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Calvin's Mission to the World: Calvin and World Missions 2


Calvin’s Mission to the World

Seeing that God has given us such a treasure and so inestimable a thing as His Word, we must employ ourselves as much as we can, that it may be kept safe and sound and not perish. And let every man be sure to lock it up securely in his own heart. But it is not enough to have an eye to his own salvation, but the knowledge of God must shine generally throughout the whole world. [1] John Calvin

 It should be obvious to anyone honest enough to do the research that charging Calvin with being responsible for the damnation of millions of souls is a blatant lie, to say the least. However, this does not mean he took the spreading of the gospel beyond the bounds of his post in Geneva. Several studies in the last two centuries have suggested that Calvin, and the Reformers generally, didn’t have much of a missionary impulse.  For example, Alexander Rattray has written,

Neither the Reformation in the sixteenth, nor Puritanism in the seventeenth century, was possessed of any foreign missionary zeal … Luther and Zwingli, Calvin and Melancthon, Knox and Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, were too absorbed by the problems at their door, to see far afield … A study of the lives of Milton and Bunyan, of Baxter and Fox, of Hampden and Marvell will reveal no urge to foreign missionary effort.[2]

 It is true that missionary efforts began slowly after the Reformation. [3]  Given the political climate of the day, this would be understandable. It is also true that the early Protestant Church was attempting to re-Christianize Europe.  That is, they needed to‘re-evangelize’ Europe as it had been steeped in the false Gospel propagated by Rome.  In addition there were other extenuating circumstances that made sending missionaries into the entire world difficult for Protestants. None, according Kenneth Stewart,

were so weighty as the fact that in the earliest decades of the Reformation no Protestant domain had access to the sea, was a maritime power, or had any immediate prospect of a seaborne empire. Catholic Spain and Portugal, the acknowledged leaders among missionary-sending regions at this time, had all these.[4]

These caveats aside, the characterization that Calvin was too absorbed by the problems at his door, to see far afield contradicts the evidence.

The truth of the matter is that Calvin was very active in missions.  As persecution spread for those who held the Reformed faith, Geneva (Calvin’s home base) became a sanctuary.  “Geneva, indeed, became the most famous haven for evangelical fugitives of the day.”[5]  One of those refugees who came to Geneva was the Englishman John Bale, who wrote,

Geneva seems to me to be the wonderful miracle of the whole world. For so many from all countries come here, as it were, to a sanctuary. Is it not wonderful that Spaniards, Italians, Scots, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, disagreeing in manners, speech, and apparel, should live so lovingly and friendly, and dwell together like a … Christian congregation?[6]

Geneva was more than a safe haven, it was also a school, “the most perfect school of Christ on earth since the Apostles” according to the Scottish Reformer John Knox, one of Calvin’s students.  As such, it was also a school of missions.  The people were instructed daily from the word of God and strengthened in the Christian faith.  As the refugees were discipled their passion to spread the gospel to their homeland began to swell up in their hearts.  Eventually, they were sent back to their respective countries as evangelists and missionaries.The Genevan school wasn’t only open to refugees either, it became a place for many to be trained and sent to spread the Gospel and the message of the Reformation.

The Venerable Company of Pastors was established as the missionary arm of the Geneva Church, sending missionaries to Italy, Germany, Scotland, England and especially to Calvin’s homeland. France.  The Registry of the Venerable Company of Pastors recorded eighty-eight missionaries had been sent out between the years 1555 to 1562. 

Given the reality of persecution, many names were left out of the Registry, along with their destinations. For example, in 1561, the sending of only twelve men is recorded, however evidence from other sources indicates 142 were sent.[7], “and most of them were trained directly under Calvin.”[8]

The record in the Register of this missionary activity is impressive, even though it is incomplete and undramatic in its presentation.  Here is irrefutable proof of the falsity of the two common conclusion that Calvinism is incompatible with evangelism and spells death to all missionary enterprise.[9]

Calvin’s missionary efforts were not limited to Europe.  In 1556, Calvin sent Pierre Richier and Guillaume Charretier and a group of French Huguenots to accompany a Protestant expedition to Brazil. Richer and Charretier were to serve as missionaries to the Indians of South America. We read in the Register of the Company of Pastors that,

On Tuesday 25 August, in consequence of the recipt of a letter requesting this church to send ministers to the new islands [Brazil], which the French had conquered, M. Pierre Richer and M. Guillaune Charretier were elected.  These two were subsequently commended to the care of the Lord and sent off with a letter from this Church.[10]

Unfortunately, this ended in tragedy when the colony leader turned against them and four men were murdered and Richier and Charretier were forced to return to France. 

Although abortive, the project was a striking testimony to the far-reaching missionary vision of Calvin and his Genevan colleagues. Calvin’s interest in missions did not wane throughout his ministry in Geneva.[11]

Despite setbacks due to persecution and other limitations the missionary endeavors of Calvin and the Geneva churches during this time was nothing short of amazing.  Over one hundred underground churches were planted in France by 1560. By 1562, that number had increased to 2,150, producing more than three million members.  Some of these churches had thousands of members[12].  One French church in Bergerac wrote to Calvin saying,

There is, by the grace of God, such a movement in our district that the devil is already for the most part driven out, so that we are able to provide ministers for ourselves. From day to day, we are growing, and God has caused His Word to bear such fruit that at sermons on Sundays, there are about four- to five-thousand people.[13]

 This also shows another side of Calvin’s missionary involvement.  He didn’t just send these men off and forget about them.  He corresponded with them.  As Frank James points out,

Calvin did not just educate them and send men back to France. These missionaries did not just become photographic memories on Calvin's refrigerator door. On the contrary; Calvin remained intimately involved in all that they were doing. The Genevan archives hold hundreds of letters containing Calvin's pastoral and practical advice on establishing underground churches. He did not just send missionaries; he invested himself in long-term relationships with them.[14]

Calvin’s commitment to evangelistic and missionary outreach is unquestionable.  Nor was it theoretical, “but as in every other area of his life and ministry, a matter of zealous action and passionate commitment.”[15]  The question is, what is it inconsistent with his theology?  This will be addressed in the next post. POST 3

[1] Colin Maxwell, Ibid.

[2] Alexander Rattray Hay,. The New Testament Order for Church and Missionary. Argentina; Audubon, N.J.: New Testament Missionary Union, 1947. 257. 

[3] See Morris McDonald, A Brief Survey of Missions, Far Eastern Bible College Press, Singapore, 1999, 33.

[4] Kenneth J. Stewart, “Calvinism and Missions: The Contested Relationship Revisited,” Themelios 34, no. 1 (April 2009): (accessed April 19, 2011).

[5] Philip E. Hughes, ed., The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004), 25.

[6] Ray Van Neste, “John Calvin on Evangelism and Missions,” Founders Journal, 33 (Summer 1998) (Accessed April 18, 2011)

[7] Hughes, 26.

[8] Harry Reeder and others, John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons (Lake Mary, FL.: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008), 68.

[9] Hughes, 25.

[10] Hughes, 317.

[11] Christian History and Biography, Calvin and Missions, Issue 12, 1986,. (accessed April 19, 2011).

[12] Reeder, 68.

[13] Frank James, “Calvin the Evangelist,” Reformed Quaterly 19, no. 2/3 (2001)

[14] Ibid.

[15] Reeder, 68.