Ready to Die for Souls

The Missionary Drive of the Reformers

Article by

Professor, Union University

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.

Joyful Cause

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. He described the difficulties of their evangelistic efforts, but said, “Since the Most High has given us this task, we expect this Edom to become a future possession of Christ.”3 Not only was this clearly a mission endeavor; the missionaries themselves persevered in a most difficult task buoyed by confidence in a sovereign God.

Churches on Mission

This account is not out of character for the churches of the Reformation. 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. As early as 1553, there is mention of a pastor being sent to a group of embattled Protestants in France. By 1557, the same year Richier and Chartier arrived in Brazil, the Register shows that the sending of missionary pastors formed a regular part of the work of the Genevan church. By 1562, religious wars in France made it too dangerous to record these activities, but by then the Register had already recorded 88 missionaries by name sent out since 1557, and other records indicate that many more were sent in those later years, including more than 100 in one year alone.

This was no accidental missionary fervor; it grew in these churches because Martin Luther, Calvin, and others taught their people to pray for the salvation of the nations, gave them songs to sing about missions, and regularly exhorted them in sermons toward evangelism.

Kingdom Prayers and Songs

In his brief work written to teach his people how to pray following the Lord’s Prayer, Luther provides an example of how one might pray from each petition. In each of the first three petitions, he explicitly prays for the conversion of unbelievers.4 Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in his Large Catechism also teaches that “your kingdom come” calls us to pray that the kingdom “may gain recognition and followers among other people and advance with power throughout the world.”5

Similarly, Calvin expounds Paul’s call to pray “for all people” (1 Timothy 2:1), exhorting his people to “call upon God and ask him to work toward the salvation of the whole world, and that we give ourselves to this work both night and day.”6 Indeed, throughout his series on 1 Timothy, preached in the year leading up to the mission to Brazil, Calvin regularly concluded the sermons with a prayer for the salvation of the nations.7

Luther’s hymns, which were a hallmark of his work and spread to other churches, also exhorted believers to take the gospel to the nations, and reflected on God’s desire for the “heathen” to come to faith.8

Laboring for Souls

Last, not only did these Reformers call for prayer for world mission, but they called for direct witness. Luther says, “One must always preach the gospel so that one may bring some more to become Christians.”9 Furthermore, “It would be insufferable for someone to associate with people and not reveal what is useful for the salvation of their souls.”10 Indeed, Luther says, “If the need were to arise, all of us should be ready to die in order to bring a soul to God.”11

Calvin taught, “If we have any kindness in us, seeing that we see men go to destruction until God has got them under his obedience: ought we not to be moved with pity to draw the silly souls out of hell and to bring them into the way of salvation?”12 He told pastors that God had made them ministers for the purpose of saving souls, and thus, God calls them to labor “mightily, and with greater zeal and earnestness” for the salvation of souls.13 Even when people reject the salvation offered to them, we continue to “devote” ourselves to this evangelistic work and “take pains” in calling people to faith so that they might “call as many to God as they can.” Indeed, “we must take pains to draw all the world to salvation.”14

In fact, Calvin strongly rebukes those who lack evangelistic concern:

So then let us mark first of all that all who care not whether they bring their neighbors to the way of salvation or not, and those who do not care to bring the poor unbelievers also, instead being willing to let them go to destruction, show plainly that they make no account of God’s honor. . . . And thus we see how cold we are and negligent to pray for those who have need and are this day in the way to death and damnation.15

It is no wonder that churches receiving this sort of instruction developed a heart for seeing the gospel go to the ends of the earth. Rather than disparaging these brothers and sisters who went before us, we should humbly look to them to learn from their zeal and perseverance.

  1. R. Pierce Beaver, “The Genevan Mission to Brazil,” in The Heritage of John Calvin, ed. John H. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 61. 

  2. Beaver, “Genevan Mission to Brazil,” 61. 

  3. Beaver, “Genevan Mission to Brazil,” 64. 

  4. Martin Luther, A Simple Way to Pray, trans. Matthew C. Harrison (St. Louis: Concordia, 2012). 

  5. Martin Luther, Larger Catechism, 2.51–54, in Theodore G. Tappert, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 427. 

  6. John Calvin, John Calvin’s Sermons on 1 Timothy, ed. Ray Van Neste and Brian Denker (Jackson, TN: CreateSpace, 2016), 1:156. 

  7. For more on Calvin’s evangelistic prayers, see Elsie McKee, “Calvin and Praying for ‘All People Who Dwell on Earth,’” Interpretation 63, no. 2 (2009): 130–40. 

  8. See especially Ingemar Öberg, Luther and World Mission: A Historical and Systematic Study with Special Reference to Luther’s Bible Exposition (St. Louis: Concordia, 2007). 

  9. Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Good Shepherd, 1523,” WA 12:540.3–15, cited in Martin Luther and Volker Stolle, The Church Comes from All Nations: Luther Texts on Mission (St. Louis: Concordia, 2003), 26. 

  10. Martin Luther, “Sermons on the First Books of Moses,” WA 24:261.26–262.11, cited in Luther and Stolle, The Church Comes from All Nations, 16. 

  11. Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says: An Anthology (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1959), 2,836. 

  12. John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, trans. Arthur Golding (London, 1583; facsimile repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 1,219. 

  13. Calvin, Sermons on 1 Timothy, 2:133. 

  14. Calvin, Sermons on 1 Timothy, 2:141. 

  15. Calvin, Sermons on 1 Timothy, 1:201. 

(PhD, University of Aberdeen) is Dean and Professor of Biblical Studies in the School of Theology and Missions at Union University. He and his family are members of First Baptist Church, Jackson, TN.