George Ella's Biographical Sketches

Johann Gerhard Oncken: Germany’s Baptist Pioneer

The ‘Enlightenment’ that brought a deluge of immorality

The French occupation of Germany under Napoleon’s Dictatorship caused political, social and religious unrest which lasted well into the present century. The Corsican upstart conscripted Germans and compelled them to suppress their fellow-countrymen or forfeit their lives. One man by the name of Oncken, a citizen of Varel in present Schleswig-Holstein, decided to resist the tyrannical French and campaigned to overthrow the occupational forces. Napoleon’s spies, however, were everywhere and Onckenwas compelled to flee to England to carry on his work of liberation in exile. On January 26th, 1800, a son was born to the ex-patriate whom, in God’s providence, he was never to see. The child’s name was Johann Gerhard Oncken. It appears that his mother died in childbirth and the tiny baby was taken care of by his grandmother who prayed for the day when her son would return a freeman. Her hope was in vain. Oncken died in exile two years later.

Biographer, J. H. Cooke, writes “The French armies brought the grossest infidelity of belief and life, with a deluge of immorality. The days of the French tyranny in Germany are remembered for their depravity.” The long-standing French influence and later military occupation, also introduced in Germany the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ philosophy where the religion of man became the worship of his own reason. Now the Rationalists opposed revelation in the strength of all their worldly power and, as the 19th century began, it seemed that both Church and State had succumbed to its whims.

A smuggler points Oncken to the Bible

Young Oncken was protected from this worldly atmosphere by the prayers and witness of his godly grandmother and the testimony of a neighbouring tailor, nicknamed ‘The Holy One’, because of his stalwart Christian witness. Though Oncken was baptised and confirmed in the Lutheran Church, this made no impression on his heart. God moves in mysterious ways and the next step in Oncken’s conversion was through a Scottish smuggler. From 1804 on, Napoleon forbade any trade connections between his subdued states and England. Believing the British to be ‘a nation of shop-keepers,’ existing solely by commerce, the tyrant thought he could soon force Britain to its knees by closing her trade outlets. Varel now became a centre of smuggling as British goods were still considered necessities of life by the Germans. When Napoleon’s hold on Germany began to weaken because of his disastrous Russian campaigns, a Scots merchant visited Varel to claim payment for the goods he had smuggled into the town. He met Oncken, now aged fourteen, and felt that he would make a good apprentice. One of the first questions the Scotsman asked Oncken was whether he had a Bible. On being answered in the negative, the merchant took his young ward to a bookseller’s and bought him one.

Oncken was taken to Scotland and placed in the care of the Scots merchant’s truly Christian mother. This good lady took Oncken to the ‘Kirk,’ where the clear gospel he heard preached made a deep impression on him. Oncken was then guided to the works of James Hervey. Oncken had developed a mind of his own at this time and soon left the employment of the Scotsman and moved to Leith as a pupil-teacher. Sadly, the boys of Leith resented having a foreign instructor, so nineteen-year-old Oncken decided to visit London to find new work. Shortly after his arrival, he was sitting on the top of a coach when it pulled up abruptly and Oncken was cast onto the stone pavement below where he lay dazed and bleeding from his nose and mouth. After a quick recovery, Oncken took the incident as a sign from God that he ought to prepare for eternity.

Finding no condemnation in Jesus

Oncken was cared for by a Christian family at Blackheath who introduced him to good preaching at their Independent Chapel and invited him to share in their family worship. Though his Lutheran neighbours in Varel, his Presbyterian friends in Scotland, Anglican James Hervey and his Independent friends in London had all sown gospel seeds in the fertile soil of Oncken’s heart, it was at Great Queen Street Methodist Chapel that he received an assurance of faith and experienced the sin-cleansing work of Christ’s atoning death. That day, the minister preached on Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.”

