The history of the spread of the Reformed faith in the sixteenth century during the early and difficult decades of the Protestant Reformation is always interesting, especially in connection with the work of Reformed churches in missions. Since the Reformed faith, with its doctrines of sovereign particular grace and double predestination, is often maligned as uninterested in and unable to do world missions, it is encouraging to see from the Lord’s work through His church examples that show that this accusation from enemies of the Reformed faith is historically unfounded. One example of this is found in the history of the French Huguenots (Calvinists) for freedom of religion and for a livelihood (commercial trade), who attempted to settle in South America, in the area that is known today as the large city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.1
The Reformation’s spread through Roman Catholic France by the mid-sixteenth century had resulted in many converts from all levels of French society. Even in the French armed forces, there were conversions from Roman Catholicism to the Reformed faith. Among the converts in the French armed forces was Admiral Gaspard Coligny, who was converted to the Reformed faith by 1550.
Understanding the increasing difficulty for the Huguenots to live and to work in Roman Catholic France, Admiral Coligny proposed to King Henry II that a French expedition be sent to Brazil, which was already being colonized by the Portuguese. For the Admiral, the purpose was to establish a French settlement in that area for the religious freedom of the French Huguenots. The French king liked the idea of expanding his empire into South America for increased trading opportunities and increased wealth, and was just as happy to have a place far away from France to which French Huguenots could be sent.
In 1555, Admiral Coligny sponsored the first group of two ships with 600 colonists and soldiers. The first settlement expedition was placed under the authority of captain Nicolas Villegagnon, a Roman Catholic. Among the colonists were a large majority of French Calvinists from Geneva, Switzerland, and La Rochelle, France. Later in 1555, the expedition arrived at Gua- nabara Bay and settled on one of the islands in the bay. The island was named “Villegagnon Island” in honor of the expedition’s captain, and the fort was named after Admiral Coligny, who sponsored not only the first settlement expedition but also the second one.
In 1557, at the request of Captain Villegagnon and with the sponsorship of Admiral Coligny, a second expedition arrived with a replenishment of 300 more colonists. On the three ships that set sail in March 1557 for Guanabara Bay, the settlers included fourteen men sent by the church in Geneva at the time John Calvin was serving as pastor. In fact, one of those men was Calvinist theologian Pierre Richier. With him, ten young men were sent to serve as translators for preaching, instruction, and Bible translation among the Tamoio and Tupinamba tribes. Thus, the Reformed church in Geneva sent ordained men and workers to establish a Reformed congregation in Guanabara Bay among the settlers as well as to engage in foreign mission work on the mainland.
With the arrival of the second wave of colonists, there was optimism regarding the establishment of a Reformed church and mission among the natives. However, this happy situation ended after heated, doctrinal disputes arose between the Calvinists and the Roman Catholics. As a result of the disputes, Captain Villegagnon ordered the Huguenots off the island in October 1557 onto the mainland around Guanabara Bay. For a little while, the Huguenots managed to survive on the mainland away from Fort Coligny. However, by January 1558 it became clear that the Huguenots could not endure the hardships and maintain their beachhead on the mainland. Thus, all the surviving Huguenots were ordered by the captain to return to France. One of the returning settlers included Jean de Lery, who published an interesting book about this history shortly after his repatriation.
The doctrinal dispute eventually led to the execution of four Huguenots in early 1558. The four French Huguenots who were executed for the Reformed faith were Jean du Bourdel, Matthieu Verneuil, Pierre Bourdon, and Andre la Fon. These men had been arrested by Captain Villegagnon, a Roman Catholic, for their opposition to the false doctrine of the eucharist, namely transubstantiation. In order to determine the punishment of these men and possibly to give them an opportunity to recant their Reformed convictions, the captain ordered the four prisoners to answer a number of his questions about Roman Catholic doctrine. Although realizing that their confession would be most likely their death warrant, the men did not waver in their answers. In fact, within twelve hours after receiving and reading the answers, the captain ordered that the men be hung. What they wrote and then sealed in their death is known as the Guanabara Confession.
As mentioned earlier, the captain had ordered all of the Huguenots back to France in January 1558. When a few men refused to leave the island and board the ships for the long voyage back to France, they were subsequently executed by drowning. They were executed not so much because they did not follow the captain’s orders but because they would not recant the Reformed faith and revert to Roman Catholicism, a condition for remaining at the French settlement. With their deaths and the voyage of the remaining Huguenots back to France in 1558, this attempt by Admiral Coligny with the French and Genevan Reformed churches to settle and establish Reformed churches and foreign missions in South America had come to an end.
In the next article, we will consider some highlights of the Guanabara Confession and some points of significance of this part of Reformed church history. In the meantime, please read the Guanabara confession.
2 Jean de Lery, A Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Otherwise Called America, trans. Janet Whatley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
3 An English translation of the Guanabara Confession (1558) can be found at the website of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland: www.cprf.co.uk/articles/guana-baraconfession.htm.