental facts defying refutation, an attitude of mind which later found expression in his original studies in ancient Hebrew as well as those in metallurgy. As is shown in his writings on Scripture, and as was demonstrated to scientific men who observed him in his laboratory, he had a rooted objection to taking things on trust. All through his life he never stopped at ideas, but passed directly on to their verification. As a student his energy and enthusiasm were boundless, and he remained a student all his life.

As he was about to graduate from the university, and was planning a trip to Crimea, Egypt, and the Far East with his father, we again find Vladimir in deep sorrow. His beloved father died suddenly of pneumonia.


When Vladimir graduated from the university he refused to subscribe to the tenets of the Greek Orthodox Church and those who were appointed by the authorities to administer his father’s estate seized upon this pretext to disinherit him, and inform him that he was too democratic to remain with the family in Russia.

Only God knows what his great affectionate heart suffered, as he parted with his brothers and sisters, especially his youngest sister, who was much nearer his own age than any of the other members of the family. For him to follow the teaching of God, as he saw it, meant not only the giving up of social position, and the fortune which he knew was his by right, the income of which he had fondly hoped to spend in research work, but those nearest to him by the ties of nature.


With that marvelous courage and childlike faith in the wisdom and love of God that so characterized his whole life, he set out alone, with just enough money to take him to Italy. Having arrived there he found himself, as a native of the country, liable for military service. So he entered the army, serving time in two of its departments. To everyone who knew the atmosphere of luxury he was reared in, the marvel was that he lived to endure the hardships of those terrible years, especially the months in which he was in the Cicilian campaign. While in this campaign, a machine gun exploded, killing men and officers around him, and inflicting a number of serious wounds on his body. For months after this, he suffered agonies in a military hospital.

After he recovered he was stationed at Rome. Here he attended classes at the University of Rome when off duty. In order to earn money to buy the necessary books to study for graduation from the university, he joined the army athletic team and competed for prizes, many of which he won.

While in Rome, a high official of the Russian government was taken suddenly ill and needed an interpreter and secretary, who could use a number of languages. It happened that Vladimir Gelesnoff was the young man selected to do the work, even being called to interpret for the King of Italy. This incident led to a further investigation of his educational qualifications, with the result that he was transferred from the regular army to special government work, which necessitated his taking, long journeys into foreign countries, and his coming into contact with people in every walk of life. One of these journeys brought him to America.


He resigned from his position and went to work with a firm whose head office was in New York City. For several years, however, his engineering work took him frequently to Europe. Being well trained in natural sciences, especially botany, geology, physics, and chemistry, and with a keen mind, quick and accurate in his observations, and with a remarkable memory, he began his life work by setting himself some definite problems of practical moment to work out. In his investigations, as almost invariably happens, one step led to another and the experience gained in one piece of work qualified him to follow in some definite direction, and not to plunge into, the unknown at random.

At that time platinum and palladium were coming into more general use and great difficulty was experienced in separating these metals from ores containing both without vitiating either one or the other. Vladimir Gelesnoff worked out the very simple and satisfactory method for recovering both which has since been used. The great practical work of his life, that of discovering simple methods of handling refractory ores, followed almost as a necessary consequence on this, his first achievement. His researches were masterpieces of thoroughness, and exhibited so much experimental skill, intuition, and power of careful observation, combined with clear judgment, that even though his career was cut short at such an early age, those who were intimately connected with his work have no hesitation in recognizing in him one of the most remarkable and exceptionally gifted of investigators.


He had studied carefully the geological formations where precious metals and stones were found in order to determine, as he expressed it, “How nature worked.” His preeminent power of seeing what others had failed to observe was exemplified in his discoveries. His inventions in the field of electro-chemistry are examples of the combination of rare experimental skill and precision with consummate deductive power and stand as some of the most remarkable and artistic achievements in the annals of chemical science.