Immediately on being converted, Oncken set about witnessing to all. Instead of using his meal allowance to procure a cooked dinner, he bought two rolls and filled a flask with water at a public fountain, spending the rest of his money on tracts which he freely distributed. Very soon, Oncken saw fruit for his labours. He lodged in Ludgate Hill with the sixteen-year-old servant of a drunkard American merchant with whom he shared the gospel. After a few days, the boy professed Christ as his Saviour. Many such fruitful endeavours on the part of Oncken moved The Continental Society to appoint Oncken as their missionary to Germany and he departed for work there in Hamburg on December 16th, 1823. His membership in a London Independent Church was now transferred to the Reformed English Church under the pastoral care of T. W. Matthews who became a firm friend of Oncken’s.

Sent to Hamburg as a missionary

The English Church in Hamburg gave Oncken a big welcome and he lodged with the pastor’s family. Oncken preached regularly in English for the church but his calling was now to the German population so the English Church provided him with a large room in which to hold meetings. Only ten Germans turned up for the first meeting on January 7th, 1827 but by February 24th many hundreds of people were attending the meetings and crowds had to be turned away as the room was too small to contain them. One of Oncken’s first converts from this period was C. F. Lange who became a co-worker.

Oncken was neither a registered minister, nor a citizen of Hamburg and the room given Oncken for preaching was not properly licensed. This led to trouble with the civil authorities and Oncken was arrested and fined several times. Oncken thus started an itinerant ministry, holding house meetings in an effort not to annoy the authorities. This proved impossible as once it was known that Oncken was preaching, each house in which he preached soon became over-crowded with visitors.

Five years after returning to Germany, Oncken became a citizen of Hamburg. He had opened a bookshop for the circulation of Bibles and sound literature and now realised that if he was to be of service to God, he must legalise his position. It is a puzzle to know why it took Oncken so long to seek citizenship, the probable reason being that he was uncertain as to whether his calling should be permanently to Hamburg. He had also feared that citizenship for him would be an impossibility. God showed him otherwise. One day, Oncken was conversing with Alderman Schröder who had shown great interest in Oncken’s Sunday School work. Schröder insisted that Oncken should accompany him to the Registrar’s and they should have the formalities for citizenship performed. The clerk recognised Alderman Schröder and jokingly asked him if he wished to become a citizen at long last. Schröder replied that if the Registrar was in the mood for granting citizenships, he should give one to his friend Oncken who was a fine young man. “Then we shall give him full citizenship at once,” said the Registrar. Oncken was asked for his name, address and occupation and replied that he was a missionary. The clerk asked what the word meant. Before Oncken could say anything to complicate the situation, Schröder quickly interjected, “He is a Commissioner Agent.” Oncken, began to protest but Schröder explained that his duties as a book-seller and stationary supplier went under the official title of Commissioner Agent. The Registrar entered Oncken as such in the application forms, the fees were paid and Oncken became a Hamburg citizen. This meant that whatever the authorities thought of Oncken’s illegal preaching and educational work, he could never be banished from the town.

Oncken now made some valuable friends who were to support him in his ministry. Lenthe, the court painter of the Grand-Duke and a keen Christian became Oncken’s Bible Agent and colporteur of his books. Lenthe introduced Oncken to the Dowager-Duchess who asked Oncken to hold a regular Bible-Study in her palace for her entire household and help her to look after the spiritual welfare of her ward, Princess Helene.

Oncken’s marriage status

Oncken married three times in all. He was married to his first wife Sarah Mann of London on May 19th, 1828. Oncken was now busy printing and publishing Bibles, so his wife soon picked up the German language through helping him with the proof-reading. The marriage was a very happy one and produced seven children. A daughter Sarah, died of the cholera in 1831, another daughter, Lydia, aged five, died of an unknown illness in 1840 and the youngest son, Philip was tragically burnt to death at eight years of age in 1850. After a long and painful illness, Sarah died in 1845, leaving five children of whom one was still a baby in arms. Oncken wrote:

“My loss can only be partly estimated by those of my friends who knew her. Her sound judgement, her principles of moral rectitude and not less, her clear and sound views of divine truth, combined with an undeviating attachment to the cause and people of God, were of no ordinary degree, and have exercised on the character of her husband the most salutary influence.”

