John Calvin’s Missionary Zealotry
An often repeated objection by the opponents of Calvinistic theology is that Calvinism will kill evangelistic and missionary endeavors. It’s believed by these objectors that if Christians believe everyone’s salvation has been determined from eternity past then there is really no need to evangelize because God will do it all at His own time. Such a claim is absurd and reveals an ignorance of Church history, let alone what historic Calvinism has taught on evangelism.
What most do not know, including many Calvinists, is that John Calvin himself was an indefatigable supporter of missionary efforts. Historian Rodney Starke writes, “Frankly, I can’t understand why Calvin’s remarkable career running missionary-agents has been so completely ignored by historians… But virtually no trace of this aspect of Calvin’s career or of its immense impact on the success of Reformed Protestantism can be found in the standard works.” Starke highlights an Encyclopaedia Britannica article by Robert M. Kingdon who writes a few paragraphs on the subject. I thought Starke’s sketch of Calvin’s missionary support was worth copying for others to read.
It is well known that, following in the wake of Lutheranism, Calvinism soon became the primary basis for popular conversions to Protestantism. In many places Lutheranism was from the early days a “state church,” in that it was adopted by kings and princes as the new, official faith with little regard for what the “people” may have preferred. It was Calvin’s “Reformed” brand of Protestantism that rapidly gained several million individual French, Dutch, and German adherents, and a significant number in Italy as well. These converts were not produced by royal edict but were the direct result of personal enthusiasm, usually in defiance of the state.
A great deal of learned and sophisticated attention has been devoted to the particular theological basis for the greater popular appeal of Calvinism. But even though Calvin was a profound theologian and an exceptionally clear writer, it is unlikely that the theological appeal attributed to his work could explain the conversion of more than one in a hundred of those who became Calvinists. … [T]o transform favorable sentiments into activities requires face-to-face recruitment. That’s how Calvinism really outdid Lutheranism. Not by effective theology, but by more effective action- by creating huge underground religious networks of individual converts who brought in their friends, relatives, and neighbors, under the guidance of professional, missionary secret agents.
It was during his visit to Poitiers that Calvin got his first experience with secret evangelism. Not only did he proselytize in homes, but he held secret services in “a spacious cave near the city.” Once reestablished in Geneva, Calvin recognized that he had access to large numbers of men well suited to serve as secret Protestant missionaries behind Catholic lines. They abounded in the constant stream of Protestant refugees (including Calvin) who arrived in Geneva and other Swiss cities from Catholic-controlled territories, especially from France and the Low Countries. … What Calvin did was to select talented and reliable refugees, ordain them and train them not only theologically but also in what modern intelligence agencies call “tradecraft,” and send them home to build the Calvinist movement. Responsibility for this operation was vested in the Geneva Company of Pastors. …
In addition, the training of agents stressed efforts to win the nobility to their cause, and many of the noble refugees were convinced to return home as convert supporters- it is estimated that 50 percent of French nobles were Calvinists by the time the first French War of Religion broke out in 1562. Of course, since these “subversive” nobles were not trained or directed by the Company, they were not named in its official records, so their number will never be known. Nor do we know how many unordained refugees also went back to their country of origin on their own to missionize. We do know that as religious conflict in France came to a head, during 1561 and 1562, nearly every Calvinist leader in Geneva made at least one surreptitious trip into France.
In any event, despite the records maintained by the Company, it is nearly impossible to know how many missionary-agents Calvin sent out. … The best that can be said, then, is that “hundreds” of ordained missionary-agents were sent forth, in addition to the many lay missionaries and nobles. It is important to realize that the primary role of these agents from Geneva was to recruit local missionaries whose task was to inspire their flocks to convert others, thus constructing a kind of pyramid club of conversion.
Owen Chadwick has offered a specific example of how rapidly these pyramids could grow. In 1559 several citizens from the small town of Castres in the Languedoc went to Geneva to buy Bibles and other religious books. While there they asked to be sent a pastor. In April 1560 Geoffrey Brun arrived in Castres and began holding secret services in a private home. The congregation grew so quickly that after six months Brun returned to Geneva to get an assistant. By February 1561 the assistant was holding separate services in another home. The magistrates ordered him to desist. But after several sessions with Brun, the magistrates joined the congregation. “The flock was now too big to meet in private houses, and so they took over public buildings and released Protestant prisoners by force. Henceforth the town was a Huguenot town.”
To assist the Calvinist conversion efforts, printers proliferated, and printing soon became the major industry in Geneva. The presses ran day and night, producing a flood of tracts and pamphlets, as well as books and vulgate Bibles. The city also sustained large paper mills and ink-making plants. … Most of this immense flood of Calvinist publications was sold abroad, making a substantial contribution to the spread of Protestantism. Of course, since most of this material was banned in Catholic-controlled areas, the distribution pipeline operated surreptitiously; some shipments were confiscated, but most went through. [For the Glory of God: How Monotheism led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery, pg. 95, 96, 97, 98].