The Reformation and missions

We miss in the Reformers not only missionary action, but even the idea of missions, in the sense in which we understand them today.—Gustav Warneck1

Instead of saying ‘We ought to have missions, and we will have them, as soon as the Lord opens the door,’ the Protestants tended to say ‘Missions are neither obligatory nor desirable, and our lack of them cannot be held against us as blindness or unfaithfulness.—Stephen Neill2

One would naturally expect that the spiritual forces released by the Reformation would have prompted the Protestant churches of Europe to take the gospel to the ends of the earth during the period of world exploration and colonization which began about 1500. But such was not the case.—J. Herbert Kane3

The year is 1557.

The place is Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

A young Frenchman is in the forest, talking to the heathen Tupinambas, and he captures our attention. Jean de Léry was not yet an ordained minister of the gospel. He was a shoemaker and student of theology in Geneva. But in 1556 he set sail from France with a group of French Protestants, including two Reformed ministers of the Word. The church in Geneva, with the support of John Calvin, sent them on the first Protestant mission to Brazil, where the French were attempting to establish a colony. Having survived the long voyage across the ocean, de Léry is now in the forests near Rio de Janeiro interacting with the native people and making observations about their beliefs and customs.

It is evening. Time for supper. De Léry and his companions take off their hats, and one of them offers a prayer to the Lord. The natives watch with great curiosity. One of them asks, and someone translates to the French, “Why do you take off your hats before and after you eat your meal? To whom are you speaking? And what is the meaning of the words?” De Léry immediately sees an opportunity to declare Jehovah’s glory among the heathen, His wonders among all people. He is ready to give an answer concerning the hope that is in him. He tells those lost souls about the true and living God whom no man has seen nor can see, and he testifies that He is the one who created this world in the beginning. He declares that those who believe in God do not need to fear Aygnan, the chief of the evil spirits, not in this life or in the next. And he makes known that if they repent of their cannibalism, as well as of their other sins, they too will experience the blessing of God. De Léry spoke to them for two hours!4

Do we indeed miss in the Reformers the very idea of missions?

Do we miss in them any missionary action?

In those days of the sixteenth century, Spain and Portugal controlled the seas. It was not until the seventeenth century that England and the Netherlands became powerful forces in the oceans of the world. Therefore, it was not until then that Protestants had much opportunity for world missions. In 1493 the pope divided the world into two spheres, giving one to Spain and the other to Portugal. Those two Roman Catholic powers were busy throughout the era of the Reformation conquering heathen lands, seizing their riches, and bringing the missionaries of the pope, who were for the most part unordained Jesuit, Dominican, Franciscan, and Augustinian monks. The most famous of all Roman Catholic missionaries, Francis Xavier, brought the Romish gospel to India in 1542, to Southeast Asia in 1546, and to Japan in 1549. Another famous Roman Catholic missionary, Matthew Ricci, taught the Romish gospel in China beginning in 1582. Roman Catholic monks travelling with Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors successfully brought Brazil, Mexico, and all of Latin America into the fold of the pope. Meanwhile, back in Europe, the zealous soldiers of the pope hunted and killed the Protestant heretics. Protestants were tortured and burned at the stake at home and barred from the ships sailing abroad to heathen lands. Clearly, they had little opportunity to bring the truth of the gospel to the outside world during that century.

But the mission of Rome brought another gospel.

The mission of the church, from the day our risen Lord sent the apostles until the day He returns in glory, is to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all nations, baptizing believers and their seed in the name of the triune God, and teaching them to observe all that Christ has taught us. Thus, if there is no gospel, there is no mission. But in the many centuries of history prior to the Reformation, the gospel was corrupted, buried, and lost by the rulers of the darkness of this world, by spiritual wickedness in high places. Then, in the sixteenth century, that false church sent out missionaries into all the world to preach another gospel, which is not another, to the lost souls of India, the Philippines, Brazil, and elsewhere. In that same century, our Lord again commanded the light to shine in the darkness to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ through Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox, and the other Reformers. Through the Reformation in Europe, the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, who shed His blood for us once and for all on the cross, was recovered. The mission was thus renewed.

The devil was not happy.

But he must have been content to see the success of Roman Catholic missions.

