Contributions made by the Reformed Church are inconsistently portrayed in missions history. Historical researches on Reformed accomplishments concerning missions are either sparsely available or non-existent before the 1800s. Instead, there is a time gap between the Protestant Reformation to the arrival of the Moravians and the German Pietists from the University of Halle. This is gravely unfortunate. It leaves out a wealth of missional works accomplished by missionaries and prominent theologians in the Reformed tradition.
There may be a couple of reasons why missions history books have avoided the Reformed Church, especially, the Dutch. Firstly, it may be a language problem; most of the original sources during this period would have been in Latin, French, or Dutch. Secondly, it may be a historiographical problem. Transatlantic histories dominate overseas studies. For example, the work of the Moravians is better known particularly because of their impact on John Wesley (1703-91), the co-founder of Methodism, and their work among natives and slaves in the Americas is well-established. Currently, the trend is changing as early modern European scholars are venturing into the non-trans-atlantic world. Present research indicates that historians are expanding and aiming to meet the globalizing needs of historical inquiry including diaspora studies and emotional history.
The purpose of this paper is to recover the importance of Reformed missions by highlighting important events and people. The first section will discuss briefly John Calvin (1509-64) and his missionary work in Geneva. The second section will reveal Protestant and Reformed firsts made by the Dutch Reformed Church (est. 1555). The third section will present missiological works by theologians at Utrecht University as an example of the continual work of the Reformed Church in missions before the 1800s.
PROTESTANT FIRSTS BY CALVIN
The Reformed Church’s missionary enterprises began in earnest with John Calvin. Although his magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), lacks a section on missions, it very well established that he was missional, demonstrated by (1) his Genevan Academy (est. 1559), (2) foreign churches in Geneva, and (3) Huguenot missional enterprises overseas.
The Genevan Academy best represents Calvin’s missional heart. Karin Maag, in her published doctoral work, states that “The Academy’s creation reflected the Genevan ministers’ initial missionary goal. In so far as the training of future ministers was its aim, the Academy succeeded.” Herman Selderhuis notes that missionaries were examined with “intense scrutiny before sending them on their various missions to France.” Examinations included preaching, doctrinal knowledge, and moral character. What is more, missionaries would have been prepped for danger. Selderhuis explains their perilous travels:
During the early years and certainly prior to the 1560s, many of these men journeyed under great secrecy from Geneva to their new congregations in France. They often assumed false names, carried forged identity papers, or otherwise disguised themselves…[they] habitually found themselves in considerable danger.
He further notes that these missionaries, though few in number, were widely successful, and were crucial to the organization of the Reformed churches in France.
By hiring top professors, Calvin ensured that the Genevan Academy was international. There were students coming from all over Europe to study there. Jeannine E. Olson is one of many Calvinist scholars who state that Geneva had become the “educational center of the Reformed movement.” Maag lists students coming from Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, other Swiss states, Italy, and France.
Geneva was also a center for refugees. Heiko Oberman’s postmortem publication, John Calvin and the Reformation of the Refugees (2009), shows the important role that Calvin played as refugees moved in and out of Geneva. Upon repatriation, Protestants were able to take the Reformed religion back to the native country (e.g. Marian exiles who returned to England) which helped the Reformed Church find international success.
In addition to training missionaries and sheltering refugees, the first Protestant missionaries to travel across the Atlantic Ocean were Huguenots. Admiral Gaspard II de Coligny (1519-72) was one of the highest ranked military leaders in France and part of the French Reformed Church. He is best known as the most important Protestant military leader during the French Religious Wars (1562-98) until his assassination. Through his political standing, he was able to organize two overseas Huguenot colonization efforts: first to Brazil (1557) and then also to Florida (1562). The pastors sent on the trans-atlantic voyages would have received permission to act as ministers and missionaries from the French Reformed Church which Calvin kept close tabs on. Unfortunately, both ventures ended disastrously at the hands of murderous Roman Catholics: in Brazil betrayed by their own leader and by the Portuguese; and in Florida by the Spanish.
