Strategist: The Missionary Work of Johann Oncken
Effa is the Ray and Edith DeNeui Professor of Intercultural
Studies at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta,
Canada. He has a PhD in Intercultural Studies
from Fuller Theological Seminary and served as a missionary in Nigeria
I am drawn to the life and ministry of
Johann Oncken because the movement he spawned is of personal significance to
me. As a member of a North American
Baptist Conference church I recognize that some of my denomination・s heritage
and vitality is partially traced to the influence of this man. It has also been my privilege to serve
as a missionary in a region of West Africa that received
some of its first Christian missionaries from nineteenth century Baptists in Germany. Furthermore, I trace my spiritual roots
through my father・s side of the family to the ministry of Oncken. My ancestors were among the first
generation of German-speaking Baptists in Europe. My
great grandmother frequently recalled a visit which Oncken had made in their
humble home in rural Poland.
The study of Oncken・s missionary career,
however, is instructive to today・s growing interest in diaspora missions. His outreach efforts to sailors,
temporary workers and farmers who had settled outside of Germany
indicate that he was a visionary man who understood the dynamics of migratory
movements. His commitment to the
evangelization of scattered German people resulted in a broad network of
churches in a relatively short time.
This paper will begin by looking at the
religious climate of nineteenth century Germany
and the conditions which favored receptivity toward Oncken・s message. Next, we
will briefly survey Oncken・s life and formative influences. Following, we will refer to the early
growth of the Baptist movement, with particular note to the means by which it
spread. Finally, we will give
special attention to Oncken・s methodologies and their effect on the growth of
II. THE Religious Climate of
Nineteenth Century Germany
At the beginning of the nineteenth century
there were no Baptist churches on the European continent, despite nearly 200
years of Baptist expansion in England
and its American colonies. The
forces of Puritanism and Separatism which had given birth to the Baptist church
of England had not directly affected the people of Germany. Prior to 1800 the German people were
evenly divided between Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches. The most significant phenomenon on the
German religious scene was the Pietistic movement of the 17th
century which arose as a reaction to the cold creedalism and lifelessness which
had engulfed the Lutheran church at the time. This movement sought to bring renewal
and revitalization within the established church, bringing spiritual awakening
and new structures within Protestantism.
Although Pietism had its birthplace in Germany
its revolutionary effect had been much more felt in England
and North America.
The influence of Pietism may have been tempered a bit by another growing
movement in German Protestantism: the rise of scholasticism and its scientific
approach to the study of Scriptures and the history of Christianity.
At the dawn of the nineteenth century these
two somewhat contradictory forces of Pietism and Rationalism held sway in Germany,
the former predominating among grass roots, working class people. This resurgence brought about a new
emphasis on personal religion, Bible study, prayer and a relationship to God
through conversion. Some among the
movement were calling for a voluntary church as opposed to the State churches.
It was this Pietist resurgence that provided
the major impetus for the development of the Baptist churches in Europe. Many Pietist groups, gathered for Bible
study and prayer, arrived at the conviction of believers・ baptism before they
had even heard of Baptists (McBeth, 187:466). The time seemed uniquely ripe for the
type of ministry exercised by Oncken.
III. A Missionary is Raised Up
Johann Gerhard Oncken was born January 26, 1800 in the small German
town of Varel in Oldenburg. Little is known of his early
childhood years and family life.
His father was sent into exile for political reasons when Johann was
thirteen. Because of great
financial hardships, Johann was sent to Scotland
to live with the family of a Scottish merchant the Onckens knew well. For several years he worked as an
apprentice in Edinburgh where he
had his first contact with Evangelical Christianity, particularly the renewal
movement led by the lay brothers Robert and James Haldane. These wealthy landowners and shipping
magnates expended their finances and energy, taking the message of reform all
Oncken later moved to London
where he attended an independent chapel in Greenwich. Both the public worship and the family
prayers in the home where he lodged deeply affected him and warmed his heart
toward God. It was, however,
in Great Queen Street Methodist Church that he made the decision to give his
life to Christ. The sermon that day
was from Romans 8:1, ：There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ
Jesus.； Oncken describes his
experience thus: ：The creation of
my new life laid so rich a blessing for this testimony that I went home with an
inexpressible blessing； (Wagner, 1977:5).