In 1847, Oncken married a Yorkshire widow by the name of Ann Dogshun whose former husband had been a merchant to Hamburg. Oncken’s children took to her at once and she became much loved by the Hamburg congregation. Ann Oncken died in 1873 shortly after the Oncken’s silver wedding anniversary. There were no children by this marriage. In 1875, Oncken married Jane Clark, a member of Spurgeon’s Tabernacle and it was Jane who nursed her husband through his final illness.

The baptism issue

Impressed by Oncken’s preaching abilities, the Lutheran Church urged him to ‘legalise’ his work by becoming ordained. Other Christian friends promised to finance Oncken’s training. He refused these offers because of doubts regarding the Lutheran doctrines of baptism and the Church. Though a member of a church which taught Covenant Baptism, Oncken began a ten year study of the Bible to search for clarity on baptism’s true meaning. In 1829, Oncken wrote to Robert Haldane of Scotland for advice. Haldane told Oncken to baptise himself as a believer. The German could find no Biblical authority for such an act, and commented on Haldane’s advice with the words, “Even great men are able to err.” He discussed his problems with Matthews and Lange who, at first, resisted the notion of Believer’s baptism but Matthews soon became convinced that he should become baptised by immersion and immediately, resigned form his church and travelled back to England to receive the rite. Meanwhile, Oncken refused to have his children baptised and he and Lange continued to search the Scriptures. Oncken then corresponded with the Baptist historian Ivemy who invited him to London to receive Believer’s baptism. Oncken was, however, too busy preaching to undergo a lengthy journey and, reluctantly, had to decline the invitation. Meanwhile, Oncken was also corresponding with the Baptist leaders in the USA. In 1833 Professor Barnas Sears of Hamilton College visited Germany for further studies and spoke to Oncken on believer’s baptism. At this time, however, Oncken was too busy doing itinerant work for the Edinburgh Bible Society to consider being baptised. Back again in Hamburg in April,1834, Oncken made the final decision and Sears travelled up from Halle where he was studying and baptised Oncken, his wife and a number of his friends in the Elbe. The ceremony was performed late at night to avoid public offence as the authorities felt that the spectacle of people being dipped in the river was an offence to public morals. The five believers baptised with the Onckens were all trades people, one of whom, Johannes Gusdorf, a lined draper, was a convert from Judaism. Sears had reported in 1833:

“On my arrival at Hamburg, I called on Mr. Oncken, whom I found to be in all respects an interesting man. He is a German, a little more than thirty years of age, married in England, has two children, and is perfectly master of the English language, and though not a man of liberal education, has a very strong, acute mind, has read much, is a man of immense practical knowledge, and is very winning in his personal appearance and manners.. . . . . He has the confidence of Tholuck, Hahn, Hengstenberg, and many other distinguished individuals of the Evangelical party, and has their co-operation in circulating bibles and tracts.”

Oncken was now well respected by the civil authorities who decided to shut their eyes to his ‘irregularities’. He was allowed to form a Baptist Church and Sunday School and appointed Julius Köbner (1806-1884) as his co-pastor. Köbner was the son of Denmark’s Chief Rabbi and one of the many Jews converted through Oncken’s ministry. A well-educated man of letters combined with a fervent desire to witness for the Lord, Köbner proved to be off infinite use in the spreading of the gospel and the establishing of Baptist churches throughout Germany and Denmark. No less than twenty-five of Köbner’s hymns are still to be found in German Baptist hymnbooks. A second co-worker brought to Christ by Oncken’s witness and baptised in 1837 was Gottfried Wilhelm Lehmann (1790-1882), artist and poet and co-founder of the German Christian Alliance, who became the pastor of the first Baptist church in Berlin. Lehmann’s hymns were never as popular as Köbner’s but four or five of them are still to be found in Baptist hymnbooks such as Glaubenstimme. One point of discord between Oncken and the Senate was that his church was formally accepted as co-member of the fine Calvinistic Hudson River Baptist Association which left the impression among some that Oncken was ‘un-German’ and was been used by the Americans as an agent in illicit commercial enterprises.