For example, in the 1560s, the foot soldiers of Rome sailed with Spanish imperialists and marched into a group of some seven thousand tropical islands on the western rim of the Pacific. Spain conquered the islands swiftly and named them after their king, Philip II, “the Philippines.” Soon the armies of the pope flooded the islands, teaching the corrupted gospel and the accursed idolatry of the mass, entangling the native people in a new yoke of bondage. Soon the whole archipelago became Roman Catholic, except for the southernmost island, which belonged to Islam. Still today, over a hundred years after the departure of Spain, about eighty percent of the population of the Philippines is Roman Catholic. Yet the truth of the gospel is coming to this nation. The Reformation is taking place here. The word of grace is being preached. Christ is commanding the light of the gospel to shine in the darkness. There are many Filipinos who are eager to learn the Reformed faith and to testify of the truth of the gospel to their families and friends. We Reformed missionaries in the Philippines rejoice in God to see the Reformation growing in this land, in which the missionaries of Rome arrived first.

For we who are Reformed today, like the Reformers of the sixteenth century, have a vital interest in missions.

The Reformers achieved extremely significant things in regard to missions. We might say that, like Abel, they offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Rome, by the which they obtained witness that they were righteous, God testifying of their gifts, and by it they being dead yet speak (Heb. 11:4). Many of them were ruthlessly murdered, like Abel, because of their faith in Christ. But they, being dead, yet speak to millions throughout the world. For first of all, they were the ones who insisted that the Bible must be translated into the languages of the people. Thus, being dead, their influence still speaks in the hundreds of translations of the Bible through which the Word of God now speaks to millions of people, on every continent of the earth, and in all the major languages. Secondly, they wrote commentaries and books of theology that have also been translated and have travelled throughout the world, on ships and planes, in the bags and boxes of Reformed missionaries, for hundreds of years. Being dead, they yet speak through those books which help the Reformed missionary preach the truth of the gospel in all lands. Thirdly, they set the church on a firm foundation by writing or helping to write the Reformed confessions. So in that respect too, being dead, they yet speak through the creeds that summarize the truth of the Word of God. Fourthly, they had a vital interest in missions as such. They had a variety of opinions on the progress of the gospel into all the world and the nearness of the coming of Christ. But they all believed and taught that the gospel must be preached in all the world before Christ returns. Calvin too, who vigorously taught the truth of predestination, also vigorously taught the truth that God uses the preaching of the gospel as the means to save His elect.

Are you, Reformed believer, also vitally interested in the preaching of the gospel in all the world? Are you also zealous for the coming of the kingdom of God in all nations? Are you also passionate for the gathering of the elect out of heathen darkness into God’s marvelous light? Do you also adamantly reject the lie that the truth of predestination makes missions unimportant or unnecessary?

Christ intends and herewith commands that such preaching [of repentance and forgiveness of sins] should not be made known in a corner or to a special few alone, and not only to his Jews or few other nations. Instead, it should be preached in the whole wide world or, as he says, “among all nations” and again “to all creatures,”

said Martin Luther on Luke 24:47.5

And, wrote Calvin on Matthew 28:19:

Teach all nations. Here Christ, by removing the distinction, makes the Gentiles equal to the Jews, and admits both, indiscriminately to a participation in the covenant. Such is also the import of the term: go out; for the prophets under the law had limits assigned to them, but now, the wall of partition having been broken down, (Eph. 2:14) the Lord commands the ministers of the gospel to go to a distance, in order to spread the doctrine of salvation in every part of the world.6

But what about missionary action by the Reformers?

Shall we return to the story of a certain voyage to Brazil?

In 1555, the French tried to start a colony in Brazil. By 1560 it was all over. But no one knew that in 1556. In that year, Calvin and the church in Geneva were asked a question that would produce a deeply revealing answer: Will you send ministers of the Word of God and others well-instructed in the Christian religion to Brazil to reform our French colonists and bring the knowledge of salvation to the heathen? Now the church in Geneva, and Calvin himself, faced the question of world missions. What would they say? No, we cannot spare any men for that enterprise? No, we have no interest in preaching the gospel to the heathen? No, the return of Christ is so near that it is not worth our time? No, God will save His elect so we do not have to bother? That is not how they responded. But this way, according to de Léry: “Upon receiving these letters and hearing this news, the church of Geneva at once gave thanks to God for the extension of the reign of Jesus Christ in a country so distant and likewise so foreign and among a nation entirely without knowledge of the true God.”

