A Mission Ice Age in the Century of Luther and Calvin (2nd of 9 Timelines)

Brace yourself. We have to bust a myth. Kenneth Mullholand tells the myth like this:

Soon after Luther tacked his ninety-five theses to the church door at Wittenberg, there came a tremendous explosion of missionary expansion in the wake of the Reformation, as missionaries almost immediately began to go to the ends of the earth. Correct? Wrong. Virtually no Protestant missionary activity took place between 1517 and 1792. Yet those years constituted the golden age of Roman
Catholic missions.

Mulholland, Kenneth B. “From Luther to Carey: Pietism and the Modern Missionary Movement.” Bibliotecha Sacra 156, no. 1 (1999): 85-95

Rodney Stark said, “Historians who don’t count, shouldn’t.” I counted the number of missionaries in the century of Luther and Calvin as collected by Gerald Anderson in his Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. Then I created a timeline to display the noteable missionaries sent in the century of Luther and Calvin.

Three noteable Protestant missionaries! Two of them were Anabaptists, named Peter Riedemann and Hans Schmid. (Sadly, Reformers and the Catholics persecuted the Anabaptists for rebaptizing adults. Schmid was executed, and Riedemann was imprisoned for nine years.) Let’s do the math: three missionaries minus the two Anabaptist missionaries leaves one notable Reformed missionary in the century of Luther and Calvin. One Reformed missionary compared with 52 Catholic missionaries. How do you feel about this?

The one Reformed missionary was Jean de Léry. Jean de Léry was 21 years old when he volunteered 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 notable 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.

Why did the Protestant mission effort languish? Some suggest that the Protestant Reformation was just getting started, that Luther and Calvin needed more time to organize for overseas mission. However, that would mean that the number of Protestant missionaries should begin to rise by the end of the century. That did not happen. Reformation churches sent out no notable missionaries in the last forty years of the century. The timeline of Reformed missionaries is flat like the EEG monitor of a dead man Stephen Neill wrote,

When everything favourable has been said, and when all possible evidence from the writings of the Reformers have been collected, it all amounts to exceedingly little.

Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 222.

David Bosch wrote,

It would take centuries before anything remotely as competent and effective as the monastic missionary movement would develop in Protestantism.

Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 245.

Calvin’s Great Effort in France. Some of my readers will remind me that John Calvin actually sent many missionaries back to France, his home country. This is a wonderful story. I am not sure it is a missionary story. Gerald Anderson does not mention these missionaries in his Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. Robert M. Kingdon writes,

Calvin had an intense passion for the conversion of France to the Reformed faith. In 1553, Calvin began sending missionaries to France. Most of these missionaries had come to Geneva as refugees from France while fleeing persecution. Yet after being trained by Calvin in theology, moral character, and preaching, he sent them back to plant churches in France. These efforts by Calvin had tremendous success. In 1555, there were five Reformed churches in France. In 1559, there were almost 100. In 1562, the number had reached 2,150.

Robert M. Kingdon, Geneva and the Coming of the Wars of Religion in France (Genève: Libraire E. Droz, 1956), 79.

In other words, Calvin was a passionate evangelist to his own people, the French. Dr. Ralph D. Winter invented an Evangelism Scale, or E-Scale, as pictured here. E-1evangelism evangelizing non-Christians who are attending church. E-1 evangelism is the noble effort to bring Christians of one’s own culture to faith in Jesus Christ. John Calvin’s passion to evangelize the French population was E-1 John Knox of Scotland is another example of an E-1 evangelist; John Knox thrilled his listeners when he said, “Give me Scotland or I die.” Jean de Léry’s trip to Brazil was E-1 Evangelism. However, a special missionary effort is needed to evangelize people of Different Cultures and very Different cultures. Reformation churches failed at E-2 and E-3 mission. Churches today need to partner with mission agencies in order to establish churches in “the regions beyond.”

Reformed churches did not send missionaries to Different Cultures or Very Different Cultures. Some of my readers are writing to express their opinion that doctrinal disputes had to be settled before the Reformed leaders could send missionaries. There were indeed shameful disputations. For example, Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli was busy tracking down and drowning Anabaptists such as Felix Manz for getting rebaptized. Zwingli was also occupied with a plan to starve the Catholics in the nearby Swiss canton into seeing the advantages of Protestant Christianity. The Reformers sent no missionaries, yet hundreds of Catholic missionaries continued to deploy. This was because the Catholic Church established two administrative structures, one for the church where it already existed, and a second for sending and governing missionaries where there is no church. The sending structure was the means for deploying Catholic missionaries, such as the Johannes Baegert, a Jesuit missionary among the Guaycura Indians of Lower California. It was Johanne Baegert who wrote to the Protestants “sitting behind their stoves in Wittenberg and Geneva,” giving many Scriptural proofs why the true church is the church that sends missionaries. We will meet Johannes Baegert in a later blog. The Reformed churches denied themselves these mission agencies and even suppressed attempts by their own members to establish mission structures. The wind of the Spirit was moving on the waters, but the Reformers did not hoist their sails. The sails are the mission agencies, and these the Catholics unfurled to their advantage. More about that soon.


Blincoe. I ask God to make more like Luther, who said,

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and by plain Reason — and not by Popes and Councils who have so often contradicted themselves — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.

Let us re-examine our theology and our ecclesiology and take it all apart if necessary. Every systematic theology must be examined and tested by Scripture and plain reason. Unfortunately, our Reformation fathers did not establish in their minds and hearts a biblical basis for mission agencies (read about a Biblical Basis for mission agencies here). I wish to convince the sceptic that the two structure theory is Biblical and reasonable. We have seen what happened, in the first century of the Reformation, when the church arrogates to itself the administrative governance of the mission to the regions beyond.

Next: A Protestant Mission Ice Age in the Second Century of the Reformation 1601-1700 (3rd of 9 Timelines)

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