Johann Gerhard Oncken’s Long Road To Toleration -- By: Wayne A. Detzler

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 36:2 (Jun 1993)
Article: Johann Gerhard Oncken’s Long Road To Toleration
Author: Wayne A. Detzler


Johann Gerhard Oncken’s Long Road To Toleration

Wayne A. Detzler*

Although German theology often has given creative impulses to American religious life, in the establishment of the German Baptist association that flow was reversed. The point of entry through whom Baptist principles gained access to modern Europe was Johann Gerhard Oncken.

Born in Varel, Germany, in 1800, Oncken emigrated at the age of fourteen to Leith, Scotland. Later, while working in London, he came under the influence of Methodism, which inspired a new earnestness in his religious experience. In consequence of this he traveled in 1823 to Hamburg as an agent of the Continental (missionary) Society, in which capacity he formed one of the first Sunday schools in Germany.1

By 1829 Oncken’s spiritual journey had led him to consider seriously the matter of believers’ baptism. Concerning this he found little help in Germany, and this drove him to make contact with Robert Haldane, a founder of the Continental Society. In response Haldane recommended that Oncken should baptize himself, as the early English Baptist John Smyth had done.2

Because Oncken could discover no Biblical precedent for autobaptism, he contacted Joseph Ivimey, an English Baptist historian. The author’s advice, however, was scarcely better. He invited Oncken to come to London and be baptized in the Eagle Street Baptist Church, of which Ivimey was the pastor.3

In the autumn of 1829 providence brought a Baptist layman into the home of Johann and Sarah Oncken. When an early frost closed the harbor at Hamburg, Calvin Tubbs’ ship was stranded for six months in the seaport city. Captain Tubbs and his ship came from Philadelphia, where he was a member of the Sansom Street Baptist Church. In Hamburg Tubbs sought fellowship with likeminded people, and during the winter he instructed Oncken and his tiny band of believers in Baptist principles from the NT. Assessing the role of Tubbs, Thomas Armitage wrote:

During his stay, Tubbs and Oncken spent much of their time in examining the New Testament, and the Captain explained to him the doctrine and practices of the American Baptist Churches. Oncken was convinced that these

* Wayne Detzler is a research fellow at Yale Divinity School and is senior pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, 262 Bee Street, Meriden, CT 06450.

Churches were modeled after the Gospel pattern, and expressed his wish to be immersed on his faith in Christ.4...

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