Evangelism and Missions in the Life of Johann Gerhard Oncken | Garrett Kerber

by | Jul 21, 2022 | Church History, Church Planting, Missions

 

There are many heroes and role models in the history of the Christian faith to admire and try to emulate. Though it can be pushed to a sinful extreme, the impulse is good because it fulfills an aspect of the command to honor our fathers and mothers that is often overlooked in 21st-century America. Today, many seem to view Christian history as an interesting sidenote or maybe even as completely irrelevant to believers today. This kind of “chronological snobbery”, a term coined by C.S. Lewis, believes that because we come later in the history of the world, we surely have more clarity into the things of God and more wisdom than those who came before us. We can’t look to the past to solve or help today’s problems, the thinking goes.

Yet, contrary to this thinking, there is, in fact, much to learn from our brothers and sisters from different times and places. The circumstances of their lives and the context of their ministries prove that the Word of God is eternally relevant and true. In times of triumph and times of struggle that current-day believers may never face, the lives of past believers can help us see the truth and practical outworking of Scripture removed from the biases and ways of thinking imposed on us by our own culture and context.

One such life was that of Johann Gerhard Oncken. Born in Varel, Germany, on January 26, 1800, Oncken was raised by his Lutheran grandmother because his father was in political exile.[1] However, it wasn’t until he was thirteen or fourteen, when he became an apprentice to a Scottish merchant, that he first received a Bible.[2] While apprenticing, he traveled all across Europe, but it was in Scotland where he first came into contact with Evangelical Christianity in the form influenced by Robert and James Haldane.[3] His business travel took him to London, where he stayed with an Independent family, attending chapel and family worship with them.[4] This had an impact on him for the Gospel, but it was at Great Queen Street Methodist Church in London where he experienced conversion from a sermon preached on Romans 8:1, and immediately, Oncken became zealous for spreading the Gospel.[5]

Oncken would later come to Baptist convictions while serving as a missionary in Hamburg, Germany. Germany being largely Lutheran and Roman Catholic, Oncken reached out to Robert Haldane, who suggested he baptize himself. Oncken saw no Scriptural precedent for this practice, however, and reached out to Baptist historian Joseph Ivimey for advice.[6] Ivimey invited Oncken to the church he pastored in London to receive believer’s baptism, but Oncken refused because he was busy with preaching and teaching duties and could not bring himself to leave this work to travel.[7] He rather decided to wait for a “Phillip” to come baptize him, and by providence, God brought him into contact with American Baptist pastor and professor Barnas Sears, who was on sabbatical in 1833. Sear had learned of Oncken from a sea captain named Calvin Tubbs, who Oncken had met before and sought him out. On April 22, 1834, Oncken and six others were baptized by Sears in the Elbe River and were formed as a Baptist church in Hamburg.[8]

The evangelistic efforts of Johann Gerhard Oncken deserve high recognition, and a deep study will provide encouragement and instruction for how believers today ought to participate in evangelism and missions. As Baptist historian, H. Leon McBeth puts it, “the greatest pioneer of the Baptist faith in Europe was J. G. Oncken. He stands head and shoulders above all others; some have suggested that Oncken’s life and ministry could form the framework for the history of Baptists in Europe.”[10] It is important that Christians know of Oncken. A survey of the personal evangelism of Johann Gerhard Oncken, his mission work, and his influence on others for missions provides us with a role model for missions and evangelism.

 

Personal Evangelism

The first place any evangelist can start is with the people that cross his path in the course of his life. Oncken began evangelizing almost from the moment of his conversion. He saw the need for sinners to be converted and began doing whatever he could to get the gospel into the hands of those around him.

