Nikolaj Velimirović was born on 5 January 1881 (23 December 1880, Julian Calendar) in the village of Lelić, Serbia. Nikolaj was the first of nine children of a modest and devout peasant couple, Dragomir and Katarina Velimirović. In 1898, after excelling in his village school, Velimirović enrolled in the Orthodox Seminary in the Serbian capital of Belgrade.
In 1905 he was awarded a scholarship at the University of Bern, Switzerland, where he completed a doctorate in theology in 1908. Velimirović was ordained a monk in December 1909 at Rakovica Monastery near Belgrade. Shortly after his ordination, Father Nikolaj traveled to Russia, visiting monasteries and other holy places and acquainting himself with Russian culture. There he was introduced to the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose philosophical writings made a lasting impression on his thinking.
In 1911, Velimirović returned to Serbia, where he took a position at the Orthodox Seminary in Belgrade. He regularly traveled the length and breadth of Serbia and Bosnia, preaching to an increasingly enthusiastic public. His sermons were devoted not just to religious matters, but they also advocated Serbia’s national and spiritual revival and the idea of unity among south Slavic nations.
With the coming of World War I, Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić sent Velimirović to England and the United States to promote the Serbian national cause. He was chosen to take part in this mission because of his erudition, his command of English, and his highly esteemed oratorical skills. Also, it was hoped that his reputation as an Anglophile, admirer of Protestantism, and believer in ecumenical dialogue would facilitate contacts with Anglican and Episcopal churches in Britain and the United States.
In the summer of 1915, Velimirović traveled to the United States, lecturing and preaching in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, and elsewhere. He made a brief second visit to the United States in December 1917 before returning once again to London, where he remained until 1919. In addition to lecturing before university audiences in Cambridge, London, Edinburgh, and Birmingham, Velimirović delivered sermons in Anglican churches across Great Britain.
In May 1919, following his return from England, Nikolaj Velimirović was ordained a bishop in the ancient diocese of Žiča. Less than 18 months later, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Dimitrije transferred Velimirović to Ohrid, where he remained until 1936. At this time he was reinstated as bishop of Žiča, a title which he retained until his death in 1956. His appointment in the spring of 1922 as the administrator of the Serbian Orthodox Church in America was a role which he performed simultaneously with his duties at Ohrid.