The first Protestant missionaries were missionaries of the Reformed Church. Protestantism was hardly born before it began to exert itself to save the heathen. These missionaries were sent out one year before the Lutherans sent their first foreign missionaries to Lapland.
The first missionary field was this new world of America. To this continent came two ministers of the Reformed Church of Geneva whose names deserve to be embalmed in fame. They were Peter Richer and William Chartier. Admiral Coligny, the great statesman of the French Reformed, fearing the persecutions which afterward overtook the Huguenots, with far-seeing eye looked westward for an asylum across the Atlantic. Brazil was at that time attracting notice and through his influence a colony was gathered. But though this expedition was announced with a flourish of trumpets, it was found that too few were ready to go; so the jails of Paris were called upon to complete the company. This motley company, some of them Huguenots, sailed from Havre in the summer of 1555. After a long voyage they entered the bay of Rio Janeiro on the tenth of November. The leader of this expedition was Villegagnon. He had been Vice-Admiral of Brittany and the one who in 1548 had brought Mary, Queen of Scots, safely to France in spite of the watchfulness of the English. He had become a Protestant and now dreamt of founding a great French colony in the new world. Villegagnon selected an island in the bay of Rio Janeiro as his headquarters. On a rock near the center of the island he built a rude home with a rough church on the one side of it, and a rude building for his followers on the other. He fortified the island with earthworks as he feared the Portuguese who already had planted colonies in Brazil. He named the island Coligny, and the whole region Antarctic France.
On the fourth of February one of his ships sailed for France. With it he sent a messenger to Coligny asking for more colonists and especially for Reformed ministers who should not only minister to the colonists but also plant this new faith among the Indians of the new world. Two ministers, Peter Richer and William Chartier, were appointed by the city of Geneva to go to Brazil. They were accompanied by eleven artisans from Geneva who were led by DuPont. They visited Coligny on their way through France where they were joined by a number of Huguenots. This new expedition, numbering 300, embarked November 17, 1556, in three ships from Honfleur. After being almost shipwrecked off the coast of Brazil they finally arrived at Rio Janeiro March 7, 1557. As they entered the harbor they were full of joy at the thought of planting the Reformed faith on so distant a coast.
Villegagnon welcomed them with a salute from the fort and with every demonstration of friendship. They went at once to the church where they held a thanksgiving service. They sang the fifth Psalm, after which Richer preached on the 26th Psalm. Villegagnon ordered that there should be a daily service with a sermon of not over an hour and also two sermons on Sunday. On the 21st of March the two ministers administered the communion after the Reformed mode. This was the first Protestant communion in America. These ministers soon tried to come into contact with the natives of Brazil so as to bring them to Christ. Richer wrote, a few weeks after his arrival in Brazil, that “they proposed winning the native heathen to Christ, but their barbarism, their cannibalism, their spiritual dullness extinguished all these hopes.” Their ignorance of the native language also hindered their work, but the natives understood enough from their teachings to become greatly astonished at what they heard. Some of them promised to become worshipers of the true God, but the stay of these missionaries at Rio Janeiro was too short to produce permanent results.
For soon troubles began to arise in the colony which prepared for its ultimate destruction. Among the first colonists who came with Villegagnon was John Cointat, or Hector, a former student of the Catholic Sorbonne at Paris. He claimed that he had been promised episcopal jurisdiction over the colony. He, however, at the first communion answered the questions of the ministers; but he resented this examination and soon called Villegagnon’s attention to certain rites in which he differed from these ministers. He also came into controversy with them on such doctrinal points as, “Is it lawful to mix water with wine at the Lord’s Supper?” “May the sacramental bread be made of Indian corn?” etc. He requested that unleavened bread should be used at the communion, that baptism should be administered with salt and oil as well as with water, and that the officiating minister should wear vestments. The ministers stoutly withstood him. As Cointat had some learning and was of ready speech he soon interested Villegagnon so that when Richer preached against these customs Villegagnon became angry. At first he forbade Richer to preach, but afterwards permitted him, provided he would not speak on these subjects in dispute. However, he did not allow him to administer the sacraments. To heal the controversy it was proposed that these questions should be submitted to the Reformed Church of France for a decision and for that purpose Chartier sailed for France.
Meanwhile Villegagnon from being a protector of the Reformed was changing into their persecutor. No sooner had the vessel sailed than he declared he would submit the disputed points to no one but the Catholic Sorbonne for a decision. The truth is that through the influence of the Cardinal of Lorraine, Villegagnon was being secretly won back to the Catholic Church. The Cardinal had written him a letter upbraiding him for leaving the Catholic faith. He became bolder and finally openly called Calvin the heretic. At last he demanded that Richer subscribe to the mass, the purgatory and other Romish doctrines. Richer refused. Villegagnon, fearing an insurrection, ordered DuPont and the Genevan party to leave the island in October 1557. He declared he would not have the Protestants on the island. But whither should they go? In all the new world there was not a Protestant colony save their own. They went across the bay to the mainland where they settled. Here the inhabitants kindly brought food to them and they returned the kindness by trying to teach them the Gospel.