Johann Oncken was a major advocate for the use of tracts, Christian literature, and Bible distribution in evangelism. Early on, he spent as little as he could from his meal allowance so that he could purchase gospel tracts with the remaining money and begin distributing them freely.[11] He used earnings from his work as a merchant to buy Bibles and tracts, and in 1823 he was appointed as a missionary to Hamburg, Germany by the Continental Society of London, which focused on distributing these things.[12] He and his wife Sarah were tasked with operating a small book store and distributing Bibles and tracts, as well as preaching evangelistic sermons in the home where he was staying.[13]

In 1828, he connected with the Edinburgh Bible Society (EBS). He believed revival would follow if he could get the Word of God into the hands of the German people. Over the next fifty years, he and those he worked with distributed Bibles from the EBS across Europe. The Society records that he distributed two million Bibles during that time.[14]

After coming to Baptist convictions, Oncken was disowned by the congregationalist Continental Society of London but wrote to the Baptist Tract Society urging them to have tracts translated into German for the spread of the gospel, including the memoir of Mrs. Ann Judson, wife of famous missionary Adoniram Judson. In the letter, he says, “The Tract Society at Hamburg is flourishing and doing much good—it issued upwards of 300,000 tracts last year, a considerable proportion of which were sent to Russia, the south of Germany and Switzerland.”[15] The evangelistic use of literature played a significant role in Oncken’s ministry.

In addition, Oncken remained committed to evangelism and overseeing the growth of his congregation as pastor of the new Baptist church in Hamburg. With Hamburg being a major center of commerce and transportation, Oncken spent time visiting ships docked there. He distributed literature to the sailors and proclaimed the gospel to them. God prospered this work. Allan Effa shares, “One report states that three-fourths of the men baptized in Hamburg in the first 15 years of his (Oncken) ministry were traveling men.”[16]

Oncken had a heart for evangelism, which led him to find ways to get the Gospel into the hands of as many as he could. He felt that not only by proclaiming the Gospel verbally but by distributing written literature, he could effectively contribute to the advance of the Gospel. This played a significant role in his personal evangelism but also contributed to his mission work, taking the Gospel across cultural boundaries and planting churches.

 

Missions Work

As discussed above, Johann Oncken was sent to his home country of Germany as a missionary when he was living in London as a merchant. However, this doesn’t mean that his evangelism was confined to the borders of Germany. Baptist churches in Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Poland, Holland, Russia, Turkey, Austria, Romania, Australia, Bulgaria, West Africa, and the Baltic states were established in some way connected to Oncken’s church in Hamburg.[17]

“Jeder Baptist ein Missionar” (every Baptist a missionary)[18] was his motto, and it showed its significance in his ministry repeatedly. Oncken’s church was sending out three missionaries and raised funding for the planting of 20 churches in Germany by 1850.[19] They were committed to be involved in and supporting missions.

One example of the church planting impact Oncken had can be seen when Oncken was imprisoned in Hamburg in 1837 due to a public disturbance. His followers scattered but they evangelized wherever they went, and new congregations sprouted up in Stuttgart and Oldenburg, as well as the establishment of the first Baptist congregation in Denmark, followed by Sweden.[20] “The brethren continue to exert themselves in the spread of the truth,” he said in a letter dated February 8, 1839, “and many sinners have through their instrumentality been brought under the sound of the gospel. Several of them have visited different parts of Holstein during the winter, and have distributed tracts and bibles.”[21] He had instilled the essence of his motto into his followers.

In 1842, a fire destroyed many homes, injuring one hundred people and killing fifty.[22] Oncken was among the people who reached out to help the city. The Baptists had recently secured a large warehouse for their use, so Oncken invited the authorities to use three of the four stories of the building for emergency housing for the 30,000 people displaced by the fire.[23] Their work and care for the people of Hamburg had a major impact, not only on the standing of Baptists in the eyes of the authorities who persecuted them but also on missions. John Viczian, a president of the Hungarian Baptist Union relayed the story of how Baptist work started in Hungary to Jim Elliff this way:

Back in 1842, one-third of Hamburg, Germany, had been burned. Hamburg issued a summons over the European world for workers to come to Germany to help them rebuild the city of Hamburg in exchange for good wages. Some young men left Hungary to find their fortunes in Hamburg.

