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Introduction to a new series of publications
on Reformed Mission History
by Reformation Media & Press

Reformed Mission History -- Seal of Massachusetts Colony

This is the seal of the Massachusetts (or Salem) Colony.  Seal translation:  Seal of the Governor and Colony of the Massachusetts Bay in New England.  (Nehemiah Adams, The Life of John Elliot:  with an Account of the Early Missionary Efforts among the Indians of New England [Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, Boston, 1847 p.6])

 

Books in this series

First publication

For the Cause of the Son of GodThe Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession by Dr. Wesley L. Bredenhof.  ISBN 9 780977 344253
Now available in print & PDF Ebook versions
Click here for more information.

Second publication

The Reformed Church and its Mission in Dutch Brazil (1630-1654) by Dr. Frans L. Schalkwijk.  (Expected late 2011)

Third publication

Mission in Chains -- The life, theology and ministry of the ex-slave Jacobus E. J. Capitein (1717-1747) with a translation of his major publications (including a defense of slavery) by Dr. David Nii Anum Kpobi.  (Expected early 2012.)

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Series Preface
to Reformed Mission History Series
of publications by Reformation Media & Press

 

The impression is often given that strong support for the missionary cause has never really come from those who hold to Reformed convictions.  Writers such as Kenneth Scott Latourette and Stephen Neill have minimized or neglected the contributions of Reformed figures in the history of Christian mission.  Sometimes explanations are offered as to why the Reformation produced no missionary fervour.  These explanations range from the theological (“Calvinism kills missionary motivation”) to the political (“Their governments would have prevented them from being engaged in missionary endeavours”).  Our contention is that these explanations are at least unnecessary because the phenomenon itself does not exist.  It is simply not true that the Reformation had nothing or little to do with mission.[1] Neither is it true that the descendants of the Reformation cared little or nothing about missionary outreach.

 

This volume is one of a series of mission histories and biographies entitled “Reformed Mission History.”  This series will demonstrate that the Reformation was a missionary movement.  We endeavour to put to rest the notion that the Reformation and its heirs disregarded those who are lost, whether at home or abroad.  We want to show how there was a missionary emphasis from the beginning of the Reformation.  This emphasis was found with its leaders and their actions and writings, and especially in the Reformed (including Presbyterian and other) confessions.  Our focus in this series is on what is commonly called the “Calvinistic side” of the Reformation.

 

But long before Calvin was born, the seeds were being sown.  Genuinely Christian missionary efforts were undertaken and bore fruit.  For long centuries Europe lay under medieval spiritual darkness.  While Christian in name, the vast majority had been deprived of the gospel and the Christ who saves.  Around 1400, John Wycliffe’s ‘poor preachers’ were missionaries to England and lowland Scotland.  The followers of John Huss (1372-1415) and Jerome of Prague (1370-1416) performed the same work in central Europe, often paying the price with their blood.  These “morning stars of the Reformation” already saw their work in missionary terms.  With the appearance of Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Farel, Calvin, and others, the true gospel began going out with increased vigour to the nations of Europe.

 

John Calvin’s relationship to mission has received some attention in the last century or so.[2] Despite the claims of some, Calvin insisted that the church has an abiding call to bring the gospel to the nations.[3]  In his extant congregational prayers, one can hear Calvin praying for the gospel to go out to those who are lost.[4]  One of the key things to recognize about Calvin’s theology of mission is that he sees the objects of mission in broader terms than many would today.  This was true of all sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed believers.  For Calvin, Europe under the sway of Roman Catholicism was essentially pagan, or at least sub-Christian.  From his standpoint, the lost were certainly in far-off lands overseas.  However, they were also close to home, wherever people still consistently held to Roman Catholic beliefs and practices.  This led Fred Klooster to comment some years ago that the Reformation “deserves to be called one of the greatest home missionary projects in all history.”[5]  The comment is anachronistic insofar as the Reformers themselves made no distinction between local evangelism and foreign mission.  Calvin and other Reformers saw all gospel outreach as mission, whether local or otherwise, whether within a culture or cross-cultural.

 

That leads us to note that Calvin was not only a theorizer or theologian of mission, he was also a man of action.  The Genevan academy under his leadership was recognized as a missionary training center.  The missionaries in training there were mostly being equipped for ministry in Roman Catholic Europe.  During Calvin’s lifetime, at his direction, and having received his instruction, literally hundreds of men were sent out from Geneva to preach the biblical gospel to the lost and confused.

Furthermore, Calvin also had an eye for the lost abroad.  In 1556, the Genevan church sent out two missionaries with a group of French Huguenots hoping to start a colony in Brazil.[6] Arriving in March of 1557, they began working among the Tupinambas, an indigenous people.  Unfortunately, this work was sabotaged when the leader of the colony apostatized back to Roman Catholicism.  Three of the Huguenots were martyred for their faith, not by the Tupinambas, but by their fellow Frenchmen.  It was a tragic outcome, but the entire event testifies that Reformed churches of the sixteenth century were concerned about what many today would call foreign mission.