In addition to the above missionary activities, Calvin wrote to missionaries, encouraged them, and through them planted countless Reformed churches outside Geneva. After Calvin, his missional efforts and heart were continued not so much by his successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza (1519-1605), but by other Reformed churches in England and in the Netherlands.
PROTESTANT FIRSTS BY THE DUTCH
The early modern Dutch missionary work is difficult to find in the English language which explains why there is a dearth of information about them. Their achievements can be gathered from other historical overseas works such as slaves and trade. One missions historian that covers their impact is Samuel Moffett through his seminal work, A History of Christianity in Asia (2 vols, 2005). Moffett demonstrates the importance of the Dutch in Asia. In short, the Dutch achieved many Protestant firsts.
As early as 1590, a Dutch Reformed pastor and professor in Leiden, Adrianus Saravia (c. 1532-1613), argued that the church had a responsibility to accomplish missionary work. He spoke against the prevailing idea that the Apostolic Church completed the Great Commission: it would have been impossible for the apostles and their disciples. Those who dissented included Beza who argued against Saravia. Although Saravia’s influence was minimal, it demonstrated that if any Reformed church should move forward with the Great Commission, it would be the Dutch rather than Genevans.
According to Moffet, the year of 1599 can arguably mark the beginning of Protestant missions when the Dutch church gave exhortations to overseas traders to spread the gospel. In the following century, the Dutch achieved many Protestant firsts. They produced the first Protestant translation of a book of the Bible into a non-European language. The person who translated first, however, is questionable. Some sources state that in 1602 or 1612, John van Hasel translated the book of Matthew into Malay. He was not a theologian but a director of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) which was established in 1602. Others, such as Hans J. Hildebrand, state that the first translator was Albert Cornelius Ruyl, who was also a businessman. According to David Bellos, an academic translator and professor, Ruyl was the first Protestant to utilize the principle of cultural substitution when he switched the word “fig” for “banana” in Jesus’ parables. He was the first Protestant to publish a non-European translation of the Bible: the gospel of Matthew in Malay (1629)
According to John Prior, the Protestant church was born in Asia in 1605 when the Dutch arrived in Ambon (Amboina) and established a trading center there. The first minister dispatched by the Dutch church to Asia was Casper Wilten, who arrived in Ambon in 1614. He was also the first minister to translate the Psalms into Malay. By 1625, Ambon had a consistory with two elders and two deacons.
In Europe, Arabic studies had existed centuries before the Protestant Reformation because of the ongoing conflicts on the Iberian Peninsula mostly in the southwest coasts above North Africa, and from the east, through Turkey. However, among the Reformed, Leiden University created the first permanent professor of Arabic in 1613 with the appointment of Thomas Erpenius (1584-1624). Although the universities at Utrecht and Amsterdam taught Arabic, they were not consistent in offering it.
Protestant missions work outside of Europe had challenges early on. The Synod of Dordt (1618-19), best known for undermining Arminianism and championing mainstream Calvinism, was one of the first, if not the first important international Reformed gatherings that discussed ecclesiastical issues found overseas. Adriaan Jacobz Hulzebo (died c. 1622) was a minister in Jakarta and presented a dilemma: should children born to non-believing parents be baptized? This question was more complicated than it appears. The reality was that some children were taken as slaves while others were fully adopted by Dutch families. According to Michael Lambert, an agreement was not reached but rather “various opinions on pagan baptisms were collected in a document entitled De Ethnicorum Pueris Baptizandis (On whether the children of pagans should be baptized).” The synod agreed that children should be catechized, and older children can be baptized upon their profession of faith. However, the baptismal fate of young children below the age of consent was not solved. The delegates from England, parts of the Low Countries, and Dutch theologians favored baptism. They used the Abrahamic sign of circumcision as their biblical example as Abraham’s children and slaves were circumcised. The Swiss, in contrast, did not agree using 1 Corinthians 5:17 as their biblical basis. Unfortunately, the lack of unity regarding infant baptism left a vacuum of interpretation on how Christians felt about the issue of slavery. More will be discussed a little later.