Persecuted for the gospel’s sake

Around 1837, Senator Binder was voted in by the Hamburg city corporation. He did not know Oncken personally and immediately raised objections to his work. After enjoying six years of peace, Oncken was called before Binder and told that as long as the Senator could move his little finger, he would contest Oncken’s work. The calm Baptist replied, “I think, sir, that you do not see what I see, which is not a little finger, but the mighty arm of God helping me.” Now Binder determined to rid his city of such ‘American’ impudence and promised Oncken that the Senate would take on the full costs of transporting him and his family to the United States. Oncken refused the offer, maintaining that God had called him to Hamburg and there he must remain. The city authorities, more determined than ever to stop Oncken, had him incarcerated for four weeks in the Winserbaum prison, a place built on stilts over the city’s sewage drains. The imprisonment left Oncken with permanent chest troubles through constantly breathing in the gas. His church continued to meet though heavy fines were imposed on them and often the entire congregation would gather outside the prison to wave to their pastor and shout words of encouragement. Soon Pastor Köbner and Deacon Langewere imprisoned. The three men soon discovered one another’s where abouts as Lange struck up a hymn and hearing him, the others quickly joined in the praises. The church communicated with the prisoners by means of a coffeepot with a false bottom. They brought in coffee and cakes for their friends who were able to pull out messages from the pot and slip in their own. The warden, however, reported this to a Senator who confiscated the pot. He drew out a piece of paper, expecting it to testify to Oncken’s ‘foreign intrigues’, but read the equally alarming words,

“Dear Brother,

The Lord’s work goes on well, may that comfort and refresh your spirit. Yesterday we met in twelve places; the police are hunting for us, but failed to find us.”

The Hamburg Baptists find peace

Soon all persecutions ceased. In May, 1842, there was a terrible conflagration in Hamburg and the Baptists took on the major task of looking after the homeless and caring for the injured, turning their newly bought church premises into a hostel and hospital. Now even Senator Binder could not deny that the arm of God was with the Baptists. Because of the Baptists’ courage and fortitude in the various catastrophes which hit Hamburg in the 1830s to 1850s and their peaceful part in solving the problems raised during the 1848 Revolution, Binder assured Oncken that his work would be fully supported by the city authorities and he should never hesitate to bring his needs before the corporation. In 1857, full official tolerance was given to the Hamburg Baptist Church and in 1866 both the Senate and the city corporation granted the Baptists full recognition on a par with the major denominations, including the Hamburg Lutherans. This move was eventually followed by town councils all over Germany. During these years of peace, Oncken continued his work in Hamburg but made increased visits to Scandinavia, Russia and Eastern Europe, preaching, baptising and establishing churches wherever he travelled.

After 1849, Oncken started six months missionary training courses with Köbner’s help. Soon some thirty students were being enrolled per year and by 1888 the Seminary had reached academic status and was providing full-time courses covering several years. During this century, the Seminar has worked in close co-operation with the University of Hamburg, several of their lectures having also Professorships at the university. This author had the privilege of doing post-graduate studies at Oncken’s Seminar during the 1971-2 academic year and was invited to preach and hold Bible Studies in the very church buildings Oncken had erected. Recently, the Seminar moved to Berlin.

Now the large inter-denominational Bible Societies of Europe and America began to support Oncken’s work and he bought a large warehouse to stock tracts and Bibles in numerous languages. From Hamburg, Bibles, Scripture portions and tracts were sent out in the many thousands per year. Not being able to obtain enough Bibles for the great demand, Oncken published edition after edition himself. The period after the Revolution saw the founding of insurance companies, health care schemes, relief funds and co-operative societies, mostly pioneered by Evangelicals and the Anti-rationalists. Oncken joined in this work founding schemes for the funding of chapels, widow’s pensions, and a relief fund for persecuted Christians. In all these engagements, Oncken was supported by the Mennonites, Moravians, the Lutheran Inner Mission, the Christian Alliance and leaders of the various Pietistic movements in German as also the American Baptist Missionary Society and the British Particular Baptists abroad.

