Old map of the world

Were the Protestant Reformers missionary failures? Challenging the nineteenth-century narrative

As more and more scholars re-examine the data, the story of a Reformation that wholly ignored mission is being replaced by one in which the “Reformation as a whole was mission”, to borrow historian Scott Hendrix’s lapidary phrase.

By way of example, consider Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), for whom the notion that the Reformers didn’t care about the global spread of the gospel would have come as something of a surprise.

In his earlier days, Vermigli was an influential theologian, preacher and abbot in Roman Catholic Italy. He came to embrace Protestant theology in the 1530s and began a reformation in the northern Italian city of Lucca.

In 1542, finding himself too well known, Vermigli evaded arrest and inquisitorial trial by fleeing to the relative safety of the Protestant north. He spent the rest of his life as a trailblazing Reformed theologian and churchman who profoundly impacted three regions of Protestant Europe: the Holy Roman Empire (from Strasbourg), the Swiss Confederacy (from Zurich), and the Kingdom of England (from Oxford).

One of Vermigli’s most popular works is his Sacred Prayers from the Psalms of David, which provide a unique window into his theological heart. They’re also a rich devotional supplement for anyone reading through the Psalms, in part because they absolutely drip with a global vision for Christ’s kingdom and challenge us to locate our own Christian experience within the larger story of God using his people to build his church around the world. This emphasis is no surprise, for the Psalms have the power to shape the hearts and minds of those who read, pray and sing them regularly.

Consider this gem drawn out of Psalm 47:

Good Father, grant that our sins may not impede your kingdom. Continue to conquer new people for the faith and make nations, which so far have been without the faith, obey your word. You have chosen for yourself the Church as a choice and special inheritance; may you be greatly glorified in her forever by exquisite melodies and hymns so that all people may possess you, praise you, and sing to you as their king.

Mission mindedness? Check. Global vision? Check. Unreached people groups? Check. But there’s something else here as well. Vermigli’s prayer flows out of his awareness of the church’s own sins and a request that they not undermine the advance of Christ’s kingdom. That’s a humble and self-effacing way to approach cross-cultural evangelism that doesn’t jibe with the stereotypical bad missionary who lugs along a sense of his own superiority while sojourning abroad. Read the full article by Patrick O’Banion.