Johann Gerhard Oncken: Friend of Spurgeon
Few biographies of Spurgeon mention Johann Gerhard Oncken. The most extensive mentions are those of G. Holden Pike (Life and Work of C. H. Spurgeon) and Spurgeon himself in his Personal Notes in The Sword and the Trowel.
Writing an appreciation of ‘our friend, Mr J. G. Oncken’ soon after his death in 1884, Spurgeon gave a lengthy paragraph in his monthly Notes that is worth amplifying so that today’s Christians might know more about such a remarkable man, sometimes referred to as ‘Germany’s Spurgeon’ and called by Spurgeon himself ‘the Apostle Paul of Europe’.
Spurgeon wrote in February 1884:
He [Oncken] was the Baptist pioneer in Germany, and in his younger days suffered for the truth’s sake, both fine and imprisonment. We remember him pointing out to us the spot upon the Alster where he baptised his converts at dead of night, and we shall never forget his story of the burgomaster of Hamburg, who held up his finger and said, ‘You see that finger! As long as that can move I will put you down.’ ‘Sir’, said Oncken, ‘I see your finger, but I also see an arm, which you do not see, and so long as that is stretched out, you cannot put me down’.
It was our privilege to preach at the opening of Mr Oncken’s chapel in Hamburg, and to see present some of those very city officials who had aforetime deemed it their duty to persecute him. It was a happy season: we stayed at Mr Oncken’s home, and commenced a friendship which was continued to the end. Our venerable brother of late years suffered from the natural infirmities of age, and was not to be trusted for a very connected address except upon his one subject of ‘the Baptist work in Germany’. Upon that matter he was all alive, and altogether engrossed. He married a lady of our church, who has doubtless had much to do to cheer his declining years, when he needed all her tender care as a nurse. Germany has lost in Oncken a much greater man than she will today 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? Surely he will not leave the land of Luther to be devoured by infidelity. 1
Before Spurgeon became friends with Oncken at the time of the opening of the Hamburg Baptist Chapel, Johann had had a chequered career. Born on January 26, 1800, thirty-four years before C.H. Spurgeon, he had a similar upbringing. Oncken was brought up by his grandmother in the tiny town of Vale in Germany. Unlike Spurgeon, however, he had little formal education and even less religious training.
When only fourteen years of age he left Germany and worked for a time in Scotland. There he attended the Presbyterian Church and was influenced by their Sabbath-keeping and sermons that set out the gospel message.
Leaving Scotland for England, he did so under conviction of sin. The coach in which he traveled south was involved in an accident and Oncken was thrown off the roof-top seat to the ground. Believing that God had saved him from serious injury he began to think seriously about his soul’s destiny. He lodged with a Christian family in Blackheath, London, his landlady’s husband being a deacon of an independent evangelical chapel. Once more he came under the influence of gospel preaching.
Like Spurgeon he was finally brought to salvation through hearing the gospel in a Methodist chapel. And like Spurgeon he at once began witnessing, not only by telling family and friends about his conversion but by purchasing tracts and distributing them. Like Spurgeon he soon had his first ‘pearl’, or convert.
In 1823 he went to the Rhineland as a missionary. Arriving in Hamburg he soon experienced persecution as he began preaching repentance and regeneration to a people caught up by rationalism and nominal state religion. He soon gathered together his converts into an old warehouse, the forerunner of the Hamburg Baptist Chapel in which Spurgeon later preached. Oncken became Germany’s ‘Robert Raikes’, founding Germany’s first Sunday Schools. He began a society for tract distribution and, after learning about Spurgeon’s Pastors’ College, began his own institution for the training of gospel preachers. He funded his Christian work by opening a bookshop in Hamburg.
Besides the Baptist church in Hamburg his bookshop is his other lasting legacy. It became the Oncken Publishing House which moved to Kassel in 1899 and is still prominent in Germany in Wuppertal, having united with R. Brockhaus Publishers in 1970. Messrs Onckens published Spurgeon’s sermon that he preached at the opening of the Hamburg Baptist Church (Information supplied by Oncken Verlag Publishing House in a private letter to the present writer). They continue to publish Spurgeon material and the present writer’s book Spurgeon on Revival (Zondervans) was translated into German and published by them in 1966 and 1988.
