It has often been claimed that the Protestant Reformation did not stimulate missions and that the Reformers had no missionary vision. One Italian Jesuit, Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), claimed that the Protestant Church lacked evangelistic zeal which, he said, is a key characteristic of the true Church.

Bellarmine may be forgiven for this claim, judging it by Martin Luther’s teaching on the subject, for Luther believed that the Great Commission was fulfilled at the time of the Apostles. It is true also that there was little missionary activity among the Reformers, but to say that there was no missionary vision is a misrepresentation of the Reformed Movement and of many of the Reformers.

According to missionary writer, Ruth Tucker, Calvin was “at least outwardly, the most missionary-minded of all the reformers” (Zondervan, 2004; 97). In the preface to the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin states; “God the Father has appointed Christ to rule from sea to sea and from the rivers, even to the ends of the earth.” He said also, preaching on Acts 2,  that the gospel was “to reach all the ends and extremities of the world.”  Calvin, and the church at Geneva, also encouraged a missionary enterprise in Brazil in 1557.

William Barker, one-time Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) points out that this missionary stimulus extended to the Westminster Divines, among them, John White (1574-1648), Thomas Hill (1602-1652), and Thomas Hooker (1586-1847) who later influenced John Eliot (1404-1690), the famous missionary to the First Nations in New England. (See Barker’s essay in Word to the World, Mentor; 2005)

So, if there was a missionary vision in the Reformation Movement, why do we not read of more missionary activity during the Reformation period? David J. Bosch in Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis Books, 1991), identifies five reasons.

  1. The Reformers saw their principal task to reform the church of their times.

  2. The Reformation, mainly developed in landlocked countries like Switzerland and Germany and there was no direct contact with the un-Christian people groups. Spain and Portugal, both Roman Catholic countries, had colonial empires, but the Reformers had no access to these.

  3. The churches during the Reformation period were involved in a battle for survival.

  4. The Reformers abandoned monasteries which were, not only centers of education but the backbone of the Roman Catholic missionary movement.

  5. The strength of Protestantism was greatly reduced by internal dissensions and disputes.