A group of believers met together in the German town of Barmen. These Christians had become Baptists after a visit from Johann Oncken a few years earlier. When Oncken paid them a visit once more in 1852, he promised he would send Köbner to assist them.
The believers there were in agreement over the issue of believers’ baptism, but little else. There were many points of contention over the doctrinal issues that divided them. The situation needed a man steeped in the Scriptures and spiritually strong, who could untie these knots and unite at least some of them.
Julius Köbner was the man for the task. In 1852, a Baptist church was formed in Barmen, after Köbner’s successful intervention in uniting six believers, who had originally been baptised by Oncken. The Barmen church adopted the Hamburg Confession of Faith.
Trials and learning
Köbner reached an agreement with the church that he would continue with his missionary travels and fill in for Oncken in his absence, helping the church in Hamburg. His ‘learning curve’ as an evangelist and pastor went on the rise through his experiences there.
He loved people and took a great interest in them. He felt a pressing responsibility to fulfil his calling, and was a resolute and bold spiritual leader. Köbner persistently searched the Scriptures for knowledge and wisdom to equip him in serving and leading the people of God.
His life was beset with difficulties. His wife Juliane became eccentric, which raised attention and agitation among other members of the church. The situation became so serious that she had to be excluded from church membership. Naturally, Köbner was deeply distressed, and the burden increased when Juliane later refused to go back into church membership.
Köbner and Oncken went to Stockholm in June 1858 to attend the annual Baptist conference. They received a warm welcome and were guests in the home of the great Swedish Baptist pioneer, Anders Wiberg. Among those attending and taking an active role in the conference were Edward Steane and Howard Hinton from Britain and F. W. Krummacher from Germany.
Köbner forwarded greetings from the German Baptists and gave a word of encouragement to the persecuted Swedish Baptists. On his way home to Barmen he spent time in Copenhagen.
Copenhagen and Köbner’s calling
In early 1860 the Danish Baptists gained their coveted freedom from the straitjacket of the Lutheran Church. From that time, Baptist churches multiplied rapidly across Denmark.
The Baptist church in Copenhagen was still frail due to its lack of a permanent pastor, a number of different pastors having served the church since its inception. Johann Oncken suggested that the church call Julius Köbner. By this time, Köbner was 59 years old and Juliane’s eccentricites had grown worse. It was agreed that she would stay behind in Hamburg, and Oncken and the church there take care of her.
Köbner preached for the first time in Copenhagen Baptist Church in 1865. There was much work to be done and, by God’s grace and with joy, he took it all in his stride. He was a brilliant preacher and numbers attending the church soon mutiplied.
There were two Baptist churches at that time in Copenhagen. Köbner wanted to unite them into one, and in spite of oppostion, succeeded in doing so. He was called to be pastor of this new alliance, which now needed a bigger chapel. This was opened in 1867.
Köbner prepared his sermons with precision and care. Their content was well thought out, with clear divisions. He preached with simplicity, from the depths of his heart, and God richly blessed his sermons.
In less than 14 days 21 people had applied for church membership and the majority of these were saved during this period. He was a prolific hymn writer, writing no less than 700 hymns during his time in Copenhagen.
People find much strength in home and family. If families are in a healthy state, so is society, but broken families can bring a society to its knees. In spite of Juliane’s problems, the Köbner home in Hamburg was a place of refuge for Julius after returning from Copenhagen and from his missionary journeys, but during 1868 death invaded the family and his wife Juliane entered into glory.
Following her death, Köbner became melancholic. He was also drawn into some embarrassing and difficult dissensions with old friends in Germany. All this caused insomnia and depression. His friends encouraged him to remarry. He followed their advice and married Dorothea Heraldina Slagsted on 11 January 1875.
Köbner was now 68 years of age and Dorothia 28. A year later she gave birth to a baby girl, who they named Ruth. Once more, tragedy struck. Dorothea died in the early hours of 1 January 1879, though trusting in Christ as her Lord and Saviour. Köbner’s pain was indescribable.
Barmen and Berlin
Köbner returned to pastor the Baptist church in Barmen shortly after Dorothea’s death. Here he was welcomed with open arms. He saw the nearby Wupper valley as his field of mission.
He stood in great need of fellow-workers, but to whom could he turn? He solved this problem by starting a ‘school of prophets’ among the young men of the church. He taught these lads the art of preaching, equipping them to be missionaries. By this time, the Barmen church had assembled seven groups of Christians, dotted along Wupper. From these groups, a number of churches were planted.
After his move from Copenhagen to Barmen, Köbner had intended spending the rest of his days in the town. But God had other plans for this vigorous 77-year-old. The pastor of the Baptist church in Berlin, G. W. Lehmann, died in 1882, aged 83, and the church called Köbner to be their pastor.
His first sermon there was preached on 3 June 1883, his text being Romans 1:11. His ministry of the Word awoke a great interest and was highly appreciated. He held Bible studies every Thursday night, which attracted large numbers of young people.
Köbner preached for the last time in the Berlin church on 13 January 1884. He quickly grew weaker and became housebound. He entered into glory on 2 February 1884.
Julius Köbner was convinced of the full and final authority of the Bible. He tested everything by its authority and lived under that authority.
He was a faithful and humble servant of God who, in spite of persecution and family tragedy, stood firm and followed his Master, wherever he led him, regardless of personal cost. Such principles should apply to us no less than to Köbner.
David Whitworth resides in Sweden