In Hamburg, they met a merchant turned itinerant Baptist preacher named Johann Gerhard Oncken. He was a zealous Baptist who worked principally among the working class people. And now the world was coming to him! He befriended them and brought them into his little Baptist church. And some of those people were converted to Jesus Christ.

He told his people, “Every Baptist a missionary!” He zealously encouraged them with this motto and tried to enthuse them with the idea that they could return to start churches in the countries where they lived. So some of these young men who had been converted in the ministry of Oncken went to the outskirts of Buda (Budapest is divided into two sections, Buda and Pesh, which have a river running between them) and said, “We now establish the first Baptist church of Hungary.” Now there are eleven or twelve thousand members and twenty thousand in attendance. It’s an active work for God, but it all began with Johann Gerhard Oncken. Through the ministry of Johann Gerhard Oncken, the gospel and the Baptist message began to spread throughout Europe.[24]

He organized the United Congregations of Baptized Christians in Germany and Denmark at a general conference in Hamburg in 1849. The conference had fifty-six delegates representing thirty-seven Baptist congregations, with over 2,000 members.[25] The charter of the Union emphasized discipleship and disciple-making, urging each church in the union to have a missions committee that took up regular offerings for missions and participated in missions conferences. It also recommended that churches start youth groups wherein youth were taught how to evangelize and mobilized to do so. In addition, it encouraged laymen in the churches to evangelize in their daily work arrangements and even set up funds for those who suffered financially because they devoted time to evangelism.[26] This intense focus on evangelism and missions was “truly revolutionary in its time.”[27]

Oncken’s insistence on missions being deeply ingrained in the church’s activity led to the planting of churches worldwide. The organization of the United Congregations of Baptized Christians in Germany and Denmark was an extension of this insistence. John Hunt Cooke shares that the Union reported more than 150 churches, 31,438 members, and 17,000 children in Sunday Schools at the time of Oncken’s death. He also helped establish Baptist centers in Austria, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Holland, Switzerland, Russia, South Africa, and the United States of America, among other countries.[28] Mission work was central to Oncken’s life and shows how seriously he took the Great Commission.

 

Influencing Others in Missions and Evangelism

The vast influence Oncken had on missions and evangelism is further seen in how he trained and led people to become missionaries and evangelists. Some of this is seen in what has been stated above, but how he trained and perpetuated missions is fascinating. His ability to not only engage in evangelism and missions himself but to enlist others also spoke to the way he saw the Great Commission as a call for disciples to make more disciples who make more disciples. The work was for all believers in service to God.

It has already been shown that Oncken was convinced of the power of literature in evangelism. Tracts were involved in his own path to faith, and he saw them as an effective means to spread the Gospel and the Baptist movement.[29] He established a printing press[30] and society for tract distribution.[31] He wrote to the American Baptist Tract Society for materials and joined the Edinburgh Bible Society for Bible and tract distribution. The use of Bibles, tracts, and literature ensured that the message continued with those it was shared with, even after Oncken or his congregants and friends could not be with them.

In addition, Oncken exerted mission influence by associating with other churches and helping to train believers. He founded Germany’s first Sunday School and began an institution for training gospel preachers after learning of Charles Spurgeon’s Pastors’ College.[32] As mentioned above, one of the items listed in the charter for the United Congregations of Baptized Christians in Germany and Denmark was the establishment of youth groups for training youth in evangelism. According to Spurgeon, the German Baptist churches even included work for Christ, such as evangelism, as a duty of their members. “The German churches, when our dear friend, Mr. Oncken, was alive, always carried out the rule of asking every member, “What are you going to do for Christ?” and they put the answer down in a book. The one thing that was required of every member was that he should continue doing something for the Saviour. If he ceased to do anything, it was a matter of church discipline, for he was an idle professor and could not be allowed to remain in the church like a drone in a hive of working bees. He must do or go.”[33]

Furthermore, he helped influence the Baptist churches in Germany and abroad by his involvement in composing the German Baptist Confession of Faith, printed in 1847 “at the urgent demand of Oncken.”[34] Like the more well-known English Baptist confessions, this confession of faith was written to disprove accusations against them and “indoctrinate the churches in the teachings of the Bible.”[35]

