Calvin the Evangelist

Reprinted by permission of Reformed Theological Seminary. This article was first published in the Reformed Quarterly Magazine Fall 2001.

There are many popular misconceptions about John Calvin. Who is the true Calvin behind the image?

Will Durant, the famous author of the eleven-volume series on the History of Western Civilization, said of Calvin: “We shall always find it hard to love the man, John Calvin, who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.”

Even the defrocked TV evangelist, Jimmy Swaggart, has something to say about Calvin. “Calvin,” said Swaggart,” has caused untold millions of souls to be damned.”

Such judgments, besides being uncharitable, fail to get at the real John Calvin – a man with a strong evangelical heart.

One of the most pervasive criticisms of Calvin is that he had no interest in missions. The well-known Protestant missiologist, Gustav Warneck, portrayed the Reformers, including Calvin, as missiologically challenged merely because they believed in predestination. “We miss in the Reformers, not only missionary action, but even the idea of missions… because fundamental theological views hindered them from giving their activity and even their thoughts a missionary direction.”

But history tells another story.

The city of Geneva, long associated with Calvin, was also an important refugee center in the Reformer’s day. Throughout sixteenth century Europe, persecuted Protestants fled their homelands, many of whom found their way to Geneva. In the 1550s, the population of Geneva literally doubled.

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?”

Since Geneva was French-speaking, the vast majority of refugees came from France. As they sat under Calvin’s teaching in the Cathedral of St. Pierre, the French refugees’ hearts stirred for their homeland. Many of them felt compelled to return to France with the Protestant gospel.

Calvin, however, did not want to send uneducated missionaries back to the dangers of Catholic France. He believed that a good missionary had to be a good theologian first. And so he inspired and educated them. He trained them theologically, tested their preaching ability, and carefully scrutinized their moral character. Calvin and the Genevan Consistory sent properly trained missionaries back to France to share the Gospel.

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.

Concrete information exists from the year 1555 onwards. The data indicate that by 1555, there were five underground Protestant churches in France. By 1559, the number of these Protestant churches jumped to more than one hundred. And scholars estimate that by 1562 there were more than 2,150 churches established in France with approximately three-million Protestant souls in attendance.

This can only be described as an explosion of missionary activity; detonated in large part by the Genevan Consistory and other Swiss Protestant cities. Far from being disinterested in missions, history shows that Calvin was enraptured by it.

To be a missionary in France was so dangerous that the Genevan Consistory decided not to keep any record of such missionary activity in order to protect their lives. And so the Genevan Consistory deliberately obscured the names and the numbers of missionaries sent out from Geneva.

Scholar peter Wilcox has combed the Genevan archives and dusted off some of Calvin’s five hundred-year old correspondence. Much to his surprise, Wilcox discovered a treasure trove of material indicating that the last ten years of Calvin’s life in Geneva (1555-1564) were preoccupied with missions’ Among the dusty tomes were letters written by the Genevan missionaries themselves revealing just how successful they had been. One French church in Bergerac boasted to Calvin:

“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.”

Another letter from Montpelier rejoiced, “Our church, thanks to the Lord, has so grown and so continues to grow every day that we are obliged to preach three sermons on Sundays to a total of five- to six-thousand people.”

And it gets better. A pastor in Toulouse wrote to the Genevan Consistory: “Our church has grown to the astonishing number of about eight- to nine-thousand souls.”

Calvin didn’t just plant small fledgling churches; he planted mega-churches that in turn planted more churches. It is difficult to fathom the extraordinary success of these Genevan sponsored missionaries. Even in our modern era, such statistics are unheard of.

The French government became so concerned about all these churches being planted that they sent a letter of protest to the Genevan city council. The Genevan city council responded by saying, “What missionaries?”

Genevan missionaries planted churches in other European destinations. Records indicate missionaries also were sent to Italy; the Netherlands, Hungary; Poland, and the free Imperial city-states in the Rhineland. The late Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, one of the few modern scholars aware of this extraordinary achievement, concluded that Calvin’s Geneva was a “school of missions… [and] a dynamic centre of missionary concern and activity.”

There is still more to the story of Genevan missions. It is one thing to send missionaries to Europe, but what about transcontinental missions?