Two ministers of the Word were chosen and examined, Pierre Richier and Guillaume Chartier. They were sent to preach the gospel not only to the French colonists but also to the heathen Tupinambas. De Léry went on the voyage too. So did a number of others from Geneva. They joined a few hundred Huguenots aboard three ships and set sail for Brazil late in 1556. They arrived in early 1557 and soon began Reformed worship services in the colony. Not long after, efforts were made to reach the heathen Tupinambas. At first the two ministers were discouraged by the difficulties, because the people spoke a strange language, they were cannibals, and they were totally ignorant of God. But they were resolved to learn the language and wait patiently for the Lord to open the door for the preaching of the gospel.

De Léry, who was later ordained as a Reformed minister, took an active approach. On one occasion, he was walking through the forest with four native Brazilians. He looked around at the magnificent trees and beautiful flowers and listened to the warbling birds. Suddenly, he was overcome with wonder at the glory of God, the Maker of heaven and earth, and he began to sing praise to Him in the words of Psalm 104. The natives listened intently to the strange song, and were deeply impressed by it. They wanted to know the meaning of the words. So the young man, seeing another opportunity to be a witness of his God, seized the opportunity to tell them about the one true God who created all things, whose prophet first sang that psalm ten thousand moons ago. Later, the remark was made that they might have seen the conversion of those native people, if they had had more time to work among them.

But that was not the will of God. Soon the French leader of the colony apostatized from the Reformed faith, back to Roman Catholicism. He rejected the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper and denounced Calvin, whom he formerly praised, as a heretic. At one point de Léry and others were put in irons. Finally, in 1558, the Protestants fled from the colony by ship. But they ran into perilous seas. Five of them returned by boat to the colony. Three of the five were strangled and thrown into the sea because of their Reformed faith Only two years later, in 1560, the Portuguese snuffed out the French colony, and Roman Catholicism became the dominant religion of Brazil.

J. Herbert Kane writes,

The earliest attempt [of Protestant missions] was made in Brazil, when Calvin in 1555 sent four clergymen [actually only two—DJH] and a group of French Huguenots to found a colony for persecuted Protestants on the Bay of Rio de Janeiro. Desultory attempts were made to Christianize the Indians, but without success. Later their leader, Villegagnon, turned traitor and abandoned the colony to the tender mercies of the Portuguese, who proceeded to destroy it. The few survivors were later killed by the Jesuits.7

We beg to differ. The Calvinists seized the opportunity to preach the gospel to the heathen. They rejoiced and thanked God for the opportunity. They put forth effort. But after only one year of labor, they were betrayed, persecuted, and forced to leave or die. These men are heroes who inspire us by their love of the truth of the gospel, their willingness to leave their homeland and to suffer great things, and their interest in spreading the doctrine of salvation among the heathen. May we who carry the torch of the Reformed faith today be zealous to do the same.


1 Gustav Warneck, Outline of a History of Protestant Missions from the Reformation to the Present Time, 1906. Quoted by Dr. Elias Medeiros, a native Brazilian and professor of missions at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS, in his as yet unpublished PhD dissertation, The Reformers’ Commitment to the Propagation of the Gospel to All Nations from 1555 to 1654, 2009 (used with permission from the author). Gustav Warneck is widely considered to be the “father of Protestant missiology.” According to Dr. Medeiros, Warneck is the one who really started the claim that we do not find missionary action or even the idea of missions in the Reformers. Dr. Medeiros demonstrates that other mission historians have simply followed Warneck with little serious investigation into the validity of the claim. This has led to the commonly held, but false, opinion today that the Reformers were not interested in missions. A hearty thanks to Dr. Medeiros for sending me his dissertation and giving permission to refer to it in this article.

2 Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), 222.

3 J. Herbert Kane, A Concise History of the Christian World Mission: A Panoramic View of Missions from Pentecost to the Present (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1978), 73.

4 R. Pierce Beaver, “The Genevan Mission to Brazil,” in The Heritage of John Calvin, ed. John Bratt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973). Beaver tells the fascinating story of the Genevan mission to Brazil. His primary source of information is the book of Jean de Léry himself, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, 1578.

5 The Church Comes from All Nations: Luther Texts on Mission, ed. Volker Stolle (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2003), 32.

6 Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 384.

7 Kane, A Concise History, 75-76.