While Jimmy Swaggart has long since been discredited as a minister of the Gospel, his sentiments continue to be embraced by a surprisingly large number of evangelicals. Among the maxims issued by the infamous evangelist was the following: “Calvin has caused untold millions of souls to be damned.”
Swaggart’s quote captures the standpoint of millions of evangelicals on the character of John Calvin--cold, hard-hearted, irrecoverably devoted to logical precision, determined to keep as many folks out of the kingdom of heaven as possible--this is the vision of Calvin which fills many evangelicals’ nightmares.
But here at St. Anne’s Pub, we’re in the business of relieving your distress, changing your nightmares into peaceful visions of elysium. I have it on good authority that the very best way to accomplish this is to envision the person about whom you are dreaming in pink poke-a-dot pajamas; but the next best way is to dispel the ignorance of Swaggartisms from your mind with a good dose of historical data. And since we can’t supply the pajamas, we will supply the data. I am Stuart Bryan and this is Ancient Biography.
When folks think of Calvin today, “mission-minded” is not the first adjective that springs into their minds. Perhaps “astute”, “logical”, or even “precise.” But not “mission-minded.” However, as Frank James explains in his recent article “Calvin the Evangelist,” Calvin was remarkably driven by a desire to foster missions throughout the world.
The majority of Calvin’s missionary work was devoted to France, his former home. From the years 1555 to 1562, the number of underground Protestant churches in France mushroomed from 5 to over two thousand. These churches were planted largely through the efforts of missionaries sent out by the Genevan Consistory--the group of pastors in Geneva. And, as James says, these weren’t no sissy churches either--they were mega-churches. In Bergerac and Montpelier the churches included around five thousand people each and in Toulouse the Reformed church grew “to the astonishing number of eight to nine thousand souls.” Wow!
But Calvin’s missionary drive could not confine itself to continental Europe. His vision was too expansive. He dreamt of Protestant missionaries visiting the remotest parts of the earth. And so, when the Huguenot Admiral Gaspard de Coligny proposed sending a group of Protestants to a colony in Brazil, Calvin jumped at the opportunity.
Two Genevan trained missionaries, Pierre Richier and William Chartier, were to serve as pastors for the eleven other colonists and as missionaries to the Brazilian natives. The expedition set out in 1556 and arrived in Rio de Janeiro in March, 1557, the first Protestant mission to the New World. Let me repeat that. Calvin sent the first Protestant missionaries to the New World. I’ll bet you haven’t heard that before.
Unfortunately, the leader of the colony, Nicolas Durand, was a turn coat and began persecuting the Protestants shortly after their arrival. After eight months they were forced to flee into the jungle and seek refuge with the Tupi Indians, a tribe of cannibals! However, rather than despair in the midst of their trials, the Protestants sought to win the cannibals to the Gospel! Ultimately unsuccesful, they found their way onto a ship heading back to Europe and, after a harrowing journey, most of them arrived home.
It would appear, then, that the real Calvin was far different from modern perceptions of him. Far from the cold hearted, disinterested scholar that most Christians picture, Calvin was a man with a passionate heart for the spread of the Gospel. Visionary and enthusiastic, Calvin supported and prayed for numerous mission efforts throughout the world, not only in Europe but in the New World as well. We would do well to imitate him.
Oh, and by the way, if you are interested in reading more about Calvin’s missionary labors, here are a couple book suggestions. First, Robert Kingdon in his book Geneva and the Wars of Religion in France traces Calvin’s missionary activities in France. Second, the expedition to Brazil is described in Jean de Lery’s book History of a Voyage to Brazil, translated by Janet Whatley and published by the University of California Press. De Lery was one of the colonists on the journey and recorded their experiences in this book for the glory of God and the advancement of His Church.