Immediately Oncken was filled with zeal to share his evangelical faith
For several years he continued his business
as a merchant in London but his
primary interest was clearly in the direction of kingdom work. Whatever he could save from his earnings
was used to buy Bibles and tracts which were then given away. Eventually he expressed his desire to
return to his homeland and in 1823 he was appointed by the Continental Society
of London as their missionary to Germany. This British society focused on the distribution of Bibles and
other Christian literature. Shortly
after marrying Sarah Man they settled in Hamburg
to begin their work.
Their ministry duties involved operating a
small book store and distributing Bibles and tracts, as well as conducting
evangelistic services. It was in
this context that he preached his first full sermon and grew to become one of Germany・s
greatest and most persuasive preachers (Wagner, 1977:5).
Oncken held services in his apartment and
made special efforts to reach the many sailors who visited that port city. It was difficult to assess the fruit of
that ministry since they were in contact for only a brief period of time. The first ten years of ministry in Hamburg
produced meager results, with about eighty people brought to a confession of
faith. He and his small fellowship
group regularly met for Bible study and prayer and gradually came to hold
Baptist convictions. By 1826 he
confessed that he had doubts about infant baptism and refused to present his own
child for that ceremony. He came to
a place of desiring a baptism by immersion, but had no one to perform the rite
for him. He wrote a letter to James
Haldane of Edinburgh who was one of
the directors of the Continental Society.
Haldane advised him to baptize himself as John Smyth had done in Holland
two centuries earlier. This advice
led him to search the Scriptures to see if he could find an example of a person
baptizing himself. Finding no
biblical precedent he decided to wait for a ：Philip； who would come to baptize
him into his new faith.
During his years of waiting Oncken shared
his story with an American sea captain, Calvin Tubbs, whom he met in Hamburg.
Tubbs later reported the incident to the American Baptist Triennial
Convention. An American professor,
Barnas Sears, went to Germany
on sabbatical in 1833 and made a point of contacting Oncken. After careful inquiries into the faith
of seven persons, including the Onckens, Sears and the little band left Hamburg
at midnight in a small row boat to a point several miles down the River Elbe
from the city and there baptized them ：under the friendly light of the stars；
(Hervey, 1892:785). The next day
Sears formed them into a church with Oncken as pastor. This became the oldest surviving Baptist
church on the continent.
IV. Early Growth of the Baptist
Oncken・s self-identification as a Baptist
did not go unnoticed by the civil and religious authorities of Hamburg. He was also disowned by the missionary
society under which he had served and by the Independents generally (Torbet,
1950:172). Fortunately, the
American Baptist Mission appointed him in 1835, together with one of his first
converts, C. F. Lange, as their first missionaries to Germany. This was to set the pattern for future
missionary work in Europe, with a preference for
employing and assisting Europeans to carry forth their own Baptist witness
Oncken・s appointment came with three basic
directives: 1. Maintain public
worship at Hamburg; 2. Distribute
tracts and Bibles; 3. To preach in Bremen,
Oldenburg and other towns in northern Germany. Oncken was outspoken in his proclamation
of the gospel and soon the house in which his congregation was meeting was
filled to capacity. News about this
preacher of the ：new English religion,； as it was labeled by the people, spread
like wild fire through the city and by the hundreds people would flock to him
on appointed days to receive tracts.
In 1836 fourteen believers were baptized,
one of whom, Julius Köbner, was to play the key role in the advancement of the
work in Denmark, making several missionary journeys with Oncken and alone. Köbner, who was a Jew by birth, became
the pastor of the first Baptist church
of Copenhagen and the leader of the
Danish Baptist movement (Ruden, 1979:79).
He served as editor of the hymnbook still used by the Baptist churches
in Germany and also
prepared a hymnbook for the churches in Denmark,
composing a number of the hymns himself.
Early accounts of the Baptist worship services speak of many
enthusiastically sung hymns, testimonies, fervent prayers and dynamic
preaching. The contrast between
this movement and the sober, intellectual services of the State churches would
have been immediately apparent to anyone of that day. In a real sense, here was a
contextualized form of worship appropriate to the lower class people that the
Baptist movement was attracting.