Further persecutions in other states

Though Oncken was now a respected Hamburg citizen, his personal sufferings for his faith were not over. Wherever he started a new work, he received strong opposition until the Baptists were able to prove themselves law-abiding citizens. Denmark even went so far as to outlaw Oncken. On hearing of the Danish opposition, the Yorkshire Baptists sent a delegation to Denmark with the signatures of 400 English pastors from the various denominations, followed by a further petition signed by 5,000, to plead with the new King to release all prisoners arrested merely for being Baptists. Elizabeth Fry joined the growing band of protestors and, a year later, the American Baptist Board also sent a delegation to Denmark. There, they found Baptists who had been imprisoned for up to five times, living on bread and water. Finally Queen Victoria and Lord Palmerston pleaded with the Danes to show more tolerance and Christian love for their fellow-men. Gradually, after many months of stubborn opposition against the Baptists, the Danish government followed their King’s lead and granted them religious freedom.

Such persecutions meant that Oncken had often to travel incognito and by night, avoiding public transport and appearing in public places. His preaching and especially the baptismal services he conducted were also performed during the night. In some states where the police had more power than sense, as soon as it was rumoured that anyone had become a Baptist, they took their new-born children by force and had them baptised by the local Lutheran ministers, thus breaking the law themselves and having the Lutheran ministers break their church’s own teaching on children eligible for baptism. The Baptists of the world united to support the Germans and the Scottish Presbyterians, through whom Oncken first heard the gospel, joined the Haldanes in approaching the various state authorities on behalf of the Baptists. By 1847, Prof. Sears could write of the German Baptists:

“The movement has extended and gained a firm footing throughout the countries of Central and Northern Europe; persecution in its violent form has ceased and even the clergy of the State Churches had found it necessary to deal with the Baptists as a factor meriting serious consideration.”

The arm of God over Oncken

In 1853, whilst on a preaching tour of the USA, Oncken had a further deep experience of God’s protecting arm. Oncken was seated with Professor Teenbrook at the front of the train to Boston. Suddenly he received a strong feeling that all was not well and urged his friend to leave the compartment with him at New York and go to the back. The train then sped on but a drawbridge over a deep abyss had been left open and the train plunged into it. Oncken’s compartment left the rails the last and he and his companion were knocked unconscious by a great weight falling on them. When Oncken regained consciousness, he was able to free himself from the debris and found himself in the water. In spite of head, foot and hand injuries, he struggled to the shore. This was one of the worst railway accidents in the history of the United States and if Oncken had been at the front of the train, he would have had no chance of escape. Though Oncken was bandaged and in great pain, he continued his 10,000 American mile tour with great courage and impressed all with his fine testimony.

Oncken’s gospel

The gospel Oncken taught can be seen in a letter to his son, William Sears, written July 3rd, 1854 from New York:

“You must not be discouraged in your Christian course by the discovery of your sinful propensities – these will be gradually more fully revealed to you. God does not convert the sinner, to show to him how good he is, but how weak, helpless, sinful and depraved he is, that thus all self-dependence may be destroyed. But then the Spirit of Christ who teaches us this bitter lesson concerning ourselves, also shows us from the Holy Scriptures what a gracious, faithful and almighty Saviour we have, and that through the grace and strength of Him we can do all things. The two great truths which from the day of our conversion to the day we enter into heaven the Lord teaches those who shall be saved are in reference to ourselves that we are poor, lost, helpless sinners, who, if left to themselves, must perish for ever, and in reference to God, that out of boundless compassion He has sent His only begotten Son into the world to atone for the guilt of all who should believe in Him, and then in this glorious Saviour more –infinitely more – has been brought back to all who believe in Him, than ever was lost by Adam’s transgression and our own sin.”