The Dutch church believed that the VOC would build the roads that took the gospel to the corners of the world. At first, the company appeared positive and agreeable about spreading the Protestant faith abroad. Charles Parker describes this first period from 1610 to 1640s as optimistic: the Dutch enthusiastically believed that Asians will convert after hearing the true gospel (cf. the Portuguese’s Roman Catholic faith). As part of this hope, the first seminary whose purpose was to train and send ministers overseas was created, Seminarium Indicum (1622-32) at the University of Leiden, supported by the VOC. Unfortunately, the collaboration among the church, theologians, and the VOC did not last long. According to Moffett, seminary graduates were more interested in ministering to the locals rather than acting as VOC chaplains and employees. When the VOC stopped their financial support, the school had to shut down. The local church in Holland protested to no avail, especially when they too declined to support the school. Seminarium Indicum was a noble but futile endeavor. Without a steady stream of chaplains and missionaries, the VOC appeared less likely to champion missionary work and their commercial plans; according to many historians, trading became far more important than missionary work. Jan A. B. Jongeneel notes that the VOC “did not hesitate to issue writs in 1644 and again in 1648 forbidding Netherlanders during their stay in Japan to hand out Christian literature, to worship or pray publicly, or to observe the Lord’s Day.” However, according to Evan Haefeli, Japan was the exception. To be fair to the Dutch, Haefeli says
When treated on their own terms the Dutch colonial enterprises did care quite a bit about religion, meaning the Dutch Reformed Church, and consequently imposed restrictions on or even tried to convert those of other faiths they ruled over in the colonies. They simply avoided the coercive mechanisms and aggressive proselytizing of their fellow Europeans. Their toleration was targeted, never indiscriminate.
In other words, one can see the Dutch Reformed Church was in a way a “trade church”, a handmaiden to the VOC. However, the Dutch themselves may not have be willing to describe the relationship the same way. Haefeli describes missional tactics as less oppressive than their European counterparts.
By 1621, the first consistory of the Reformed Church met under provisions in Batavia (Jakarta). It was a successful center for local missions along with Ambon (Amboina). However, other churches were not as successful. Asians did not convert upon hearing the gospel. In Southeast Asia, the Muslims were especially formidable.
Sexual sins were difficult to manage and challenged in the early modern Dutch missions at least on two fronts. On one, Parker states that the Dutch church had a preoccupation of connecting sexual sins to pagan idolatry. Foreign religions to the Dutch were a “spiritual infidelity of ‘whoring after other gods’ that led the faithless down the path to morally dissolute lifestyles culminating in inordinate sexuality.” In other words, they equated idolatry to sexual promiscuity. For this reason, the Dutch clergy attempted to regulate their territories through civil laws.
On the other front, VOC employees lacked the biblical will to refrain from extramarital affairs. Co-habitation, having children out of wedlock, or participating in sexual enslavement or prostitution became problematic. The Dutch clergy had difficulty controlling and disciplining their own countrymen. The best they could do was to urge the men to marry and encourage the local women to convert before marriage. Promiscuity was a reoccurring theme in church records.
One area that should have been a big issue was slavery. But it was not treated as it was. The VOC and its less successful counterpart, West India Company (WIC), played a large role in the international slave trade. Jongeneel notes that Dutch synods and theologians, for the most part, rarely raised the issue. Slave trading began as early as 1596 when 130 slaves were brought to the Netherlands. Two decades later, the Synod of Dordt provided too little information on how to handle slavery. Theologians during the early modern era lacked the awareness that post-modern scholars have today: social, political, and historical. Kristin Gerbner analyzes Christianity’s theologically delicate and socially brutal relationship with slavery in her book, Christian Slavery (2018). She notes that leading theologians during the early seventeenth century felt that slavery was permissible including English Puritans, William Perkins (1558-1602) and Richard Baxter (1615-1691). The most famous Dutch Reformed minister who advocated slavery is Godfried Udemans (1581-1649). He penned a book called On the Spiritual Rudder of Merchant Ship (1638) which justified slavery and exhorted Christians to educate their servants with Christian principles and set them free after seven years of service. Haefeli states that one of the more racist advocates was Dutch minister, Johan Picardt (1600-1670). He was extremely vitriolic. Slaves were descendants of Ham to be ruled by the Europeans, sons of Japheth; Africans were to be blamed for their own slavery; and masters should “beat them mercilessly.”
