Encouragement for Church Planting from John Calvin
In many ways, John Calvin is seen as the father of Reformed evangelism. He practiced evangelism in his own congregation and in the city of Geneva through preaching, teaching, and catechizing. But Calvin also had a robust vision for planting churches in his home country of France and abroad in Brazil, using Geneva as the center for theological education and sending out pastors to plant churches. As such, he provides an encouraging model from church history for Reformed churches to engage in evangelistic work and church planting.
Efforts in France
To understand how Calvin promoted the Reformation throughout Europe through church planting, we need to look at what he did in France. France was only partially open to Reformed evangelism. Religious and political hostilities, which also threatened Geneva, were a constant danger in France. Nonetheless, Calvin and his colleagues made the most of the small opening they had.
Here’s how it worked. Reformed believers from France took refuge in Geneva. While there, many began to study theology. They then felt compelled to return to their own people as Reformed evangelists and pastors. After passing a rigorous theological examination, each was given an assignment by the Genevan Company of Pastors, usually in response to a formal request from a French church needing a pastor. In most cases, the receiving church was fighting for its life under persecution.
The French refugees who returned as pastors were eventually killed, but their zeal encouraged the hopes of their parishioners. Their mission, which, according to the pastors, sought “to advance the knowledge of the gospel in France, as our Lord commands,” was successful. Reformed evangelistic preaching produced a remarkable revival. In 1555, there was only one fully organized Reformed church in France. Seven years later, there were close to two thousand.
The French Reformed pastors were on fire for God and, despite massive persecution, God used their work to convert thousands. This is one of the most remarkable examples of effective home missions work in the history of Protestantism, and one of the most astonishing revivals in church history. Some of the French Reformed congregations became very large. For example, Pierre Viret pastured a church of eight thousand communicants in Nimes. More than 10 percent of the French population in the 1560s — as many as three million — belonged to these churches.
During the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, seventy thousand Protestants were killed. Nevertheless, the church continued. Persecution eventually drove out many of the French Protestants, known as the Huguenots. They left France for many different nations, enriching the church wherever they went. Not all of the refugee pastors were sent to French churches; some went to Northern Italy, others to Antwerp, London, and other cities in Europe. Some even went beyond Europe to far-off Brazil. Regardless of where they went, their preaching was strong and powerful, and God blessed their efforts. How the church today needs such pastors who are on fire with the gospel!
Evangelism in Brazil
Calvin also knew there were nations and people who had not yet heard the gospel and he keenly felt the burden for the Indians of South America through the Genevan mission to Brazil. With the help of a Huguenot sympathizer, Gaspard de Coligny, and the support of Henry II, Nicolas Durand (also called Villegagnon) led an expedition to Brazil in 1555 to establish a colony there. The colonists included former prisoners, some of whom were Huguenots. When trouble erupted in the new colony near Rio de Janeiro, Villegagnon turned to the Huguenots in France, asking for better settlers. He appealed to Coligny as well as to Calvin and the church in Geneva. That letter was not preserved and there is only a brief summary in the account of the Company of Pastors of what happened.
Nonetheless, we have some insight into those events because of what Jean de Lery, a shoemaker and student of theology in Geneva who was soon to join the Brazilian colony, recorded in his personal journal. He wrote, “The letter asked that the church of Geneva send Villegagnon immediately ministers of the Word of God and with them numerous other persons ‘well instructed in the Christian religion’ in order better to reform him and his people and ‘to bring the savages to the knowledge of their salvation.’”1
Responsibility for evangelism to the heathen was thus laid squarely at the feet of the church of Geneva.
The church’s reaction, according to Jean de Lery, was this: “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.”2The Company of Pastors chose two ministers to send to Brazil. Eleven laymen were also recruited for the colony, including Jean de Lery.
Although Calvin was not in Geneva at this time, he was kept informed of what was happening and offered his advice in letters that were sent on to Villegagnon. The work with Indians in Brazil did not go well. Pastor Richier wrote to Calvin in April 1557 that the savages were incredibly barbaric. “The result is we are frustrated in our hope of revealing Christ to them,” he said.3Richier did not want to abandon the mission, however. He told Calvin that the missionaries would advance the work in stages and wait patiently for the six young boys who were placed with the Indians (the Tupinambas) to learn their language. “Since the Most High has given us this task, we expect this Edom to become a future possession for Christ,” he added confidently. Meanwhile, he trusted that the witness of pious and industrious members of the Reformed church in the colony would influence the Indians.
Richier was a striking witness of Calvin’s missionary emphasis in four ways: (1) obedience to God in doing what is possible in a difficult situation, (2) trust in God to create opportunities for further witness, (3) insistence on the importance of the lives and actions of Christians as a means of witness, and (4) confidence that God will advance His kingdom.
The rest of the story is tragic. Villegagnon became disenchanted with Calvin and the Reformers. On February 9, 1558, just outside of Rio de Janeiro, he strangled three Calvinists and threw them into the sea. Believers fled for their lives. Later, the Portuguese attacked and destroyed the remainder of the settlement. Thus ended the mission to the Indians. There is no record of any Indian converts. But was that the true end of the story? When an account of the martyrs of Rio de Janeiro was published six years later, it began with these words: “A barbarous land, utterly astonished at seeing the martyrs of our Lord Jesus Christ die, will someday produce the fruits that such precious blood has been at all times wont to produce.”4Today, the Reformed faith is growing in Brazil among conservative Presbyterians through Reformed preaching, the Puritan Project, FIEL, and various ministries that reprint Reformed and Puritan titles in Portuguese.
For Calvin and other Reformers, going out into the world didn’t necessarily mean leaving Europe. The mission field of unbelief was right within the realm of Christendom. For the Genevan church, France and Europe were open. Strengthened by Calvin’s evangelistic theology, believers zealously responded to the mission call. Calvin did what he could to support evangelism on the foreign front. Despite its tragic failure, the pioneer Protestant project off the coast of Brazil from 1550-1560 evoked Calvin’s wholehearted sympathy, interest, and continued correspondence.5
What can the church today learn from this example? The church is called to faithful and Spirit-filled preaching of the gospel to gather in lost souls. This has been proven again and again as the Spirit’s method for building the church. She is called to persevere in spite of persecution and hardships because this is the backdrop against which the Spirit performs His work. The entire church, not just pastors, are called to engage in the work of church-planting by speaking and living out the gospel, training and sending out men to preach the gospel, and supporting the work of church planting through fervent prayer and faithful generosity.