Johann Gerhard Onken


by Thomas Ray

Charles Spurgeon described Johann Oncken as “The Apostle Paul of Germany.” Baptist historian Irwin Barnes states, “Oncken was the father not only of the German Baptists, but of the entire modern Baptist movement on the Continent.” Johann Oncken was born January 26, 1800, at Varel, Germany. His father died when he was only two, and his grandmother attempted to provide not only for his physical but spiritual needs.

Johann was baptized as an infant in the Lutheran Church and was confirmed when he was 13 years of age. That same year, John Anderson, a Scottish merchant, arrived in Varel. While visiting with Johann’s grandmother, the Scotchman took an interest in the fatherless youth and invited him to return with him to Scotland. With his grandmother’s approval, Oncken began a spiritual journey that would change the course of his life and turn him into one of the continent’s most effective evangelists and church builders.

While residing in Scotland, Oncken, for the first time in his life, was exposed to the Gospel. Nine years after his arrival, he left Scotland and moved to London. In London, Oncken began to seriously think about his eternal destiny. His conversion occurred one Sunday morning when he attended a Methodist chapel and heard a sermon on Romans 8:1. His surrender to Christ was complete and from that day he resolved to devote his life to propagating the Gospel.

His first act of service was the distribution of Gospel tracts, a ministry he would continue throughout his long and useful life. Although Oncken had no formal theological training, the Continental Society appointed him as a missionary to Germany. He arrived in Hamburg in December 1823.

A month later he preached his first sermon to a congregation of 18 people. In less than two months, the meeting place could not hold the crowds. His ministry, although plagued by civil and religious persecution, prospered beyond his wildest expectations.

Although Oncken was not a Baptist, his study of the Scriptures caused him to question the validity of infant baptism. After much study and consultation, Oncken embraced believer’s baptism by immersion. (This was in spite of his pastor’s objections. It is worth noting his pastor, T. W. Matthews, would eventually also embrace Baptist principles.) There were no Baptists in Germany who could baptize Oncken, therefore he sought advice first from Scotland and then London, but the only advice he received was to baptize himself or make the journey to England and be baptized there. Neither of these alternatives seemed to Oncken a feasible course of action.

Eventually, news reached America of the young German evangelist who had embraced Baptist principles and who desired to be scripturally baptized. In 1834, Barnas Sears, an American Baptist visiting on the continent, contacted Oncken and on April 22 at midnight he baptized Oncken and his wife, along with five other believers, in the Elbe River. The following day he organized them into a Baptist church with Oncken as their pastor.

When Oncken’s baptism became known, his former friends and associates treated him as a traitor. The opposition to his Baptist principles was great, but God’s blessings overcame and defeated his enemies. Using Hamburg as a center for his ministry, he took the Gospel into Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Holland, and Russia.

His personal ministry came to an end in 1879 when he suffered a stroke. He lingered an additional five years and entered into his well-earned rest January 2, 1884.

Oncken’s life was truly remarkable. During his ministry as a Baptist, he and his associates constituted over 280 churches, 1,222 preaching stations, and they formed 771 Sunday schools in Germany. They also founded over 170 churches in Scandinavia and the Slavic States. It is estimated he was responsible for distributing over two million Bibles and untold millions of Gospel tracts. His motto, “Every Baptist a missionary” should be indelibly written upon the heart of every Baptist.

Originally published in the Tribune March 2009.