The imperfections of time make way for joyous eternity

In April, 1878, Oncken told his friends that he was growing daily weaker. His greatest comfort, he confessed, was to know that Christ, having loved him, loved him to the end! Oncken put all his financial affairs in order and resigned as agent for the various Tract and Bible Societies but the Scottish Bible Society assured Oncken that he would receive a pension until the Lord called him home. Towards the end of 1879, Oncken suffered a stroke which further curbed his evangelistic activities but still he carried on as pastor. His church could not yet imagine having another shepherd. In 1881, Oncken was compelled to retire as his voice failed him and his memory was in ruins. He moved to Zürich where his wife had connections, and though his preaching days were over, he conducted family worship with his old vigour until his death. Oncken was called peacefully away on 2nd January, 1884, after telling his family that he was inscribed in Heaven’s roll, so that his hope was sure. His earthly remains were removed to Hamburg where Oncken’s closest friend Köbner preached the funeral sermon from Psalm 73:24, “Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterwards receive me to glory.” Then Oncken’s designated successor to the Hamburg pastorate, Kemnitz preached on the home-call of Elijah. Oncken was buried in the Reformed Church Cemetery in Hamburg. His grave was adorned with the two verses of Scripture, Eph. 4:5, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism”, and Acts 2:42,“And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread and in prayers.”

Oncken always confessed that the great gospel work he pioneered in Europe was of international and interdenominational dimensions. He never ceased to give praise to God for the foreign Baptist societies that supported him, but also for the faithful service of the National Bible Society of Scotland, the Religious Tract Society and the Trinitarian Bible Society. He was also quick to praise the German, Scandinavian, Polish, Hungarian and Russian Christians who had so lovingly shared his burdens. Nevertheless, Oncken’s personal work in the gospel was gigantic. He constituted no less than 280 Baptist churches, 1,222 preaching stations or ‘daughter churches’ and 771 Sunday Schools in Germany. He also founded over 170 churches in Scandinavia and the Slavic states. The total membership of these churches, not including 17,000 Sunday School scholars of various ages, was one hundred and fourteen thousand believers. These figures do not include unbaptised family members. In the history of the Church, there have been few labourers who, by the power of God, have been so successful in bringing salvation to the lost.

George Ella, Muelheim

George M. Ella is a historian, author and biographer. His writings may be accessed at the online archived, ”Biographia Evangelica”.

George M. Ella, born February 1939 in Yorkshire, England, has lived most of his life on the European Continent. He is a retired Senior Civil Servant formerly employed in teaching, post-graduate teacher-training, chairing examination boards and curricula work. He holds degrees from London, Hull, Uppsala, Essen, Duisburg and Marburg universities with doctorates in English Literature and Theology. Dr. Ella has written regularly since the seventies for a number of magazines and newspapers and published numerous books on Church History, including biographies of William Cowper, William Huntington, James Hervey, John Gill, Augustus Montague Toplady, Isaac McCoy and Henry Bullinger besides works on doctrine and education. He is currently finishing the third volume of his series 'Mountain Movers'; a biography of John Durie; a work on Law and Gospel and further study material for the Martin Bucer Seminar. Dr. Ella is still internationally active as a lecturer and is a Vice-President of the Protestant Reformation Society. He is keenly interested in missionary work and has written on the spread of the Gospel amongst the Same people of Lapland, the people of India and the Native Americans. This present volume follows Dr. Ella's 'The Covenant of Grace and Christian Baptism', also published by the Martin Bucer Seminar. George Ella is married to Erika Ella, nee Fleischman, a former government administrator, and they have two sons Mark (41), Director of a Polytechnic College in Bremerhaven and Robin (39), Leading Senior Physician in a newly-built Geriatric and Psychiatric clinic in Dessau.

George Ella on Doctrinal Matters
George Ella's Biographical Sketches