Bold Oncken, Begetter of European Baptists
BAPTISTS in Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Holland, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Switzerland look back to one man as their forefather: John Oncken. Oncken was born in Varel, Germany on this day, 26 January 1800. At fourteen, he sailed to England, where he underwent a transformative conversion to Christianity and joined a Congregational church. Oncken volunteered as a missionary under the newly-formed Continental Society, thinking of his homeland and its need for a heart-felt religion.
He began work in Bremen and Hamburg in 1823 and immediately gained adherents to his evangelical message. The established church resisted his success, but Oncken persisted in his efforts.
These efforts were soon to take a different turn. Studying Scripture, he became convinced that only adult believers should be baptized. American Baptists who crossed his path—providentially it seemed to him—instructed him in the full range of Baptist doctrine. He asked that someone come from England or Scotland to baptize him and a handful of fellow believers. He had to wait five years.
When Baptist minister Barnas Sears baptized the little group, he had to do so secretly as it was against the law in Hamburg. Germans remembered with loathing the Anabaptist rising at Münster three centuries earlier. At Münster polygamy and communism had been practiced. Lutherans also distrusted Baptist teachings, such as separation of church and state, and the autonomy of local congregations, which were so unlike their practice.
Oncken’s secret baptism led directly to the formation of Germany’s first modern-day Baptist church. He wrote later, “In 1834 a little company of seven believers were rowed across our beautiful Elbe, in the dead hour of night, to a little island, and there descending into the waters, were buried with Christ in baptism. . . The next day we were formed into a church, of which I was appointed the pastor.”
In spite of Lutheran opposition, John Oncken and his helpers established many churches in Germany and surrounding countries. Because he disobeyed a law that said that groups of more than five people must not meet for worship unless a minister of the state church was present, Oncken went to prison. Authorities seized all his goods to pay his fines. However, local leaders soon relented and released him.
Shortly afterward fire raged through Hamburg, destroying thousands of homes. Baptists gained popular favor by setting up a shelter in a warehouse they owned. There they housed and fed victims of the tragedy at their own expense. Soon afterward, Hamburg’s citizens voted for an act of religious tolerance. At last Baptists could worship freely.