 

Much more could be said about the first generations of Reformers.  For instance, there were the successful efforts of William Farel and Anthony Saucier to bring the Waldensian movement into greater conformity with the biblical gospel.[7]  Martin Bucer has been described as a “father of Reformed mission.”[8]  His writings are full of evidence of missionary fervour.  Guido (or Guy) de Brčs is another figure to whom we could draw your attention.  The author of the Belgic Confession never went overseas to Brazil or any non-European nation, yet he regarded his work as missionary nonetheless.  The Roman Catholics among whom he was evangelizing were not distant brothers in the Lord, but those who were lost in darkness and apart from Jesus Christ.  In fact, the Belgic Confession may be considered as a missionary witness to a lost world.[9]

 

While this emphasis was present with the first two generations of Reformers, it only grew stronger with the coming generations.  The first Protestant with a detailed theology of mission was Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676).  Voetius taught at Utrecht in the Netherlands and was zealous for the missionary cause at home and overseas.[10]  In Voetius’ day, the Reformed Church in the Netherlands was actively involved in missionary work in present-day Indonesia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Brazil, and the north-eastern United States.[11]  Later on, missionary work was also undertaken in present-day South Africa.  The church sent out ministers to these places with the dual task of pastoring colonialists and discipling native peoples.  This all took place in the context of cooperative arrangements between the Reformed church and the Dutch East and West India Companies.  While the arrangement was less than ideal, it does reflect an ongoing missionary consciousness amongst Reformed believers in the seventeenth century.

This was not only taking place on the European continent.  Those with Reformed convictions in the British isles were also reflecting on Christian mission and participating in it.  Already in 1560, the Scots Confession evidenced missionary awareness when it bore on its title page the words of Christ in Matthew 24:14, “And this glad tidings of the Kingdom shall be preached through the whole world for a witness to all nations; and then shall the end come.”  With the advent of the Reformation, the church in Scotland dedicated its energies to the great task of evangelizing the northern reaches of Britain.[12]  This was the church taking its missionary calling seriously.

 

The seventeenth century saw further developments in the British isles and their colonies.  The classic work in this regard is still Sidney Rooy’s The Theology of Missions in the Puritan Tradition.[13]  Rooy researched some English Puritans and concluded that mission theology and practice was alive and well in this period.  Richard Sibbes, for instance, stressed the communicative nature of faith, recapitulating an emphasis from the sixteenth-century Reformation.  Richard Baxter was more practically oriented in his development of mission principles, especially in his discussions of the role of the church.  John Eliot famously put mission principles into practice in his labours among the native inhabitants of New England.  Cotton Mather stressed how the missionary cause could be furthered through printed literature.  And then there was Jonathan Edwards.  He too not only wrote about mission theology, but also served as a missionary in colonial New England.  These were but representative figures – not the exception, but the norm.  Rooy’s study is important for it reveals that Puritan Calvinism, growing out of the Reformation, held to a “theology of redemption for the world.”[14]  This theology went on to bear fruit at home and overseas and laid the foundations upon which others, such as Zinzendorf and Carey later built.

A moment ago we mentioned the cooperative arrangement between the Dutch Reformed Church and the trade companies.  The Church of England sought a similar arrangement with the British West and East India Companies.[15]  However, due to concerns over the stability of economic opportunities, the Companies were reluctant.  Where missionary work was permitted, it was only under stringent restrictions.  Nevertheless, oftentimes dedicated chaplains and ministers accompanying colonists worked “under the radar” to reach out to local indigenous communities.  It took until the nineteenth century for allowances to be made for legal outreach in places like India.

 

We might also mention the early history of the colonies in what is today the United States.  The Mayflower Compact stated the purpose of the new colony being established.  It was to be “for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith.”  The advancement of the faith was why men like John Eliot came to the new world and established mission efforts among indigenous Americans.  The original seal of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay portrayed a Native American with these words proceeding from his mouth, “Come over and help us.”  This reveals that the colony regarded themselves as foreign missionaries to North America.

This was also the case with their brethren in the Plymouth Colony, who had arrived eight years previous.  Before they had departed from the Netherlands, Governor Bradford had spoken of their motivations.  Among them were: “From an inward zeal and great hope of laying some foundation or making way for propagating the kingdom of Christ to the remote ends of the earth, though they should be but as stepping stones to others.”[16]

Many others could be mentioned.  Basically, by the time William Carey arrived on the scene, Reformed, Presbyterian, and Congregational Calvinistic churches had already been serious about mission since the Reformation.  Not only was there missionary action, there had also been serious missiological reflection.  To be sure, there were inconsistencies and there were lulls, but no one who has done meaningful research can claim that Protestant missions effectively began with Carey, or perhaps slightly earlier, the Moravian Zinzendorf.  We do not deny that Carey’s work introduced a new era in the history of mission.  His context was characteristically lackadaisical when it came to mission.  Yet this was not because of any inherent defect in Protestantism, nor because of the Calvinistic convictions held by Carey or others.