Johann Oncken’s Christian work and witness soon resulted in persecution. He was flogged and imprisoned and had his goods and effects confiscated. The same fate was meted out to his followers. He left Germany and visited Russia, Poland and Denmark, but on his return was imprisoned once more. Following the apostle Paul’s example he witnessed to his jailors.
He was further persecuted following his baptism by immersion in 1834. Like Spurgeon he had seen the scriptural truth of believer’s baptism by immersion through studying his Bible. This brought down upon his head the hatred of the Lutheran Church. Eventually the persecution died down and he and his followers moved from the Hamburg warehouse into their new building. Spurgeon was invited to preach at the opening and from then on, as Spurgeon recorded in his memorial note in his magazine, the two great preachers and philanthropists became fast friends.
Besides persecution, he suffered a great personal sorrow when his eight year- old son was burned to death just one day before Oncken returned from a trip. The son, Philip’s, funeral sermon was preached by the father, accompanied by much crying on his part and that of the congregation.
When seventy years of age Johann was smitten by a stroke, from which he never fully recovered. He spent more and more time in prayer, hence Spurgeon’s reference to him as a great man of prayer. Although he survived his stroke for fourteen years, he passed away in 1884.
When Spurgeon first arrived in Hamburg for the opening of the new Baptist chapel, he became ill for two days. After recovering he was shown round Hamburg by Oncken, especially the place where Johann baptised his converts by night, a meeting-house broken up by the police, as well as the prison where ‘he had been shut up for conscience sake’.
Describing the opening of the new chapel, Holden Pike writes: ‘The great attraction of the day was in the evening, however, when Mr Spurgeon preached in English, the discourse being founded on the words of Christ, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink”’. 2
Spurgeon preached from that text in the Tabernacle some years later. Whether it was a similar sermon preached from the same notes as the Hamburg address we have no means of knowing. From the opening words in the Tabernacle sermon it might well have been. Spurgeon declared:
The officers were after our Lord, and he knew it. He could spy them out in the crowd, but he was not therefore in the least afraid, or disconcerted. He reminds me of that minister, who, when he was about to preach, was stopped by a soldier, who held a pistol to his head, and threatened that if he spake he would kill him. ‘Soldier’, said he, ‘Do your duty; I shall do mine’; then he went on with his preaching. 3
How reminiscent of Oncken’s persecutions in Hamburg!
Holden Pike goes on to describe Spurgeon’s feelings about the new chapel being opened. It had been suggested that Spurgeon’s voice might not be heard very well in the building. Actually his voice resounded through the place, the lofty arched roof giving greater effect to the reiterated appeals to all to take of the water of life. To Spurgeon the new church was ‘very Germanic’ but he did criticise the antique windows which would not open for sufficient ventilation. A reminder of his New Park Street days perhaps?
A friend of Holden Pike described the impressive scene as,
a pleasure and a privilege to witness the comparatively young soldier of the cross, whose praise is in all the churches, standing beside the now venerable patriarch who, through a long series of years, had amidst report, good and evil, witnessed a good confession before many witnesses. Both had suffered reproach in the service of their Master; both had outlived it and forced the world to respect the religion which it cannot love; and it was meet that the younger should cross the ocean to exchange with the elder brotherly recognition and affectionate sympathy in this the hour of his joy and triumph.4
The day closed in a very fitting manner, the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper being observed. Throughout the Baptist churches of Germany it was the custom to observe Communion weekly, and to that practice Spurgeon himself held dearly. Oncken and Spurgeon were truly at one on all points of doctrine and practice besides being at one in their experience of persecution and hardship, and at one in their desire to train men ‘to teach others also’.
- Sword and Trowel, 1884, p. 91
- Pike, vol. 4, pp. 213– 216
- Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 1885, p. 673
This article first appeared in the July 1995 edition of the Banner of Truth Magazine
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