Most theologians, in contrast to the senseless beatings of slaves, were more interested in the well-being of slaves rather than on the issue of slavery itself. Cornelius Poudroyen, according to Wim Klooster, believed that “no work should be imposed on slaves that masters would not impose on themselves or others because they were their fellow-creatures.” Jacobus Hondius, a Dutch Reformed minister, took a step further. He wrote Black List of a Thousand Sins (Swart reister van duysend sonden,1679). He argued that slavery’s evils cannot be justified. Very few theologians intervened. The issue of avoiding the topic continues today but en masse. Gert Oostindie discusses the discourse (or lack thereof) between slavery’s history and today’s Dutch society: Dutch self-reflection on the issue is either lacking or lacks a remorseful quality that resonates with others who feel a deep shame and injustice over the subject.
PROTESTANT FIRSTS BY UTRECHT UNIVERSITY
The Dutch church had to devise new tactics; people were not converting in droves. Parker describes the second stage of Dutch missional endeavors from the 1660s to the early 1700s: theologians proposed and prepared for serious intellectual engagements between Islam and Christianity, and there was a push to produce more Bible translations. When debates and publications failed, a third stage followed from the early 1700s to the mid-1700s. This third stage was sober and empirically based. Theologians promoted respect for Muslims. The catalyst for these approaches came from members of the faculty at Utrecht University.
In the Reformed theological tradition, Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) is a theological giant. He is considered the defender of orthodoxy during the Nadere Reformatie (second or further Dutch Reformation, c. 1600-1750). As a theologian of Reformed piety, his admirers included English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians. His students include Herman Witsius, Johannes Hoornbeeck, and other leading members of the Nadere Reformatie. He was also the founding father of Utrecht University. As a prolific writer, he has inspired and influenced countless many.
Voetius is arguably the first Protestant missiologist because he was the first to write a comprehensive theology on missions. Jongeneel writes that Voetius “is the first Protestant theologian in general and the first Dutch theologian in particular to develop a comprehensive theology of mission,” and within the Reformed tradition, “is the father of Protestant and specifically Reformed ecclesiastical missiology.” His theology of missions can be read in Selected Theological Disputations, a five-volume work published in parts from 1648 to 1669. The second work is Church Polity, a three-volume work published in parts from 1663 to 1676.
Voetius’s context is clear from his writings. He was optimistic about Protestant missions. The VOC’s increasing presence in the world was supplanting a declining Portuguese (and thus Roman Catholic) empire. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church preceded the Dutch and successively developed a missionary branch. The Congregatio de Propaganda Fide was established in 1622 after decades of looking east for further evangelization. The combination of the circumstances includes Voetius studying Roman Catholic books; mentioned earlier, a few other Dutch Reformed predecessors have written treatises in favor of global missions; and the Synod of Dordt demonstrated that missions will be a pressing issue. It was time for a Protestant theology of gospel engagement for the rest of the world.
There is not enough space to explain Voetius theology. Only a snippet of Jongeneel’s summary will be shown here to demonstrate his depth. Voetius’ definition of missions was narrow. The Great Commission belongs to the church. Individuals, businesses, and popes did not have the right to claim it. Proclamation included the gospel and correcting false beliefs, propagating Protestant doctrines. Voetius explains that the three main goals of missions are:
- Calling and conversion of unbelievers, heretics, and schismatics;
- Planting, gathering, and establishing churches;
- Glorification and manifestation of divine grace.
Questions that Voetius thought about included
1. Who does the sending? (qui sint mittentes); 2. To whom are they sent? (ad quos mittendi); 3. Where are they sent? (ad quid mittendi); 4. Who and what sort of people are sent? (qui et quales mittendi); 5. By what means and in what manner are they sent? (qua via methodo et quo modo mittendi); and 6. What do missionaries need to pay attention to? (quid missis et missionariis observandum).
In addition, Voetius researched and recorded the beliefs of different religions especially Judaism, Islam, and paganism.
