Seven Notable Reformed Church Missionaries

Honoring those who served during what was otherwise a Protestant Mission Ice Age

Gerald Anderson records the names of 7 notable Reformed Church missionaries who served overseas in the first two centuries of the Reformation. That is considerably fewer than the Catholic Church, which sent 126 missionaries in this same period.

We want to honor these seven Reformed Church missionaries. Here is a brief biography for each of them. (This page supplements a blog post “Two Reformed Theologians Express Opposing Opinions on the Great Commission and the Validity of Mission Agencies” which you can read here.

Jean de Lery (1534-1611) Jean de Léry was 21 years old when he volunteered to join a number of chaplains planning to sail from Geneva to an island near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There a soldier of fortune named Nicolas de Villegagnon and 600 French men of arms had built a fort. This was in 1557. John Calvin sent de Léry and other Christians with him to be chaplains to the soldiers on the island. But a rift over the meaning of the Eucharist opened between Nicolas de Villegagnon and the newly arrived chaplains. Eight months later de Villegagnon expelled de Léry and the other chaplains from the colony. Exhausted and starving, Léry and the other chaplains boarded a pirate ship and returned to Europe. That is the story of the one noteable Reformed missionary in the century of Luther and Calvin. In our day, some of my Reformed colleagues promote Jean de Léry as an example of John Calvin’s commitment to mission. This puzzles me considerably.

Three notable Reformed missionaries brought the gospel to the indigenous natives of Formosa (Taiwan). They were Georgius Candidius (1597-1647), Robertus Junius (1606-1655), and Antonius Hambroek (1607-1661). These men came to Taiwan as chaplains the Dutch military garrisons and colonists on the coast of the island. To their eternal credit, they also evangelized the native peoples and saw hundreds of tribes members come to Christianity. Tragically, in 1661 a Chinese warlord invaded the island and overwhelmed the Dutch military garrisons. Antonius Hamroek was killed and his seventeen-year old daughter was forced into the harem of the warlord. This ended the Christian mission enterprise in Taiwan for the next 200 years.

Justus Heurnius (1687-1652) son of a professor at the University of Leiden, Heurnius wrote a book in 1618 on the biblical mandate for world mission which applies to all Christians in all ages, and sailed to Java in 1624 to practice what he preached. For nine years he was the minister of the Batavia (Jakarta) church. But then he felt called to reach out beyond the Dutch compounds to the tribes outside the walls (the Dutch allowed no Indonesians to live inside). He sailed to the outer island and traveled extensively for the next five years, advocating the translation of the Bible into local languages. He fell ill and returned to the Netherlands in 1628.[1]

Melchior Leydecker (1645-1701), In 1675 the Dutch Reformed Church of Walcheren sent him to Indonesia, where he first served as a chaplain to the Dutch army in East Java. After 1678 he devoted much of his time to learning the Malay language and compiled what was probably the first Malay dictionary. In 1691 the Malay church in Batavia commissioned him to translate the Bible into Malay. At the time of his death he had completed it as far as Ephesians 6:6 and it was finished by others. His translation was ignored for 22 years but was finally published in 1723.[2]

Francis Makemie 1658-1708), a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian minister who came to the American colonies in 1683. He established several Presbyterian congregations in Maryland and especially in Virginia. Partly through is efforts, the Virginia legislature enacted the Act of Toleration, which recognized the activities of non-Anglican churches in the colony. In 1706 Makemie and other Presbyterians formed the first presbytery in America. He thus became known as the founder of American Presbyterianism.[3]

[1] Samuel H. Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia Vol. 2, vol. 2 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005). 218

[2] Anderson, Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. 398

[3] Ibid. 429