Great Commission

Missons During the Reformation

Post Icon

Throughout my life, I have been greatly encouraged by hearing the stories of missionary heroes who sacrificed their lives to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Men and women like Adoniram and Ann Judson, Lottie Moon, and William Carey have encouraged me in my walk with Jesus and have challenged me to live a life that seeks to fulfill the Great Commission. While these and so many others have served as an inspiration for me, as I have studied Church History, I have noticed a trend. Most, if not all, of my missionary heroes lived and served within the past 200 years.

Now there is certainly a reason for this. William Carey is known as the father of modern missions, and his efforts as both a missionary and a mobilizer led to the greatest period of missionary effort that the church has ever seen. But Carey did not exist in a vacuum, and his vision for taking the Gospel to the nations didn’t pop up out of nowhere. The legacy of Protestant missions extends back over 200 years to the very beginning of the Protestant Reformation. While missions isn’t the first thing that jumps to people’s minds when they think of the reformers, I think a couple of stories about two groups of missionaries in the Sixteenth Century can help us understand the missional aspect of the Reformation.

Genevan Mission to France

The first group I want to bring attention to are the many missionaries who were sent out from Switzerland to France in the second half of the Sixteenth Century. The first of these missionaries was a man named Claude Le Painctre. He fled persecution in France because he was a Protestant and arrived in Geneva in 1538, where he sought refuge for three years. However, he did not view his escape to Geneva merely as a means of securing his own safety. He spent his time preparing to return to France to share the gospel among his own countrymen. His return to France was short-lived, and after only a few months of ministering there, he was imprisoned for proclaiming that salvation came through faith alone. To silence him, his tongue was cut out, and he was burned alive on November 11, 1541.

Another group of young men who were trained nearby at the Academy of Lausanne would meet a similar fate just over ten years later. Like Le Painctre, this group of five men, Martial Alba, Bernard Seguin, Charles Faure, Pierre Navihères, and Pierre Escrivain, had escaped persecution in France and received training in Switzerland with the intention of returning to their homeland to proclaim the gospel. After spending some time in Geneva in 1552, they set out for France. Like Le Painctre, they too were imprisoned shortly after their ministry started and executed on May 15, 1553.

Over the next ten years, at least 85 men left Geneva to serve as missionaries in France. We don’t know the exact number because the Genevan Academy didn’t publish their names in order to protect their identities. Many of the missionaries whose names were published used aliases so they could avoid the suspicion of the French authorities. They held church services in secret and were forced to travel from town to town under the cover of darkness. On top of the risk of arrest, they faced constant danger from bandits as well as unreceptive locals. Despite these hardships, their work made such an impact that the king of France, Charles IX, sent a letter to Geneva demanding that they stop sending missionaries and call those who were on the field back home. But, the demand for pastors and missionaries in France continued, and Geneva continued to send them out.

Genevan Mission to Brazil

While most of the Genevan missionaries were sent to France during this time, two men, Pierre Richer and Guillaume Charretier, were sent far away from their homes to a land that had only recently been discovered by Europeans, Brazil. A French naval officer, Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon recruited these men, and led an expedition to Brazil with the dual purpose of sharing the gospel with the native population and establishing a colony where persecuted Protestants could find safety. Eleven other men and five women joined Richer and Chartier on this mission, including a young shoemaker named Jean de Lèry. Lèry wrote extensively about his journey and included vivid descriptions of the plants and animals alongside his experience with the native people, the Tupinamba. Some younger men who had spent time among the Tupinamba and learned their language helped translate for Lèry as he told stories from the Bible to prepare their hearts to receive the gospel. But sadly, he never got the chance to see their response.

Shortly after their arrival in Brazil, Villegagnon betrayed the missionaries and exiled Protestants from the colony after only eight months. Lèry later said of this betrayal, “I am of the opinion that if Villegagnon had not revolted from the Reformed Religion, and if we had stayed longer in that country, we would have drawn and won some of them to Jesus Christ.” [1] A boat arrived to return these exiles to France, but three men, Pierre Bourdon, Jean du Bordel, and Matthieu Verneuil, stayed behind in the hopes of continuing their missionary efforts. They were soon arrested and executed.

The Protestant missionary legacy stretches much farther, back to Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.

After reading these stories, I’m sure you’re wondering why I would choose examples of men whose lives were all tragically cut short. Why would I highlight these men whose missionary efforts, by all worldly standards, ended in complete failure. But I think that their willingness to proclaim the gospel amid incredibly dangerous circumstances, even at the cost of their lives is the exact reason their stories should be told. So many books have been written about the great missionary heroes of the past 200 years, and rightfully so. But the Protestant missionary legacy stretches much farther, back to Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. Over 200 years before Carey set sail for India, men like Claude Le Painctre, Pierre Bourdon, Jean du Bordel, and Matthieu Verneuil gave their lives for the sake of taking the gospel to the nations.


[1] Jean de Léry, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Otherwise Called America, trans. Janet Whatley (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 1990), 45.


  • Great Commission
  • Holiday
Drew Dickerson

Drew is originally from Arkansas and spent 6 years in church ministry there before coming to Southeastern to pursue a PhD. in Historical Theology. He has been married to his wife, Megan, for almost 17 years, and they have 4 children and 1 grumpy old spaniel. In Drew's free time, he enjoys reading missionary biographies and playing disc golf.

CGCS Newsletter Coming Soon!

Sign Up Now!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.