Julius Köbner, Johann Gerhardt Oncken and Gottfrid Wilhelm Lehmann were three great German Baptist pioneers in the European continent. They became known as the Baptist cloverleaf.
Köbner became Oncken’s right-hand man and his closest friend in the Baptist church in Hamburg.
The story begins in Odense, Denmark. Köbner’s parents were immigrants from Poland and his father Isaak a Jewish rabbi. Julius was born on 6 June 1806 and was first named Solomon. He was the first of Isaak and Hanne’s nine children. His parents intended him to become a rabbi too.
The Köbner family had a dear friend called Israel, who lived about 3 kms away. They enjoyed visiting him frequently, especially on Jewish feast days. Israel took a great interest in the quiet and introverted Solomon. He was childless and wanted to raise the young Solomon in his own home.
At first Isaak and Hanne rejected the idea, but, after much persistence from their friend, eventually allowed him to raise their eldest child. There was just one condition: Julius would spend the sabbaths with his parents.
Solomon spent much time with Israel and found there the quiet he wanted and enjoyed so much. He could spend time undisturbed in thinking and study. Being Jewish, he carried out the devotions learned from an early age, but lacked any desire for and interest in them.
Of his relationship with God, he wrote: ‘I owe my existence to God. He supplies me with all that I enjoy. To therefore love him is my first and holiest duty. But I don’t love him. How can I love him when I don’t know him, I can’t form any understanding of him, and neither can I gain any perception of him?
‘God is everywhere, but is vague. I could never discover him either in my imagination or in my mind. To me God is an alien, incomprehensible being. How can I love such a being?’
Through his studies Köbner became familiar with the Christian faith. Could the solution to his problem about God be found in Christ, as being truly God and truly a human being?
Köbner left high school when 16 years old. He realised it was now time to choose a career, so he chose to become an engraver. His apprenticeship lasted for two years. On completing this, he decided it was time to leave home for Germany and widen his horizons.
His father advised him to go to Lubeck, where there was a large community of Jews. Solomon travelled to Germany, hoping to find answers to the questions about God that kept his mind in turmoil. There was no escape from one question that particularly burned there, namely, ‘Who is Jesus?’
In the providence of God, Köbner encountered Reformed pastor Johannes Geibel in Lubeck. Köbner and Geibel met up a number of times. Köbner would say this of Geibel: ‘For the first time I heard why Christ came to earth. I received the most valuable of all gifts, namely, teaching on the divinity of Christ’.
Geibel’s teaching gave Köbner ample food for thought. Köbner felt it was now time to move from Lubeck, to escape the attention of the large community of Danish Jews living in Lubeck. His next stop was Hamburg.
He found employment as an engraver in Hamburg and taught languages in the evenings. One of his students was a young woman called Juliane von Schröter, whom he fell in love with and wanted to marry. Both sets of parents objected, and it proved necessary to apply for the Danish king’s approval for the marriage. This was granted.
The pair went back to Denmark and were married in Gamborg, near Odense, on 29 December 1826. Just before the wedding, Solomon changed his names to Julius Johannes Wilhelm, which was the equivalent of Juliane Johanna Wilhelmine, his wife’s names.
After returning to Hamburg, Köbner continued working as an engraver. In his spare time he engaged in study, reflection and literary work. He was a gifted poet and the world of poetry stimulated his rich imagination. He also wrote plays that were staged at a theatre in Holstein.
Köbner was inventive and always on the lookout for ways to simplify and improve his work in different trades. Some time later in Hamburg, he learned the art of printing and became a fully fledged printer.
Julius Köbner was going to be one of God’s chosen instruments, and would be mightily used in advancing the kingdom of God. But before this could occur, he needed to experience for himself the grace of God in Christ.
A Baptist church was formed in Hamburg on 22 April 1834, with Johann Oncken as its first pastor. Juliane Köbner heard about the reputation of this renowned preacher and wanted to hear him preach. She also wanted Julius to accompany her, but he flatly refused.
Juliane believed Oncken’s sermons to be richer in content than what she was used to and decided to go alone. She was deeply moved by Oncken’s sermon on the power of sin and on the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
Juliane came home and told her husband about this powerful preaching and insisted he go with her to hear this remarkable preacher. As a result of her persistence, Julius went and was surprised to hear a message so similar in content to the one he had heard 10 years earlier from Geibels.
Julius was confronted with the command of God to repent and believe. On returning home, he sought more light on these issues as he continued in study and self-examination. Eventually he came in repentance and faith to Christ.
The question of adult baptism began to engage his mind. He studied the New Testament and this led him to become a convinced Baptist. He was baptised by Johann Oncken on 17 May 1836 and became a member of the Baptist church in Hamburg.
Juliane was saved soon afterwards and followed her husband in baptism and church membership. Both Julius and Juliane felt at home with and enjoyed fellowship with these simple, uncomplicated believers.
For Oncken personally, and for the cause of the Baptists in Germany, Köbner’s connection with the church there would come to mean far more than anyone could ever imagine.
Oncken needed someone by his side to fight the battles that lay ahead. With his sharp intellect, range of gifts and tenacity, Köbner was well equipped for the tasks that lay ahead and that God had designed for him.
David Whitworth resides in Sweden