He worked out and perfected formulas and apparatus for making nine varieties of precious stones, which experts said were essentially the same as those found in nature. He did not make any of them by fusion, as is commonly done in the case of the commercial synthetic stones. He put the constituent chemicals together, used his own devices in connection with osmotic pressure, and the crystals were formed as in nature. These he subjected to great heat in an electric furnace, after which they were cut and polished by a lapidary. He simply discovered nature’s processes and accelerated them in his laboratory.


He invented electric batteries, which he charged solely with the light of the sun. These he made for laboratory use very shortly before his death. One of these batteries he hoped to perfect for therapeutic purposes. One brilliant discovery succeeded another in rapid succession, but he was not permitted to live to see the practical perfection of the one which, in respect of its wide and fundamental significance in relation to the economy of nature, was, in his opinion, his greatest achievement. It had occupied considerable of his time and thoughts for over twenty years.

To those who had the privilege of seeing him work in his laboratory, these discoveries were illustrations of his penetrating scrutiny of the smallest detail in the phenomenon which passed before him. He had an extremely ingenious method of ascertaining nature's laws, and all his research were directed by his profound knowledge of them, aided by an exquisite appreciation of the methods which science possesses for their revelation. One of his chief characteristics was the extreme care, accuracy and attention to detail which he gave to everything he undertook. Practical application of science occupied a large part of his attention.

He had extraordinary power of concentrating his attention upon a single subject and perhaps the most important part of his work was done in those hours when he would sit silent and immovable, deep in thought, occupied with some difficult problem, allowing nothing to disturb or distract him until he had found the solution. But when he had discovered the key, the whole expression of his face would change. He would become radiant with delight and say to those around him, “Soon I'll have something to show you!” And that something was always shown.


During all the years that Vladimir Gelesnoff was engaged in this research work in the field of electro-chemistry, and in practical engineering, he did some work in landscape painting and carried on his investigations in the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures. For years his lectures were in demand in New York and other cities and towns where he happened to be. In these lectures he opened up the marvelous richness of the Scriptures, and pointed out the great scope of their teaching and the striking interdependence of their parts, showing that one portion of Scripture often holds the key to the meaning of other portions. He analyzed these Scriptures with the penetration of a deep student and in his lectures carried the preoccupied air of a man whose whole habit of life is an insatiable searching of the truths of Scripture. He seemed like a man who in his study saw the problems of life like visions and saw them whole. He saw the responsibility and supremacy of God in everything. The personality of Christ was to him a tremendous reality. The wisdom and the love of God, as he saw them revealed in nature and in the Scriptures, were to him constant sources of inspiration. The God he saw and presented was preeminently worthy of the love and adoration of the creature. Notwithstanding the fact that he was reared in the atmosphere of the Russian court, he possessed that almost terrible simplicity that underlies the Russian temperament. He was tolerant and broad and saw only the great common reality of truth behind all philosophy.

His lectures on scriptural subjects were listened to eagerly because he combined the rare qualities of a great Bible scholar and an unpretentious layman, because of his helpfulness of thought and because of his gentle, Christ-like spirit. He was not the “whirlwind” nor the “fire,” but “the still small voice.” People were amazed at the breadth of his thought and the exactness of his positions. He spoke with a “Thus saith the Lord.” He was a true explorer into the deeps of scripture and brought to his public teaching the accuracy of the writer and the enthusiasm of one who is dealing freshly with constantly enlarging visions of truth.

On the rostrum he appeared as a man of rather slight build, tall and slender, with a soft, gentle voice, easy and graceful in his movements but possessed of an intense earnestness, impressing his hearers at the very outset as a “man with a message.” He was scholarly and yet simple. When he told a story or an anecdote at all during a discourse it was not for the purpose of entertaining, but illustrating–and his story perfectly illustrated the point.

He had a horror of rousing the emotions before he had secured the conviction of the intellect. Faith is founded on facts. Always he began by the presentation of facts; by the unfolding of laws which he felt should make their own appeal to the common sense and natural conscience of man. He never talked beyond his experience; in action, he never seemed to fall behind his faith. He seemed to create a spiritual climate free from the nipping frost of cant, and warm with sincerity, in which it was as normal and natural for a soul to open out to God as it is for a flower to open in the sunshine. When asked concerning his quiet method of teaching he would reply, “I would rather get one man to think than get a thousand excited.”