Voetius’ desire to engage Islam intellectually in particular was noble. According to Parker, Voetius and the next generation of theologians believed in pre-evangelistic apologetics. If missionaries can undermine the Koran by demonstrating how it misconstrued Christianity, reason will open the way for the gospel. In order to combat the Koran, therefore, it was crucial that students learn Arabic to read Muslim scriptures. Voetius was a strong advocate of creating a college that was devoted to the study of Islam and build a library of Muslim books published in the original languages.
Hoornbeek, Leusden, and Reland
Johannes Hoornbeek (1617-1666) was a student then as a professor of theology at Utrecht University who then became a colleague of Voetius. Together the two led the second wave of Dutch missions. Hoornbeek strongly believed that missions should be part of the curriculum core and that missional studies be its own subject. Following Voetius, he wanted a school dedicated to missions including the re-establishment of the Seminarium Indicum. Hornbeeck’s postmortem publication, De Conversione Indorum ac Gentilium (1669), grounded the practice of studying missions in academia. Jongeneel summarizes:
- Missions to the gentiles offer new and excellent materials for writing dissertations;
- Theological controversies tend to turn Christians into gentiles rather than gentiles into Christians.
There were some places where Voetius and Hoornbeek disagreed. For example, according to Jongeneel, Hoornbeek envisioned a church branch of missions set up in the same way as the Roman Catholics did. Voetius, who wanted a department that studied Islam, was more cautious in his approach. Foundationally, Hoornbeek believed that the church needed to complete the missionary work that began in the Apostolic Age while Voetius maintained the more popular belief that the apostles completed the Great Commission.
Johannes Leusden (1624-1699) was a professor of Greek and Hebrew at Utrecht University and a bridge figure between Hoornbeek and Adrian Reland (1676-1718). According to Esther Mijers,
Biblical languages were taught by Johannes Leusden and Hadrianus Reland (1676-1718). Although initially an auxiliary discipline to theology, they greatly appealed to any student with antiquarian interests, such as lawyers and historians. Utrecht could hold its own against Leiden in these departments.
Leusden and his successor, Reland, were popular figures and internationally renowned. Both were interested in missions. Leusden is especially exciting because of his interaction with English speaking scholars. His transatlantic correspondence with another Calvinist, Increase Mather, in America is noteworthy. The two exchanged encouraging letters. Mather sent Leusden an Algonquin (Native American) translation of the Bible and updated the Dutch professor on American missions. In return, Leusden reported missionary activity in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
Voetius, Hoornbeek, Leusden, and other theologians at Utrecht University were gifted and discerning in biblical studies. However, they underestimated the submission of Muslims to Allah. The Dutch theologians projected their own personality and idealism into a foreign land, hoping that their defense of Christianity would persuade others into faith. What was considered laudable by Dutch Reformed standards—including a compelling level of conviction and individualism—was remarkedly different for a collectivist society that was (and arguably still is) historically more militant about conformity in their culture and mindset than Protestant Europeans. Theological astuteness and authority need to consider other forces at work in order to be meaningfully applied. Unfortunately, implementation was amiss. Their missional successors, such as Reland, lamented their lack of understanding of the Muslims. In the very least, their perception of the Muslim world was problematic. The scholars saw their religious rivals as either delusional in their obstinance or reasonable but ignorant of the real Christ. It appears that the Dutch theologians take for granted that assent will naturally lead to trust. This is also not to say the kind of support a person would need to overcome the loneliness of such a conversion.
If Dutch missionaries felt severe depressing pangs of loneliness, it will be worse for local converts whose apostasy would have driven them out of their communities. They would not have the same recourse as missionaries who were a religious minority in Asia yet can return to a religious and ethnic majority back in the Netherlands. In addition, marrying a European would have been difficult as well. Ulbe Bosma and Remco Raben note that the Dutch were self-regulating to maintain their identity and status. Extramarital affairs occurred “in a twilight zone, not dignified by formal marriage, frequently appearing as concubinage.” Therefore, if a church welcomed a new convert that did not necessitate that the rest of the European community would follow because of the social distance the Dutch wanted to preserve. Converts would have led traumatic and difficult lives because proper emotional, financial, and civil supports were not scaffolded.
Nonetheless, the Dutch theologians’ naiveite does not negate their missions work as a turning point for Protestant theology. Although Utrecht University never created a missiology department, it was a leader in Dutch theological studies in missions. Voetius helped create a forum where future theologians can discuss theological treatises on overseas missions.
One hundred years later to the disappointment of the Dutch theologians, conquered territories especially in Asia have yet to embrace Christianity. As a response, Adrian Reland’s understanding of foreign religion and culture is a break from his theological predecessors so much so that his works are representative of what Parker considers to be the third phase of Dutch missions from 1730s onwards. This last phase before the 1800s consists of a newfound respect for Islam.
Reland was a professor of Eastern languages at Utrecht. He was the first to attempt to truly understand Islam in the way Muslims understood it. Karel A. Steenbrink states that Reland “was commended by many as the first to give a fair account of Islam in a Western language.” David Pailin explains that to Reland Islam is reasonable (a break from his predecessors) and must be understood from a Muslim perspective and language. It was the most sympathetic reading of Islam written to date. Parker calls Reland’s book, On the Mahometan Religion (1705) as the “first objective and dispassionate view of Islam.” Reland rebukes his predecessors, including Voetius and Hoornbeek, for trivializing the Muslim religion and for failing to engage Islam more judiciously.
Reland’s approach will appear more palatable for modern missionaries although he too appears insensitive at times, undermining his general respect for Islam. Nonetheless, by this time the Dutch church had taken a more sober step without giving up the gospel entirely: learn to respect and live with the Muslims who live in the majority by understanding the way they understand themselves.
One final note as a bridge from the Dutch to the missional work of the Moravians: Jongeneel noted a connection between Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf and the Dutch. Zinzendorf studied some courses in law at Utrecht University, and if he followed the trend of other law students, he would have been exposed to Reland’s work.
The missionary hearts of the Reformed Church and Calvin were not represented in the sixteenth-century Reformed seminal work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Nonetheless, historically, they are clearly seen. Calvin’s heart was keen on spreading Protestantism outside Geneva. Though France was foremost in his thoughts, he actively educated missional ministers and sheltered refugees. He also sent the first ministers to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The Dutch picked up the Reformed emphasis on missions and they accomplished many firsts for Protestantism and the Reformed Church: first church and minister in Asia, first non-European partial translation of the Bible, first seminary to train and send people overseas, first to discuss overseas issues at an international conference, and more.
In contrast to Calvin, Dutch theologians were more explicit about Reformed missions in their treatises and works. The leading theologian was Gisbertus Voetius, whose groundwork was manifested institutionally. As the founder of Utrecht University and leader of the Nadere Reformatie, he set the tone for more theological developments and discussions to occur. Together with Johann Hoornbeek, he pushed for an intellectual engagement with Islam. However, such pre-evangelistic work was not persuasive. Their impression of Islam lacked fairness and empathy. Johann Leusden is a transitional figure between the second and third phases of Dutch Reformed missions. He communicated also with corresponding Reformed mission work in America. Finally, Adrian Reland is the last major figure of Utrecht who set a more sober and empathetic tone before the 1800s to understand and encounter Islam after a hundred years of intellectual battles against it.
More can be said on early modern Reformed missions. This essay highlighted a limited number of important accomplishments. What should be clear is that Reformed missions deserves a consistent place in missions history especially in light of the activities of the Dutch church during the gap period between the Protestant Reformation and the Lutheran Pietists. Theologians and missionaries can learn from them; their history matters.
*This paper was presented at the Asan Society of Missiologists Forum in Bali, Indonesia in 2018. Published with permission from the author and ASM.
Lauren J Kim
Dr. Lauren J Kim is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College. She is also Adjunct Instructor of History at Providence Christian College, former Assistant Professor of Church History at Torch Trinity Graduate University, Church History Department Chair and International Studies Director, and Lecturer at Yonsei University on European Human Rights and Hanguk University of Foreign Studies.