The churches in Wittenberg and Geneva trained pastors, and sent them out to preach the gospel all over Europe, crossing national borders and risking their lives. Geneva has been described as a vast mission hub: as refugees poured in from across Europe, they were trained and then sent back out to preach the gospel. The Genevan church kept a Register of the Company of Pastors, a sort of book of minutes, which catalogs the sending of missionaries to various places.
In March 1557, a group of Protestant French tradesmen landed on an island off the coast of Brazil, coming to be a part of a new French colony that needed more people, especially skilled workers. Along with this company were two Protestant ministers, Pierre Richier and Guillaume Chartier, who had been invited to teach the other Europeans and to evangelize the native people. This landing marked the first Protestant missionary enterprise to the New World.
Before long, however, the Catholic governor of the colony exiled the Protestant preachers to the mainland, and then eventually he forced them to return to France. Thus, while this missionary effort to the Americas did not last long and saw little fruit, it was the first Protestant attempt to brave the great difficulties involved in bringing the gospel to the people in these new lands.
What sort of church and what kind of leaders were behind such a daring and dangerous undertaking? What was the soil from which this great, historic endeavor emerged? Contrary to some contemporary expectations, this missionary enterprise arose from the church in Geneva under the leadership of John Calvin.
Though this episode (and others like it) are well-known and discussed in academic circles, the general public commonly assumes, and missions textbooks confidently assert, that the Protestant Reformers lacked zeal or urgency for world missions. Some assume that the Reformers’ high view of God’s sovereignty undercut missions concern; others, more sympathetically, state that the press of survival and rebuilding the church kept them from being able to concentrate on missions. Yet the church in Geneva supplied the first Protestant missionaries to the New World.
The effort did not have much success. We cannot judge such work by the success we see, however, but by the willingness to obey. And this was dangerous obedience — traveling to an unknown world, all while risking health, stability, and even life in interaction with Catholic authorities, unknown diseases and animals, and potentially hostile natives. Still they went.
Some have sought to downplay this effort, suggesting it merely supported commercial activity or provided religious services for the French settlers. However, we have a firsthand account of the Genevan church’s actions in the personal journal of Jean de Léry, a member of the church in Geneva.
According to de Léry, the Genevan church was asked to provide preachers and other people “well-instructed in the Christian religion” so that they might teach the other Europeans and “bring savages to the knowledge of their salvation.”1 The missionary element of the endeavor is crystal clear. Furthermore, the response of the church to this request is striking. De Léry records, “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.”2 Not only was evangelistic outreach a part of the original plan, but it was also a prospect that brought great joy to the church!
During the mission, one of the missionaries sent a letter to Calvin.