Oncken exerted influence in the planting of churches, as well. Like the Apostle Paul, he made a practice of selecting qualified men to lead congregations in the places he helped to establish churches and frequently visited and corresponded with them. Gottfried W. Lehmann and Julius Köbner were two such men. Together, the three were known as the “Kleeblatt”, or cloverleaf by German Christians, and worked together throughout Germany, founding Baptist churches and distributing tracts, literature, and Bibles.[36]

Köbner was won to Baptist views and baptized by Oncken in 1836.[37] A Danish Jew, he and Oncken made missionary trips to Denmark. In 1839, Köbner traveled to Denmark at the suggestion of Oncken. He faced opposition which drove him to Copenhagen, where he had not intended to visit, but sensing the leading of God he recounts, “I deposited the seed, small indeed as a grain of mustard seed, but which has already become a flourishing plant having put the forth three branches [churches].”[38]  Köbner was also a prolific hymn-writer[39] and was heavily involved in crafting the German Baptist Confession.[40]

Gottfried W. Lehmann was born in Hamburg but raised in Berlin.[41] He met Oncken because of their shared interest in Bible distribution, but Lehmann wasn’t won to Baptist views until later in their friendship and he was baptized on May 13, 1836, along with his wife and four others and they were formed into a Baptist church with Lehmann as pastor the next day.[42] Lehmann would travel throughout Europe evangelizing and planting churches[43] and was also involved in the adoption of the German Baptist Confession. [44]

Johann Gerhard Oncken was not a one-man show. Though there is some evidence that he struggled with giving up control of organizations and churches he planted[45], his impact as a facilitator is enormous. By leveraging the talents and skills of other men and training the congregations and future generations of believers in evangelism, Charles Spurgeon was not wrong to refer to him as “the Apostle Paul of Europe.”[46]

 

Conclusion

The life of Johann Gerhard Oncken is fascinating. Unfortunately, many are unaware of how God used this man to build His church in Germany and Europe. The only English-language biography of Oncken is John Hunt Cooke’s Johan Gerhard Oncken: His Life and Work, written in 1908, and it is now out of print and hard to find. Because of the language barrier, it is especially difficult to locate primary sources for further study.

He is a man worth studying, nonetheless. His tireless work in evangelism provides believers with a role model for how the Great Commission can drive the actions of believers. Evangelism was not an optional recreation or a drudgery of duty, it was the glorious work of God. In a letter to his son, William, Oncken writes, “There is, after all, nothing great on earth, my dear Willy, but to glorify God in our own salvation, and then to be honoured in saving others.”[47]

Churches were planted because Oncken and his followers not being content with the Gospel dwelling richly in their own midst. They desired to see it grow elsewhere. Whether in Hamburg, elsewhere in Germany, or in lands as far as South Africa and the United States, Oncken knew that Christ had called people out of every tribe, tongue, and nation, so he sought to be a part of that mission.

Historian Leon McBeth calls Oncken “a one-man mission society, theological seminary, and literature distribution center.”[48] He was prolific in training, equipping, and sending people into the mission field to be the means of conversions and to plant churches. He worked tirelessly to be a disciple of Christ that made more disciple-making disciples, and he was happy to suggest and send gifted Christians to areas of Europe and the world that he felt would advance the Gospel for the glory of God.

Believers today can learn from and model their evangelism and missions focus on the life of Johann Gerhard Oncken and his followers. By studying his life and ministry, we can find inspiration for how to use our gifts in the face of persecution or comfortable living. We can see the impact that emphasizing the planting of churches can have on a country and a continent. Studying men such as Oncken will also show us that no man, no matter how gifted, can accomplish everything on his own. Therefore. we should look to build up and encourage others in the work of evangelism and missions, as well. Charles Spurgeon said of Oncken on the occasion of his death, “Germany has lost in Oncken a much greater man than she will to-day believe. Few have been more faithful to truth, or more practically wise in that faithfulness. Will not the Lord raise up for sceptical Germany other firm believers?”[49] May God raise up for our world other firm believers that will advance God’s mission like Johann Gerhard Onck.