Our goal in this series is to revive interest in the great history of Reformed mission.  We aim to bring God glory with what he has done through great men and events of the past.  Moreover, we endeavour to demonstrate that orthodox Reformed convictions are not merely compatible with missionary zeal; in fact, such convictions inevitably must result in such zeal.  In fact, the evidence demonstrates that William Carey and others caught the age-old biblical vision from their Reformed forebears and heard the call to mission and the rest, as they say, is history.  Those gripped by the doctrines of grace and the beauty of the gospel as best expressed in Reformed theology, cannot but be passionate about bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to those yet in darkness.

Dr. Wesley Bredenhof, Dr. Stephen Westcott & Rev. Geoffrey Donnan

  


[1] We use the singular "mission" advisedly since there is one mission given by Jesus Christ to the church in such passages as Matthew 28:18-20.  However, we do recognize a justifiable common parlance in which churches and missionaries speak about their mission in several ways:  1) their particular work of missions as a more specific application of the overall mission given to the church by Jesus Christ, and 2) the organizational structure under whose auspices they do their work, be it under a church committee or some “para-church” organization which oversees or supervises their work.  In that manner of speaking one could speak of "missions" in the plural.

[2] See “John Calvin and Missions,” Wes Bredenhof, Christian Renewal 27:11 (February 25, 2009), 24-27; “Calvijn en de Zending,” J. VanderLinden, De Reformatie 17:46 (August 13, 1937), 376-377;  “The Missionary Dynamic in the Theology of John Calvin,” Charles Chaney, The Reformed Review 17.3 (March, 1964), 24-38; “The Reformers and Missions,” S.H. Rooy, in Signposts of God’s Liberating Kingdom:  Perspectives for the 21st Century (Vol.2) (Potchefstroom:  Potchefstroomse Universiteit vir Christelike Hoër Onderwys, 1998), 187-224; “Calvin’s Evangelism,” Joel Beeke, Mid-America Journal of Theology 15 (2004), 67-86; “John Calvin in Mission Literature,” James DeJong, Pro Rege 4.1 (September 1975), 6-17.

[3] See Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 383-384; Commentary on Isaiah, John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 402-403.

[4] Tracts and Treatises Vol. 2:  The Doctrine and Worship of the Church, John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 102.

[5] “Missions – the Heidelberg Catechism and Calvin,” Fred H. Klooster, Calvin Theological Journal 7.2 (November 1972), 187.

[6] For fuller accounts, see Beeke, op.cit., 79-82 and Fulfil Your Ministry, K. Deddens (Winnipeg: Premier, 1990), 158-160

[7] You Are My Witnesses—The Waldensians across 800 years, Giorgio Tourn et al. (Torino: Claudiana Editrice, 1989), 69-73.

[8] Reformatie en zending, Bucer en Walaeus: vaders van reformatorische zending, L. J. Joosse (Goes: Oosterbaan & Le Cointre B.V., 1988).

[9] For the Cause of the Son of God: the Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession, Wes Bredenhof (Fellsmere: Reformation Media and Press, 2011).

[10] See “The Missiology of Gisbertus Voetius: the First Comprehensive Protestant Theology of Missions,” Jan Jongeneel, Calvin Theological Journal 26:1 (April 1991): 47-79; De zendingsleer van Gisbertus Voetius, H. A. Van Andel (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1912). 

[11] On Brazil, see The Reformed Church and her Mission in Dutch Brazil (1630-1654), Frans Schalkwijk (Fellsmere: Reformation Media and Press, 2011); also see Mission in Chains, David Kpobi (Fellsmere: Reformation Media and Press, 2011). 

[12] The Missionary Ideal in the Scottish Churches, D. Mackichan (London: Hodder and Stoughton Publishers, 1927), 64-65.

[13] The Theology of Missions in the Puritan Tradition: A Study of Representative Puritans: Richard Sibbes, Richard Baxter, John Eliot, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards, Sidney H. Rooy (Delft: W.D. Meinema, 1965).

[14] The Theology of Missions, 11. 

[15] Robert Boyle (1627-1691), a Protestant Irishman, was perhaps one of the leading lights under some influence from the Puritans.   He was one of the directors of the British East India Company.  Desiring to spread Christianity throughout the East, he made large donations made from his estate (acquired during Cromwell’s conquest in the Irish war (1649-1653) for the establishment of many missionary societies.

[16] The Life of John Eliot: with an Account of the Early Missionary Efforts among the Indians of New England, Nehemiah Adams (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), 6-9.

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