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.
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.