 

Author: Garrett Kerber

Garett Kerber is an MDiv student at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary and a member at Church of the Cross in Mahomet, IL. He lives in Gibson City, IL with his wife, Heather, and their four children. Garett is interested in Baptist History, Hymns of the faith, and furthering the work of Bible Translation. He lists family, birds, and sports among his favorite things.

 

References

[1] G. Gieselbusch, “Oncken, Johann Gerhard,” in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge: Embracing Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology and Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Biography from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson (New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1908–1914).

[2] David Saxon, “Every Baptist a Missionary: Johann G. Oncken and Disciple-Making in Europe.” Lecture, The Conference on the Church for God’s Glory, Accessed November 2, 2021. https://ccggrockford.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Saxon-David-Johan-Gerhard-Oncken-Full-Manuscript.pdf, 2

[3] Allan Effa, “Diaspora Strategist: The Missionary Work of Johann Oncken.” July 2007. “Featured Article” at www.globalmissiology.org: 1-11. Accessed November 2, 2021. http://www.globalmissiology.org/francais/docs_pdf/effa_on_johann_oncken.pdf, 2

[4] Saxon, “Every Baptist,” 2.

[5] Effa, “Diaspora,” 2.

[6] Wayne Alan Detzler, “Johann Gerhard Oncken’s Long Road to Toleration.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36, no. 2 (1993), 227.

[7] George M. Ella, “Johann Gerhard Oncken: Germany’s Baptist Pioneer,” Biographia Evangelica, Accessed November 2, 2021, http://evangelica.de/articles/biographies/johann-gerhard-oncken-germanys-baptist-pioneer/

[8] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1987), 471.

[9] Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn, and Michael A. G. Haykin, The Baptist Story: From         English Sect to Global Movement, Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015, 163.

[10] McBeth, Baptist Heritage, 470.

[11] Ella, “Johann Gerhard Oncken”

[12] Effa, “Diaspora,” 2-3.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Saxon, “Every Baptist,” 3.

[15] Ibid., 350.

[16] Effa, “Diaspora,” 4-5.

[17] Effa, “Diaspora,” 5.

[18] McBeth, Baptist Heritage, 472.

[19] Saxon, “Every Baptist,” 9.

[20] Gieselbusch, “Oncken,” 240.

[21] H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1990), 349.

[22] Detzler, “Long Road to Toleration,” 231.

[23] Saxon, “Every Baptist,” 7.

[24] Jim Elliff, “Global Evangelization and God’s Sovereignty,” Reformation and Revival 2, no. 3 (1993), 68.

[25] Gieselbusch, “Oncken,” 240.

[26] Saxon, “Every Baptist,” 9.

[27] Effa, “Diaspora,” 5.

[28] Saxon, “Every Baptist,” 17.

[29] Effa, “Diaspora,” 6.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Eric Hayden, “Johann Gerhard Oncken: Friend of Spurgeon,” Banner of Truth, accessed November 7, 2021, https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2017/johann-gerhard-oncken-friend-spurgeon/

[32] Ibid.

[33] C. H. Spurgeon, The Greatest Fight in the World (Final Manifesto), Toronto; New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1891, 44

[34] W. J. McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, (Philadelphia; Boston; Chicago; St. Louis; Toronto: American Baptist Publication Society, 1911), 332.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Saxon, “Every Baptist,” 6.

[37] Ibid.

[38] McBeth, Sourcebook, 352.

[39] McBeth, Baptist Heritage, 473.

[40] McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions, 331.

[41] McBeth, Baptist Heritage, 473.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions, 331.

[45] Saxon, “Every Baptist,” 16.

[46] Hayden, “Friend of Spurgeon”

[47] Saxon, “Every Baptist,” 18.

[48] McBeth, Baptist Heritage, 470.

[49] C. H. Spurgeon, The Sword and Trowel: 1884 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1884), 278.

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