Calvin and Missions

GENEVA WAS not only a refuge to Protestant fugitives, but, under Calvin’s influence and direction, it became the hub of a vast missionary enterprise. The Venerable Company of Pastors was established as Geneva’s missionary agency, sending an army of missionaries to Italy, Germany, Scotland, England, and especially to Calvin’s homeland, France.

The Genevan missionaries traveled by night, hid in attics and false rooms behind chimneys, and used obscure roads. Once they arrived at their intended destination, they would join together with other Protestants to form an underground church. The churches gathered secretly in barns, open fields or secluded caves. But with Geneva’s guidance, these churches underwent remarkable growth in France.

Sending missionaries in that day was a very delicate matter. Knowing that an indiscretion could mean the death of a missionary, the Venerable Company of Pastors often omitted the names and destinations of their missionaries. Even with the many precautions, not all of the missionaries reached their destinations. When missionaries were arrested and sentenced to death, as they often were, Calvin wrote tender and compassionate letters encouraging them to stand firm in the Lord.

The missionary enterprise of Calvin’s Geneva was not confined to Europe. One missionary venture undertaken by Geneva still stirs the imagination. In 1556, Geneva’s Venerable Company of Pastors sent Pierre Richier and Guillaume Charretier to accompany a Protestant expedition to Brazil. Richier and Charretier were to serve in the dual capacity of chaplains to the French Protestants and missionaries to the Indians of South America.

Regrettably, the leader of the expedition betrayed the missionaries and the Protestant settlers. Four of the settlers were murdered. 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.

Calvin’s missionary vitality led to the tremendous spread of Calvinism throughout Europe, eventually superseding Lutheranism as the most vibrant representative of Protestantism. Historically, one of the most telling characteristics of Calvinism was that it thrived in those countries where opposition was the greatest.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #12 in 1986]

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