John Calvin’s mission to France
The year 2009 is the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. He was born in northern France and was converted, as a student, in the early 1530s. From 1541 until his death in 1564 he served as a preacher and teacher in Geneva.
Calvin was never interested in study or teaching just for its own sake. He recognised that all study of God’s Word and all Bible teaching must be assessed by its usefulness, and that usefulness is seen in how it aids the spread of the gospel.
And yet it is often claimed that Calvin showed no inclination towards missionary effort. He has been accused of being completely blind to the church’s responsibility for worldwide mission. However, this view of Calvin’s work is a complete myth.
Calvin was in fact the director of an international, underground evangelistic mission. Geneva became the major missionary sending centre of the time. Missionaries went to many parts of Europe, but there were two main fields of concern – France and Brazil. In this article we are concerned with the mission to France.
During Calvin’s time, Geneva became a place of refuge for thousands of Christians fleeing Catholic persecution across Europe. The majority of them came from France, but they did not come only as asylum seekers. They also came to learn. Calvin took the opportunity to teach and train them so that they could carry the gospel back to their homelands.
Calvin understood that a good missionary has to be a good theologian. So he gave daily Bible lectures to equip them for their future work. In 1559 the Geneva Academy was launched. Now, the training became more systematic.
The academy was specifically set up to train missionary pastors to plant churches throughout Europe, but it had a particular vision and burden for France.
By 1564 the academy had several hundred students. In addition to their studies at the academy, missionary candidates were given practical experience. Some served as preachers in village churches around Geneva; others worked as chaplains in the city or as tutors to well-to-do families.
Before a missionary candidate was allowed to leave for his assignment, he was interviewed by the elders of the Genevan church. They made sure that his theology was sound. They checked that he had mastered the biblical languages and heard him preach.
They also made sure that he was morally upright and of sufficiently robust constitution, for they knew the work of pioneering the gospel in unevangelised Europe would be arduous.
We cannot be sure exactly when the mission to France began. It was some time between 1553 and 1555. Each year a number of men were sent as missionaries from Geneva. The peak years of missionary activity were 1561 and 1562, because of political developments in France at that time.
The French churches had been suffering severe repression at the hands of the Catholic establishment. But for those two years the authorities became preoccupied with rivalry between competing government factions. As a result there was a brief lull in the persecution and the Genevan church seized its window of opportunity.
The records of the Genevan church list 88 men by name who went as missionaries to France. However, it does not name every missionary. We know that in 1561 alone 142 missionaries left Geneva for France. But only twelve of these men are named in the records. That suggests that many hundreds of missionaries must have been commissioned during the final ten years of Calvin’s life.
Of the 88 missionaries whose names we know, 62 were French by birth. That means that the other 26 were cross-cultural missionaries in the fullest sense of the term.
The reason why so few of the missionaries were identified by name has to do with security. The French church was facing fierce opposition from the Catholic establishment. The missionary operation had to be carried out secretly.
If they were too open about things, they would be in danger. Some of the missionaries travelled under assumed names. They avoided roads and travelled by foot along mountain by-ways.
Missionary activity took the form of evangelism and church planting. The missionaries would gather a group in a home. Members of the group would invite their friends and relatives.
They would meet at night behind heavy curtains. If a home was not available, they would hold their meetings in barns, or even in the open air in some secluded spot, such as the middle of a wood. They identified escape routes and hiding places in case they were needed.
Calvin had himself experienced underground church life some years earlier. In 1535 he had fled from persecution in Paris and lived in Poitiers for a couple of years. While here, he conducted secret services in a cave outside the city and held secret evangelistic meetings in homes. No doubt, the memory of this period of his life served him well in planning the missionary venture twenty years later.
In spite of their carefulness, it was not always possible to avoid the attention of hostile parties. Often the authorities got wind of what was going on. Meetings were interrupted; congregations were dispersed. Several of the Genevan missionaries were caught and martyred; this applied to nine of the 88 whose names we know.
When sufficient people were converted, a church was constituted. In the four years from 1555 to 1559, nearly 100 churches were planted and constituted. By 1562, that number had risen to well over 2000.
One interesting result of the mission was the conversion of many members of the French aristocracy, including some relatives of the French royal family.
It has been estimated that, by 1562, half the French nobility were Calvinistic Christians. This was a bonus, because it meant that Protestant congregations could meet in relative safety on the estates of Christian landowners.
Calvin believed that the ministry of literature was vital for the spread of the true gospel. He placed great emphasis on the printing of tracts, pamphlets, books and Bibles. In fact, printing became the major industry in sixteenth-century Geneva.
There were at least 34 printing presses operating by 1563. Large paper mills and ink-making factories were built. More paper was bought in from elsewhere. A high proportion of Geneva’s population was employed in this industry – as printers, paper-manufacturers, ink-makers, editors, proof-readers and authors.
A commission on printing was set up. Its task was to make sure that everything published was doctrinally sound and to co-ordinate the work of the various printers to prevent unnecessary duplication. Nearly 40 publications appeared every year.
Calvin himself was very active in writing books against the errors of Catholicism. These works offered guidance to the young French church and made a large contribution to the success of the mission.
The southern French city of Lyon was a major trade centre. It was quite close to the Swiss border and to Geneva, the border city. Much literature was smuggled into France and then spread throughout the country via Lyon.
Calvin and his colleagues in Geneva clearly gave the missionary effort to France a remarkably high priority. Sometimes they were prepared to allow their own churches to go without pastors so that more men could go out as missionaries.
One thing that stands out from this story is Calvin’s definition of a missionary. He used the term exclusively of a man who was an ordained preacher of the gospel, who planted churches and then pastored the flock. Essentially, a missionary was no different from any other full-time minister; it was merely that he was sent to a place further afield.
In recent times, the word ‘missionary’ has become so diluted that almost any activity is construed as Christian mission. It is certainly the case that there are many forms of service which are valid expressions of Christian calling. However, Calvin was wise to retain the notion of mission for frontline evangelism and church planting.
Similarly, William Carey, another great missionary, distinguished between missionaries who were men ordained to preach the gospel, and those necessary companions of missionaries who attended to other needs on the field. We would do well today to restore this biblical distinction and emphasis.