John Calvin (d.1569) was one of the primary leaders of the protestant reformation. His followers developed what is now known as Calvinism, a theological system that focuses on God’s actions. Questions have periodically arisen about how Calvinism relates to missions and evangelism, whether Calvinists have traditionally supported evangelism, etc. Calvinists point to men such as Jonathan Edwards (d.1758) as supporting evangelism.
History, however, paints a bit of a different story. Admittedly, writers of history books tend to shape what the write, but nevertheless, I submit the following. First, from Christianity Through the Centuries by Earle E. Cairns. Cairns’ book is arguably the most widely recognized text of church history, and he is likely the most widely-recognized church historian of our day. After admitting that Calvinists have played a part in evangelism and revival in the past (p.312), Cairns clarifies with the following:
Protestant churches did not do much missionary work during the era of the Reformation because all their energies were absorbed in the work of organization and the struggle to exist. During the Counter Reformation the great missionary work was done by the Jesuits and other orders in the Roman Catholic church. But a combination of forces, beginning with the work of William Carey in 1792, led to such great missionary effort in the nineteenth century that this has been called the “Great Century” in Protestant missionary effort. (p.401, rev. & exp. ed.).
However, when William Carey began the modern missions movement in 1792, the Calvinist minister John Ryland (who has a library named for him in Manchester), is quoted as telling him, “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it, without your aid or mine.”(F.D. Walker, William Carey, p.54).
As a result of the European Calvinist churches’ lack of missions and evangelism from the late 1500’s until after William Carey, there was over two centuries of no missions work from the European Calvinist churches and an increase in missions and evangelism by the Roman Catholic church. As evidence of this, to this day most of Central and South America are Roman Catholic. The existence of millions of Roman Catholic Hispanics forces one to accept that Calvinist churches did not have a focus on evangelism for over two centuries. Further evidence is in quotes from that era, which describe the common Calvinistic culture in those days:
“I resolved . . . to seek religion at the sacrifice of every earthly good, and immediately prostrated myself before God in supplication for mercy. According to the preaching and experience of the pious in those days, I anticipated a long and painful struggle before I should be prepared to come to Christ, or, in the language then used, before I should get religion. For one year I was tossed on the waves of uncertainty – laboring, praying, and striving to obtain saving faith – sometimes desponding, and almost despairing of ever getting it.
The doctrines then publicly taught were, that mankind were so totally depraved, that they could not believe, repent, nor obey the Gospel – that regeneration was an immediate work of the Spirit, whereby faith and repentence were wrought in the heart. Now was not . . . the accepted time, now was not . . . the day of salvation, but it was in God’s own sovereign time, and for that time, a sinner must wait.” (Barton Stone, The Biography of Elder Barton Stone, p.9)
“If he preached repentance, he must be sure before he sat down, to leave the impression on his people, that they could not repent. If he called them to believe, he must be sure to inform them that, until their nature was changed by the Holy Spirit, faith was impossible to them.” (Charles Finney, Autobiography, p.59-60)
Now the Calvinist will be quick to squeal about quoting Barton Stone and Charles Finney, and rightfully so, for their theology is horrid. But we are not supporting their theology, but merely quoting what they said they observed. I will not sit here and question their basic honesty as civilized men nor the truthfulness of their history.
We conclude then, that for about 250 years, Calvinist theology, especially that of the institutions of Europe, not only did not actively engage in evangelism or missions, but did not believe one should do so.
However, we cannot leave this subject without telling the rest of the story. Modern Calvinists have long since abandoned such a wrong view of scripture. Many modern Calvinists are active supporters of evangelism and missions. For example, D. James Kennedy, a Presbyterian Calvinist who did not believe man had free will, was the founder of Evangelism Explosion, one of the greatest modern works in personal evangelism that has resulted in countless myriads of people coming to Christ. Praise God.