John Calvin, a Sixteenth Century leader of the Protestant Reformation, is a well-known theologian. Calvin is well known for his teaching on divine election, the idea that God sovereignty chooses who will have faith in Christ. In many churches, Calvin is an arch villain who tried to stop evangelism. After all, if God chooses, why should we witness?
That is John Calvin as many know him: the stern teacher of election. But what they probably do not know is that Calvin was the leader of one of the largest, most successful church-planting movements in history.
Calvin became a Protestant in 1531 at age 22. He soon left his native Paris, France, because of persecution. Most of Calvin’s work was performed in his new home of Geneva, Switzerland.
Calvin and The City Council of Geneva had many conflicts. At one point, Calvin was even run out of town. He was asked to return, and after a few years most of his reforms were accepted by The City Council in about 1554.
Protestants from all over Europe fled Roman Catholic persecution. Many came to Geneva, including refugees from Calvin’s native France. Calvin and his leadership team saw an opportunity.
Calvin and his team carefully selected men from among the refugees. Each of these men was given a comprehensive theological education. The men were also closely watched to ensure they lived up to the faith they professed.
Calvin’s team had started 5 organized churches in France by 1555 using this strategy. Less than four years later, they had begun over 100 churches. By 1562, there were over 2,100 Protestant churches in France. Ultimately over 100 missionaries were sent.
Most think of the “Mega-church” (churches with large numbers of members) as a modern development, but some of Geneva’s new churches grew to over 4,000 members. One even had close to 9,000.
Calvin’s Geneva even sent two missionaries to what is now Brazil. However, they were martyred before they saw their first convert. Persecution was a fact of life for many of Geneva’s missionaries.
Odds are you have never heard of this side of John Calvin. But he was an evangelist. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
How does this fit with Calvin’s theology? Quite well, actually. I learned as much when I read Calvin’s books for myself.
All Christians, no matter what their views on election, should join Calvin in one of the prayers he often said: “Now let us fall down before the face of our good God, praying that He would be pleased to touch us with repentance…that He would be pleased to touch not only us but all the nations of the earth.” We can figure out all the details later.
“John Calvin the Church Planter” by Dr. Frank James III
“John Calvin and his Missionary Enterprise” by Erroll Hulse
George, Timothy. “John Calvin: Comeback Kid.” Christianity Today. September 2009, Volume 53, Number 5. p. 27-32.