As the Baptist movement grew, so did its
opposition. Eventually the senate of Hamburg
issued a decree prohibiting Oncken from exercising religious functions. Immediately the American Baptist
Convention Board and the Hamburg Hachurch sent letter of protest, but
in 1840 Oncken was arrested and cast into prison. Another member of the church
was also imprisoned for allowing a religious meeting in his house. Four weeks later they were set free but
when Oncken arrived at his house he discovered that the police were selling his
furniture in order to recover the costs of his arrest and keep while in prison.
The American and British Baptists continued
to apply pressure through diplomatic channels on the government of Hamburg,
pleading for religious freedom for the Baptists. Eventually their efforts led to
legislation protecting the Baptists・ freedom to worship in several European
countries. The greatest
breakthrough in the attitude of officials and the masses toward the Baptists
took place during one of the great times of crisis in the city. In May 1842 a great fire swept through Hamburg
leaving one third of the city・s inhabitants homeless. The sacrificial service of
Oncken and his congregation on behalf of the suffering citizens won the
gratitude of the people and the city senate and prevented further acts of
The crisis of the Hamburg
fire also provided a unique opportunity for the Baptists to spread their
witness to other parts of Europe. Workers from other
cities and even other countries flocked to Hamburg
to take part in its reconstruction.
Oncken and his associates saw this influx of temporary workers through
missiological eyes and proceeded to evangelize them with considerable
success. When their jobs were
completed many of the workers carried their new found Baptist faith back to
their home towns and established churches there. Thus, the Baptist movement was largely
spread by lay people who had experienced dislocation because of disaster and
economic opportunities. From this point on, Oncken increased his travel in
order to teach new believers and help them establish churches. At the same time he continued to serve
the church in Hamburg. In the following years he had a role in
establishing churches in Berlin, Breslau,
Elbing, Memel, Kassel,
Marburg, Bitterfield and Oldenburg. By 1845 there were 380 Baptists in Hamburg
and in 1849 the first German Baptist Conference was held representing about 30
churches and 2,800 members.
In retrospect we can observe how Oncken・s
choice of Hamburg as the center
of his ministry was strategic to its growth and spread to other parts of the
country and the continent. Hamburg
was a major center of commerce and transportation. From such a centre communication through
literature could be far-reaching in its effects. The unstable social and economic
conditions of the time were causing massive migration movements of Germans eastward. Large German communities were being
established in Poland,
and the Baltic states. Rather than simply laboring for the
growth of his own congregation, Oncken set his eyes much further afield. He devoted much time to visiting the ships
that docked at Hamburg,
distributing literature to the sailors and offering a verbal witness. One report states that three-fourths of
the men baptized in Hamburg in
the first 15 years of his ministry were traveling men. These helped spread the Baptist movement
to many other nations.
In the fifty years that followed the
organization of the Hamburg church, Baptist churches were established in
Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Poland, Holland, Russia, Turkey, Austria,
Romania, Australia, Bulgaria, Kamerun (West Africa) and the Baltic states. All of these were in some way connected
to the church in Germany
and a number of them were organized by Oncken himself or one of his close
associates. The Union of Baptist
Churches in Russia
grew to become one of the strongest Baptist fellowships in Europe,
thanks, in great measure to Oncken・s seminal work with them (Woyke, 1979:
21). Frank Woyke related how a
number of Russian farm workers employed by German Baptist settlers were
baptized by Abraham Unger, who had been ordained by Oncken. These early Russian Baptists, in
turn, began to reach out to other Russians (1979: 21). Across the Atlantic
the North American Baptist Conference of Canada and the United
States and the Convenção Batista Pioneira of Brazil
were established by German-speaking immigrants who trace their spiritual
heritage to Oncken.