The history of his spiritual achievements, which far transcend his work in the domain of physics, begins with his ministry in the city of New York. Here he came into touch with the so-called “Brethren,” as well as those who popularized their teaching in Conferences and Institutes, and magazines. Nevertheless, he was not fettered by fragments of truth, and it was soon seen that he had more to give than they. A letter recently received describes one of the meetings held at 125th Street in such a graphic way that we can imagine ourselves present, in spirit, and we listen to his earnest, yet quiet words, as he expounds the salvation of Christ. The letter follows:

DEAR BROTHER KNOCH: The news of our brother Gelesnoff’s departure from this scene of sin brought sorrow to my heart. My mind went back to those days when he was in our midst here in New York. What a joy it was to go to his meetings and listen to his ministry of the word of Christ! It was so different from what we had been accustomed to amongst the Brethren, where instead of getting bread we often got a stone. Thank the Lord for those days; they were the beginning of days for me! He broke the bread of life for us in such a way that our hungry souls were satisfied and we rejoiced in spirit. It seems to me now that those of us who accepted the truths he taught were being prepared by the Lord to receive them for years before. I can well remember the first meeting on 125th Street that I had the privilege of going to. All throughout that day I was conscious of the presence of the Lord and knew that He was going to be with His servant. I also remember telling one of the older Brethren, whom I met in the meeting (as we were both in early) that we were going to have a message from the Lord that night that would make our hearts rejoice, and as we sat there waiting for the time to come for the meeting to begin, what liberty of spirit there was and how easy to speak to the Lord in prayer! And then when he came in and walked up to the front platform in his quiet gentle manner and took his seat, what a stillness fell upon the meeting! Everyone seemed to hold their breath. There was not a sound until he gave out the opening hymn.

And as I listened to the message that night I was filled with joy, and I believe all were blessed. The portion of the Word that he spoke from was John 5:6: “Wilt thou be made whole?”

Now his labors are over and the One Whom he served so faithfully has gently hushed him to sleep, and we who are left behind do mourn our loss. But we look forward to that time when with him we will all be called on high and united to our great Head. Even now we rejoice in spirit as we meditate on that glorious event. And has He not told us “to rejoice in Him always”? and lest we should make a mistake He repeats the gentle command for He says, “Again, I say rejoice!” So that, while we sorrow because our brother was taken away from us, we rejoice because we know his work was done, or his Lord and ours would not have taken him away until it was finished. None will miss him more than you, but God is able to give you the wisdom and the knowledge and the strength to do the work He has appointed for you to do, and He also will do it, for is He not our All in everything we are and do? And now we will say, Blessed be His name, as we look onward to that time when everything that hath breath shall praise Him.

Yours in Christ,   J. GLASGOW

It was at this time that his life-long fellowship with one of his dearest friends began. Alan Burns was drawn to him with more than the ordinary ties of affection and was led to help in the ministry of the word, both by tongue and pen. The beginning of this friendship is best expressed in his own words:
Fifteen or sixteen years ago, perhaps a little more than that, it began to be rumored that a “great teacher” had arrived in New York City. Talking in calm, dignified language his “manner of speech” aroused the curiosity and interest of those who listened to him. His passion for the Bible–evidenced in his way of concentrating his hearer's attention on THE BOOK–appealed to every heart that throbbed in sympathy with its divine Author. It was soon apparent to those who heard him speak that he did not come before them to talk about himself, or his experiences. Nor did he seek to entertain his auditors with humorous incidents. Indeed, the writer has known how much he discountenanced mission. First, last, and all the time “God’s Word FIRST” was the dominating note of his introduction to New York Christians–a note sustained all through his ministry there and elsewhere.

A. E. Knoch

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