Once again, Calvin earns high masks. As a matter of historical fact, Calvin also sent missionaries across the Atlantic Ocean to South America. It is a little known missionary episode that reads like an adventure story.

Because of increasing persecution, the leading Protestant in France, Admiral Coligny, embraced a grand vision for establishing a French Protestant colony in the New World where Protestants would be free to worship. Coligny sent out an expedition that eventually landed in what is now Brazil.

Along with his plans to establish a colony in Brazil, Coligny collaborated with Calvin to provide missionaries to the new settlement.

We actually know the names of the two missionaries that Geneva sent to Brazil – Pierre Richier and William Chartier. These two Genevan trained missionaries were to serve as chaplains to the settlers and bring the gospel to Brazil’s natives.

The French expedition landed in Rio de Janeiro on March 10, 1557, and suddenly things took a turn for the worse. Nicholas Durand de Villegagnon, the leader of the expedition, turned traitor to the Protestant cause. He decided to create his own South American fiefdom. When the French Protestant settlers disapproved, he actually killed a number of them. The Protestant colonists and the Genevan missionaries fled into the Brazilian jungle where they found refuge, believe it or not, with a tribe of cannibals.

Over time, the Protestant colonists and missionaries eventually made their way back to France where one of them (Jean de Lery) wrote a book describing his Brazilian adventures. He described how the colonists and missionaries made every effort to share the gospel with the cannibals. Although their efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful, they nevertheless exhibited an abiding missionary interest – even in the midst of a terrible trial.

What motivated Calvin’s extraordinary missions interests? The answer, in part, can be found in Calvin’s sermons.

Calvin’s sermons typically offer a concluding prayer. These prayers often repeated his most deeply held convictions. After preaching a sermon on 1 Timothy 2:3, Calvin offered this prayer:

“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.”

Similar sentiments are found in many of his concluding pastoral prayers. For Calvin, it was axiomatic that the salvation of our souls necessarily carries with it an inevitable desire to share the gospel with others.

Calvin was missions-minded because he understood the transformational character of the gospel. He understood that when God saves a person, it makes a profound difference in that person’s life and in the lives of others.

If Calvin is taken as a model, Reformed theology ought to produce not only the best theologians. but also the best pastors and missionaries. These convictions reveal the true Calvin behind the image.

Dr. James is associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at RTS/Orlando. He holds doctorates from Oxford University and Westminster Theological Seminary.

tagged as in calvinism,Church Issues,Evangelism,theology

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Terry Rayburn September 21, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Very interesting. And profitable. That’s a kind of Church history that I really enjoy.

2 Mark September 21, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Terry, it’s amazing that the history like this about Calvin is not often spoken of.

3 Bible Study September 26, 2010 at 12:03 am

Can we really call him blasphemous because he believed in predestination? Doesn’t the bible tell us we are predestined according to the purpose of him who worketh all things according to his own will? If he believed predestination because he believed this verse, is he blasphemous? Aren’t we supposed to believe every word of God? I don’t know much about Calvin, but I have to give him the benefit of the doubt until I learn more about his beliefs.

4 Olive Hall October 30, 2011 at 9:19 pm

We had a Reformation Service at our church this evening, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Johnson City, Tennessee. Friends from other churches in our presbytery filled the sanctuary. Rev. Calvin Jett preached and gave this account from Frank James about John Calvin’s missionary thrust.
I was born into a Methodist family in Dublin, Ireland. By the grace of God, my family emigrated to Colorado Springs, Colorado when I was 13 years old. I am second oldest of eight children. My father was a devout Christian and taught us from the Bible each evening when we were not at evening service on Sunday and Wednesday prayer meeting. I enjoyed hearing the message this evening. The Lord saved me during a camp meeting in Northern Ireland when two missionaries held a camp meeting there in 1952.
I met my husband in Bible college in Colorado Springs. He is 75 now but was an elder at our church here for six years. By the grace of God both of our daughters are saved and married to Christian men.
We have just recently made plans for our 50th wedding anniversary.
Thank you.

5 Mark November 1, 2011 at 7:32 am

Hi Olive,

Thanks for sharing. Praise God for how he has worked in your life. And congratulations on your 50th wedding anniversary!


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