When the Union of Baptist Churches in Germany
was organized in 1849 missionary outreach was a primary concern. Oncken・s best known motto was Jeder Baptist ein Missionar (Every
Baptist, a Missionary). In its
organizational charter each church was strongly recommended to establish a
mission committee, to take up regular offerings for missions and participate in
or organize large meetings emphasizing missions. Each committee was to meet monthly to
discuss the best methods for reaching people for the kingdom
of God. Each one of the four associations
composing the Union was to send out and support
missionaries. The charter
admonished each church to create youth groups, to give them necessary
instruction and deploy them in works of evangelism. Every tradesman was to proclaim the
Gospel while working at his occupation and, if he should need financial help to
maintain his livelihood, he could receive aid from the missions fund (Wagner, 1972:
13, 14). This concept of the church
and its ministry was truly revolutionary in its time and would even be so by
V. Characteristics of Oncken・s
First and foremost Oncken was personally
involved in obedience to the Great Commission. He could have occupied himself with
pastoral responsibilities in his growing congregation, with administrative and
educational work (he co-founded and taught in the Baptist Seminary in Hamburg)
or even literary pursuits (he published the first regularly published Baptist
paper in Europe, Das Missionbatt, yet
his vision for lost men and women never dimmed and he continuously exercised
his evangelistic gifts to win many into the kingdom.
Oncken was committed to literature distribution,
finding it to be an effective way of disseminating the Gospel and spreading the
Baptist movement. By the time he
was 79 years old he reported that he had given out no less than two million
Bibles in Europe (McBeth, 1987:471). He also established a printing press.
One of Oncken・s special abilities was to
select qualified people to lead the emerging congregations. Wherever he traveled he left a string of
newly formed Baptist churches with workers whom he had selected and trained. In
this he closely resembled the Apostle Paul・s method of establishing churches
and appointing elders to govern them.
Some of those early leaders exercised vital roles in the expanding
movement. Oncken visited these
churches frequently and carried on a great deal of correspondence with
them. Also, in the early years he
held classes for the pastors in Hamburg
whenever he could. On one day in
1859, twelve men who had received instruction from Oncken in Hamburg,
were ordained to the Baptist ministry (Merriam, 1913:195).
Women were also accorded a leadership role
in the German Baptist churches, following the example of the English Baptists
with the appointment of deaconesses.
Deaconess houses were established where Baptist women devoted their
lives to witness and ministry, primarily among the sick and needy. In time their work expanded to include
orphanages, schools, hospitals, welfare centers and homes for the aged. In 1887 Haus Bethel was established to
give order and direction to the deaconess ministry.
Of particular relevance to 21st
century missiological realities is the way Oncken sought to spread the Gospel
message through the natural movements of people, whether it be through the
sailors who docked at Hamburg,
migrant workers, or through the network of German settlers moving to other
parts of Europe and beyond. Certainly in his example we see how one
person・s work with transient people ultimately led to the establishment of a
multitude of churches scattered around the globe. By the time of his death in 1884 the
German Union alone had grown to a membership of 16,000 in 96 churches.
This rather brief examination of the life
and ministry of Johann Oncken is but one case study illustrating the pivotal
role migratory movements have played in the expansion of the church. In the case of the German Baptist
movement, it was not haphazard or accidental. The success was the result of a
combination of strategic thinking, zealous and tireless personal efforts,
aligned with the larger forces of history and economics. Spiritual dynamics should also not be
minimized. The grass-roots,
contextualized expression of church that empowered lay people in their ministry
of proclamation and compassionate service made the transmission of the faith along
the natural lines of personal and family contacts all that more effective. Indeed, we see similar elements and
patterns at work in the great movements of Christian discipleship among
scattered peoples in the 21st century. It is of vital importance that sound
missiological strategy take into account the social dynamics of people
movements, while being driven by ordinary, committed lay people who know the
power and direction of the Holy Spirit.
Hervey, G. Winfred.
The Story of Baptist Missions in
Foreign Lands. C. R. Barns
McBeth, Leon. The
Baptist Heritage. Broadman,
Merriam, Edmund F.
A History of American Baptist
Missions. American Baptist
Publication Society. 1913.
：The Baptist Witness in Scandinavia and the North；
in Baptist Quarterly. April, 1979: 76-83.
Torbet, Robert George.
A History of the Baptists. Judson Press. 1950.
Wagner, William L.
Lessons From the Past for Missions
in the Future: A Study of the Growth of the German-Speaking Baptist Churches of
Europe. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation. Fuller Theological Seminary, 1972.
Woyke, Frank H. Heritage and Ministry of the North American
Baptist Conference. North American Baptist Conference, 1979.
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