When Julius and Juliane Köbner joined as members of the Baptist church in Hamburg in 1836, the church had 36 members. Their pastor, Johann Oncken, needed an assistant to relieve his workload as pastor, preacher and missionary.
There was no one in the church at that time with the necessary gifts for this — that was until Julius Köbner came on the scene. He was just the man Oncken needed.
As well as being an excellent aide for Oncken, Köbner was his closest friend. Köbner continued in his trade as an engraver and threw himself in his spare time into mission work. He translated much Christian literature into the German language. As well as being a proof-reader, he was a productive hymn writer.
Oncken wanted Köbner to preach in the Hamburg church. Köbner was at first doubtful, but then agreed. It soon became obvious that he was a gifted preacher and able to take Oncken’s place in the pulpit, in the latter’s absence.
By 1837 the Hamburg church membership had risen to 68. This drew increasing attention. The local authorities in Hamburg demanded to see the church’s confession of faith, which was non-existent at the time. So it fell on Köbner to write a confession. This was done with Oncken’s help, though it was essentially Köbner’s work, and handed to the authorities in 1837.
Visit to Denmark
Köbner journeyed to Denmark in summer 1839, encouraged by Oncken.The plan was to get to know the believers there who were the fruits of a revival earlier on in the century. He reached the islands of Funen and Langeland, situated off Denmark’s east coast, and met a number of Christians who were convinced Baptists.
He faced fierce opposition in Funen from enemies of adult baptism and this disheartened him. In these circumstances, he felt God was leading him to Copenhagen, though he hadn’t made any plans to visit the Danish capital.
Once back in Hamburg, Köbner exchanged letters with his friends in Copenhagen. To help these Christians gain a clearer understanding of baptism, he wrote a pamphlet entitled What does baptism consist of, and who can be baptised? The booklet was instrumental in helping the Baptist movement in Denmark make great strides forward.He said later of this visit: ‘I found here soil that God himself had prepared, and with trembling hands planted a mustard seed in that soil that grew into a beautiful plant of God, which has sprouted some branches. A small group of believing friends had banded together, led by a man named Mönster’.
A few months later, his new friends in Copenhagen wanted him to baptise them and form a Baptist church in the city. Oncken made plans to go, along with Köbner, and the little band of believers waited eagerly for their visit.
Köbner was overjoyed with this news from the capital city. On 26 October 1839 they set off, and on the following day, baptised 11 believers there. These formed the first Baptist church in Denmark, with P. Mönster as pastor.
Resistance and threats
The Baptist church in Hamburg increasingly drew the attention of the local authorities and the police chief became determined to stamp out the movement. Oncken and Köbner were arrested and interrogated soon after their arrival home from Copenhagen.
After being informed by the police chief of his intention, Oncken said, ‘You will find your toils are in vain’. The policeman replied, ‘Good, but that is something I won’t be found guilty of, because, as long as I can move my little finger, it will be used to put an end to your movement’.
To this Oncken responded, ‘Sir, you fail to see what I see. I don’t see a little finger, but a great arm, and that is the arm of God. As long as that continues to move, you will never succeed’.
Köbner and Oncken served a few weeks in prison and were forced to pay for their prison upkeep. The years 1840-1841 were hard times for the Baptists in Hamburg. The authorities were intent on crushing the Baptist movement and their prime targets were Köbner and Oncken. But, however extreme the circumstances, these two hardy men didn’t have any intention of bowing before the pressure.
Oncken and Köbner made a return visit to Denmark in 1840, this time to the island of Langeland. A group of Christians had kept in touch with Köbner after his previous visit and eight of them desired to be baptised. Following their baptism, they covenanted together to form a Baptist church in the island with Rasmuss Jörgensen as pastor.
Oncken and Köbner lived under the threat of arrest during their time in Langeland. Their presence came to the attention of the police, who, on the last day of their visit, went to the port to arrest them. But, by then, their ship was on her way back to Germany.
Back home in Hamburg a short time later, Oncken contracted tonsilitis and Köbner stood in for him as pastor and preacher. Köbner made several missionary trips to Denmark while carrying out his work as an engraver.
He visited Holland, as well as other destinations, in autumn 1844. In the town of Leuvarden he met a number of convinced Baptists. Among these he found a pastor and theologian named Feisser. Köbner encouraged Feisser to visit the church in Hamburg and get to know Oncken and the believers there.
When Feisser returned home from Hamburg in 1845, he was accompanied by Köbner, who baptised 14 believers in Gasselten Nieuyveen. This became the first Baptist church in Holland, with Feisser chosen as pastor. Köbner continued his journey to Amsterdam and baptised four believers there, who would form the core of a Baptist church in the Dutch capital.
Köbner was tireless in the service of his Lord and Master. In 1850 he went on an extensive preaching tour that stretched as far as the then Russian border. Accompanying him was G. V. Lehmann.
The latter later commented that Köbner preached with such power that it left a lasting impression on all who heard him. A multitude of believers were baptised during the course of their travels.
Köbner, Oncken and Lehmann went to London in 1851, to attend the second Evangelical Alliance conference. Here they heard thought-provoking discourses from leading evangelicals from around the world.
Oncken’s name was on the list of speakers, but he was unable to take part since he had to return home early. Köbner took his place and gave his first discourse in English. He told the conference about the progress of the Baptist movement in Germany, Denmark and Sweden.
There were two occasions that brought Köbner special personal joy in the Lord. The first was when he and Juliane celebrated their silver wedding anniversary, on 29 December 1851. It was a day rich in memories for them both, as they looked back on God’s providence and leading in their lives. The second was being able to return to Ondese, the place of Julius’ birth, and take part in establishing a Baptist church in the town.
The couple left Hamburg in 1852. A new chapter was now about to begin in the lives of Julius and Juliane in the service of their Master, for God had other plans for his faithful servant.
David Whitworth resides in Sweden