It, however, soon became evident that they could not live there very long; yet Villegagnon refused to permit them to return to the fort. A French vessel happened to come into the harbor and DuPont tried to arrange that they should be taken back to France. The captain, however, refused to take them on board without Villegagnon’s permission. This Villegagnon at first refused. But when DuPont declared that they would go without it he reluctantly granted permission on one condition, namely, that they would take on board a closed chest. With a baseness seldom paralleled he placed in this chest a paper which contained certain charges against them. The chest was to be presented to the first judge in France, with whom they would come in contact; and this paper asked him to seize them as heretics and punish them with flames. Ignorant of this perfidy, they sailed on January 4, 1558, after a stay in Brazil of about ten months. They soon discovered that they had exchanged a wretched existence on land for a more wretched one on the sea. The vessel was slow and old. When she was out about seven days she sprang a leak. She seemed to be sinking so rapidly that it appeared as though nothing was before them but a grave in the ocean. Fortunately the sailors succeeded in stopping the principal leak, but the carpenter stated that the vessel was so old and worm-eaten as not to be fit for so long a voyage with so large a cargo. The captain being afraid that the crew would all leave him if he landed refused to turn back. He, however, offered a boat to any who wished to return to America then from ten to twenty leagues distant. He was more willing to do this as they were short of provisions.
Five of their number accepted this offer and went back to Brazil to be the first Protestants to suffer for their faith in foreign lands. They floated for four days using their clothes for sails. A severe storm threw them on the sixth day on the shore at the foot of a great mountain. They then proceeded to Riviere des Vases where the natives kindly cared for them. After a four days’ rest they traveled four days and arrived at Villegagnon’s settlement. They begged him to receive them, notwithstanding their differences of faith. At first he received them kindly, but he soon became suspicious that they were spies sent by DuPont, who would later return and attack the settlement. He then ordered them to sign a Romish confession of faith within 12 hours. This they refused to do. They ordered Bortel, the older and best educated among them, to draw up a confession of faith in reply to it, which they signed. From this Villegagnon decided that they were heretics and then arrested Bortel, and when he refused to recant, he brutally struck him with his fist and ordered him to be hurled from a high rock on the island into the sea. Another, Vermiel, was led to the same rock, and when he refused to recant, he, too, was thrown over into the sea. Bourdon, the third, was sick in bed, but Villegagnon had him bound and carried in a boat to this rock of execution and from it cast into the sea. “Thus,” says Kalkar, the Danish Lutheran historian of missions, “was the first blood shed as a witness for Evangelical missions.” The Reformed Church as it had the honor of sending the first missionaries to the heathen, had also the honor of having the first martyrs for missions.
In the meantime those who remained on the vessel, which these five had left, seemed doomed to a living death. A hundred times a day it seemed as if the ship would be swallowed up by the waves. The crew were kept at the pumps night and day and still were hardly able to keep the water down. One day as the carpenter was mending the ship a plank gave way. In a moment the sea came rushing in with the force of a torrent.
The sailors rushed to the deck crying “We are lost.” The carpenter, however, retained presence of mind enough to thrust his coat into the hole and by treading on it with all his might he resisted the force of the water. He soon received help which enabled him to keep the hole shut till he had prepared a board to close it. At another time when the powder was drying some of it caught fire. The flames quickly ran from one end of the ship to the other and set the sails and cordage on fire. Four men were burned before it was put out, one of them dying. Then to their horrors was added starvation. They had with them a number of parrots and monkeys which they were taking home as curiosities. These were soon eaten. Rats and mice were hunted for and eaten. Even the sweepings of the store-room were gathered and cooked into a sort of pottage and though it was black and bitter they were glad to eat it. Those who had bucklers made of the skin of the tapiroussa, an animal of Brazil, cut the skin into pieces and devoured it. Others would chew the covers of their trunks and the leather of their shoes-yes, even the horns of the ship lanterns. They became so starved that they would have been glad to have lived on grass, like Nebuchadnezzar, had they been able to get it. Finally nothing was left them but Brazil-wood, said to be the dryest of all woods. One day Peter Corquilleray when putting a piece of Brazil-wood into his mouth said to Lery (who wrote the chronicle of this journey) “Gladly would I give the four thousand louvres due me in France for a glass of wine and a pennyworth of bread.” Peter Richer the Reformed minister was so prostrated by hunger that he could not lift up his head even in prayer, although he was almost constantly in prayer.
Finally after a voyage of five months the pilot declared he saw land. This was very fortunate for the captain said that he had determined on the next day to draw lots that one might be killed for food. They finally landed on the coast of Brittany in France, near L’Orient, at the mouth of the Blavet river, on May 26, 1558. The inhabitants, touched with the story of their sufferings, kindly gave them the food and sustenance they needed. Many of the sailors, however, neglected the precautions necessary for starved men, and ate so heartily that they died. Others recovered but were afflicted for a long time with various diseases, blindness, swellings of the body, etc.
And now appeared the providence of God. In the sealed box was the order of Villegagnon to the governor of the province in which they landed to put them to death as heretics. The box was given by them, all ignorant of its contents, to the judge of that district; but by a favoring providence they were cast ashore in a part of France where the judge happened to be favorable to the Protestants. Instead of executing the treacherous orders of Villegagnon he ignored them and treated the returning colonists with great kindness. Soon after, in 1560, Villegagnon’s colony in Brazil was captured by the Portuguese, when he returned to France and tried to clear himself of his cruelty and perfidy which had now become known to all the world. A witness to the existence of the colony is still found in the harbor of Rio Janeiro in one of its islands which is named Villegagnon after him.
Such were the first efforts to send missionaries to the heathen, but this early though ill-fated effort proved that the Reformed were the first who had the desire to send foreign missionaries and also the first to have been martyrs for their faith in foreign lands. They thus attempted to lay the basis of what has become the greatest movement of the Protestant Church-foreign missions. The bay of Rio Janeiro is said to be the most beautiful in the world, but is not so beautiful as the crown of immortal glory that should belong to Richer and his co-laborers for starting a movement which has culminated in the splendid foreign missionary work of the Church at the present time.
Excerpted and condensed from Famous Missionaries of the Reformed Church, by James I. Good. Originally published by the Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1901. Material is reprinted by permission of the RCUS Permanent Publications Committee.