Johann Gerhard Oncken was born in Varel, of Oldenburg, Jan. 26th, 1800. While he was young went to England, where he became a Christian. His first impulse was to do good to others, because of the great things God had done for him. He realized the Scriptures told him were to start, “Go home to thy friends and tell them.” There was no one to join, because the Lutheranism that controlled his homeland had strayed so far from Scripture.
In 1823, he accepted an appointment from the British Continental Society as a missionary to Germany. He preached on the shores of the German Ocean, chiefly in Hamburg and Bremen. His deep conviction, clear understanding of the Scriptures, appearance and oratory skills made him welcome everywhere. Many were converted, and an evangelistic movement begun. He worked with Mr. Matthews who pastored the English independent church of Hamburg.
In 1828, he became an agent of the Edinburgh Bible Society.
In the winter of 1830, Captain Tubbs, a member of a Baptist church in Philadelphia, found that his ship was ice bound at Hampton. He found lodging with Oncken and his family, and they used the opportunity to study the Scriptures together. The captain also took the opportunity to explain the doctrines of the Scriptures and introduce Oncken to American Baptist policy. As Oncken continued to study the Scriptures, he realized that baptism was only for believers, and that it was to be done by immersion. He eagerly awaited such an opportunity to obey God.
When Captain Tubs got home, he reported to his pastor these things. In 1833, Prof. Barnas Sears went to Hamburg and found Oncken and six others who had joined him with the same viewpoint from Scripture.
In 1834, the group wanted to start a church but also wanted to make sure the church was founded on Scriptures, so decided to shut themselves up like the early church in Acts, and pray and consider the Scriptures in determining what kind of church they should form. They agreed the Biblical pattern was the same as the one used by the Baptist churches in England and America, so they adopted it for themselves.
On April 2, 1834, Oncken was baptized with six others in the Elbe River, near Hamburg, by Sears. On April 23, the seven organized a Baptist Church, with Oncken as pastor. News of his baptism spread quickly and the persecution became violent. The old endeavors that stamped out the Anabaptists were brought out again. The Lutheran clergy with the police were determined to stamp out the new church and Oncken’s evangelistic zeal.
The upper room where they met was surrounded by a mob, the windows and doors were smashed, and Oncken dragged before the officials, and then promptly thrown into prison. The event fueled an outrage all through Germany, in hopes of stopping the work of God. Oncken had all his possessions confiscated and when not in prison was summoned to appear about once a week. This forced him to move about quite a bit.
The Chief of Police, Hudtwalker, was a devout Christian, but not a Baptist. However, he was disturbed by his public duty and his feelings to a brother in Christ. So although Hudtwalker was a major source of persecution, he was also open to hearing from Oncken. One of the arguments that Oncken used was pointing out that a prostitute was allowed could get a licence to practice her immorality, if she at first got a certificate from her clergyman stating she was baptized as an infant and now in good standing with the church. That license protected her from all harm. But if a Baptist leads her to Christ, and then baptizes her, they are imprisoned for committing a horrible crime!
Oncken instead was firm and undaunted. His love and faith in God stood unwavering. The orders to stop preaching from the authorities nor the dungeon could sway him. Instead of the work faltering under the attacks, it continued and prospered. Oncken was tireless in his labor, and because of this he has been called the apostle of German.
The Chief’s successor at one time stated that he would do everything in his power to exterminate Oncken. Oncken stated that no Christian movement can be stopped by force. The official replied that as long as even his little finger could move, even it would work to stop Oncken. Oncken replied that not only did he see the officer’s little finger, but he also saw the invisible arm of God that would keep the official from succeeding. Several years later, that same mayor was present in the audience to support and celebrate the opening of another chapel started by Oncken and to hear Charles Spurgeon speak. God had completely changed the heart of the mayor!
Within a little more than four years from the start of that Baptist church, there were 4 churches and 120 members under Oncken’s direction. In 1844 he had sent out 17 preachers, organized 26 churches, and their members numbered 1,500!
In 1848, there was a great fire at Hamburg. The Baptists had a large warehouse in the city that was three stories tall. It was used to distribute food and clothing to the poor as well as to offer shelter to the homeless. Many were saved from death, and heard the gospel. Even the government felt itself a debtor to the work. This disaster turned out to be the greatest blessing, and enabled the churches to grow and prosper.
Oncken remained at Hampton throughout his life, making it the center for his evangelistic endeavors. He had some helpers who supplied the church in his absence, enabling him to travel to aid in evangelistic causes. He frequently went to England, and was a good friend of Charles Spurgeon.
In May, 1853, the American Baptist Missionary Union invited him to the United States. He stayed for 15 months. His life was miraculously preserved in a railway accident in Norwalk, Connecticut. Of the 70 new Baptist churches in Germany, only eight of them had a chapel. His trip brought in the needed finances of $8000 a year for five years, to help build chapels for the many churches.
It had seemed the Anabaptists had been completely obliterated as a result of the continual and persistent massacres brought against them. In 1815, there were no Baptist churches known in Germany. But Onken was raised up by God to not only revive the Baptists, but cause them to multiply! By 1860, because of his strong belief that every Baptist is a missionary, he started churches in Germany, Denmark, Prussia, Poland, Scandinavia, France, Southern Europe and even Russia. In just 10 years 300 Baptist churches were started. By 1900, there were 220,000 in mainland Europe!
In Germany, he had a rule for all church members. They had not only to answer what they were going to do for Christ, but they had to write their answer into a book. If a member stopped doing that thing, they were disciplined.
He Died January 2, 1884.
Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists (Watertown, Wisconsin: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1886; 2003), pp. 149-150, 827-830.
William Cathcart, The Baptist Encyclopedia, pp. 869–870.
Christian History: the Baptists, electronic ed. (Carol Stream IL: Christianity Today, 1985; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996). “A People Called Baptist.”
F.L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 156.
Robert T. Handy, “The Baptist Family: A Heritage of Faith,” Review and Expositor (Review and Expositor, 1987; 2004), Vol. 84, No. 4, pp. 593-594.
Alvah Hovey, Evils of Infant Baptism (Watertown, Wisconsin: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1880; 2003), p. 43.
J.W. Porter, The World's Debt to the Baptists (Watertown, Wisconsin: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1914; 2003), p. 143-144.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Your Available Power, electronic ed. (Escondito, California: Ephesians Four Group, 2000), p. 88.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit, electronic ed. (Escondito, California: Ephesians Four Group, 2000), Vol. 3, p. 21.
Charles H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon's Sermons, electronic ed., Logos Library System (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998). Vol. 7, No 397, “Fire! Fire! Fire!”; Vol. 28, No. 1656, “My Solace in My Affliction”; Vol. 36, No 2178, “Zedekiah; or the Man who Cannot Say ‘No’”; Vol. 47, No. 2757, “Victorious Faith”; Vol. 63, No. 3551, “The Gospel in Power.”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Words of Wisdom, electronic ed. (Escondito, California: Ephesians Four Group, 2000), p. 2.
E. Wayne Thompson and David L. Cummins This Day in Baptist History; Greenville, South Carolina: Bob Jones University Press, 1993. pp 2-3.