Calvin's Life: The French Missionaries

A great blind spot which afflicts anyone who limits their reading of Calvin to The Institutes is how thoroughly engrossed the Reformer was in missions work across Europe.

Calvin was no austere academic always at his desk with his nose in a book. Rather, we could say, he spent much time at the window of the world, looking toward Poland, Hungary, Netherlands, Spain, Scotland and England, even Brazil, assessing opportunities for reformation in these great lands and drafting letters of encouragement, exhortation and pastoral instruction.

Of course, no country held Calvin’s attention like his homeland, France. As one Calvin scholar said: “Geneva’s main export was ministers, principally heading for France.”

After a three-year exile in Strasbourg, learning alongside Bucer, Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541. The city was filling with Protestant refugees seeking relief from persecutions under King Frances I. Geneva would double in size throughout the 1550’s, peaking at 21,000 souls by 1560. A world of reforming men who would soon become reformed missionaries were arriving at Calvin’s doorstep.

In 1553, Calvin sent his first missionary to France. There was no arm twisting by Calvin. The scriptures would do it, taking not so much the arm but the heart. Geneva flowed with the pure milk of the Word. Good preaching could be heard every day in Geneva’s pulpits. Through this Word God reached out and took his servants captive. Calvin then schooled them in theology, moral character and preaching before sending them to cities he knew well.

The details of exactly how many missionaries Calvin sent into France is somewhat disputed. The Register of the Company of Pastors, a register of ministerial activities in Geneva from 1541 to 1564 shows 88 men being sent over a seven-year period.  However, the Register does not include all the names for many were omitted out of safety concerns.

Looking at other lists, Robert Kingdon found more than 151 missionaries being sent in the year 1561 alone. It has thus been estimated, wrote Kingdon, that 2,150 congregations had been established in France by 1562, with around three-million members.

In a personal letter to Heinrich Bullinger (Oct. 1, 1560), Calvin himself wrote: “In Normandy our brethren are preaching in public, because no private house is capable of containing an audience of three or four thousand persons. There is greater liberty in Poitou, Saintonge, and the whole of Gascony.”

It was a staggering enterprise.

As mentioned earlier, Calvin wrote many letters to the missionaries, thousands. They reveal a Calvin constantly engaged in reading correspondence and returning his own. He wrote to pastors and individuals, addressing matters of doctrine, practice, or sin. His letters also include some of the most beautiful and bold encouragements to suffer for Christ, if need be unto death. Calvin’s pastor’s heart and wisdom shine through.

In writing the saints at Poitou (June, 1554), Calvin aids a nascent congregation meeting in secret without a minister. He instructs them on the question of participating in the Lord’s Supper. Instead of urging them to get to it, Calvin calls them to wait until they have pastor. In this way, he says, they can build on a solid foundation, “for it is better to abstain for a short time from what is good and profitable than to profane holy things by levity.”

Writing to this same congregation months later, Calvin emboldens them to keep meeting together even though it is dangerous. After stating his knowledge of their dangers and the importance of meeting in secret, Calvin says: “Even when the dangers are apparent, we must not, for all that, from excess of timidity withdraw from the fold. In fact, we see what awaits those who stray from it, how they gradually wax more and more indifferent, till they lose relish for all spiritual good….”

Calvin sent a pastor to this flock in May, 1555.

In a letter to the beleaguered church in Paris, Calvin again addresses the temptation not to meet because of threats. He applies the counter-intuitive truth of the kingdom, saying there is “no better remedy to your frailty than mutual exhortation and encouragement.” He then makes a beautiful and bold admonishment: “We should do God this honor, to make more account of his protection than of all the devices of Satan and his followers.”

Calvin, like the apostle Paul, lived with “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). This was from the Lord, a seed of compulsion sown into the heart of God’s servant. May God’s ministers today be afflicted by such a holy anxiety for the propagation of the gospel.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley