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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
G. W. Hervey
Taken from the book, The Story of the Baptist Missions, 1884
For several months the church was allowed to continue its public services, but in May, 1840, Mr. Oncken was arrested and cast into prison. One of the members of the church was also imprisoned for allowing a religious meeting at his house. The imprisonment of Mr. Oncken continued for four weeks. On being set free, his furniture was sold by the police in order to defray the charges of his arrest and his keeping while in prison.
While on a late visit to Mr. Oncken, Rev. Dr. S. F. Smith wrote as follows:
"He took me to the vicinity of one of the many canals which intersect the city of Hamburg, filthy with the drainage of the city, and pointing to a grated window in the third or fourth story of a building, formerly the city jail, he said: 'In that room I was confined for thirty days for the testimony of Jesus by the enemies of the Gospel.'
“His coffee and food were sent him from his home, or brought in by members of the church who were not forbidden to visit him. He spent his time in reading and in prayer, and in writing letters to various parts of Germany; and thus labored in his confinement for the Kingdom of God. It was not a profitless or gloomy imprisonment. On the contrary, to use his own words, 'That whole month was one long Sabbath of communion with Christ and with God and with the saints on earth and in heaven.'
“Then we went around to another side of the jail; and he pointed out a narrow and loathsome room in the lowest story, saying: 'In that basement, the most unclean and ill-smelling dungeon in which a human being was ever confined, I spent weeks of a second imprisonment for the name of the Lord Jesus.'
“His health gave way under the suffering and malaria to which he was exposed. He petitioned the Senate of Hamburg that he might be released for a season, promising to return when his health should be restored and finish his term of imprisonment. But his jailers had no mercy."
When these persecutions became known to the Board of the General Convention, they appointed the Rev. Dr. Welch, of Albany, to proceed to Washington to confer with the President of the United States, and to obtain his influence with the Government of Hamburg in behalf of the oppressed and persecuted Baptists of that city.
And accordingly the American Consul at Hamburg was instructed to lay this grievance before the proper authorities. Memorials were likewise prepared, and, signed by distinguished names in the United States, in England and Scotland, were presented to the Senate of the city.
A deputation from the Baptists of England went over to Hamburg to plead the cause of their persecuted co-religionists. Such deputations seldom further a good cause. What cannot be accomplished through ambassadors, consuls and official correspondence, can rarely be brought about in any other way.
These representations appear to have had a good effect so far as the church in Hamburg was concerned, but had little influence in other parts of Germany. Persecution still continued in Oldenburg, Berlin, and other cities of Prussia; at Stuttgart and in several towns of Hesse, Bavaria and Pomerania. Even in the Kingdom of Hanover, the Baptists suffered official annoyance. It was, it will be remembered, within the limits of this kingdom that Mr. Oncken and six others were baptized. By reason of its connections with England, it was thought religious liberty might there be enjoyed. But even there some were imprisoned and others suffered the confiscation of their property.
In Berlin baptisms in the open air were prohibited. In Hesse the disciples were fined and banished. In Bavaria they were forced to meet in great secrecy. In many cases the converts were compelled to carry their children for sprinkling to the ministers of the national church. "These acts of intolerance," says the eloquent historian of missions, Prof. Gammell, "were the bitter yet unfailing fruits of the vicious principle engrafted upon the constitutions of these several States, by which the Government was clothed with authority to prescribe the religious faith, as well as to protect the persons and property of its subjects, a principle which, in whatever part of the world it has been recognized, has uniformly been productive of the most disastrous and iniquitous results."
It has been thought that the fact that these Baptist disciples were for the most part of the humbler classes of society, may serve to explain the readiness with which the magistrates inflicted the penalties of the law. It seems strange to us that as late as 1543, not only the magistrates, but the Lutheran clergy, and learned professors and authors of worldwide renown in the capital of Prussia, should have been so slow to reduce to practice the doctrine of Roger Williams concerning the liberty of the soul.
But intolerance was not confined to the higher sections of German society. When Mr. Oncken and his coadjutors commenced their labors, the lowest of the people were quite as unreasonable in their bigotry as clergymen and learned professors. Some years since, Mr. Oncken was one day showing an American friend the hall in which he first preached at Hamburg, "There," said he, "I have stood and preached the Gospel till every pane of glass in the windows was broken by the stones thrown by the mob; and at the risk of my life proclaimed the wonders of redeeming grace and dying love."