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The Best Companion of My Life

John Calvin's search for a wife

John Calvin is typically thought to be a stoic and perhaps unemotional type of scholar. Martin Luther was the exact opposite. He wore his feelings on his sleeve and you had no doubt how he felt about any given subject. In regards to marriage, Luther’s relationship with his wife, Katharina  von Bora, was well known, as he passionately loved her and their children. Others in the Reformation era were similar to Luther. Philip Melanchthon was known for his dedication to his family; it was said that he could often be seen rocking his child in a cradle with one hand while reading a book in the other. Even Ulrich Zwingli’s marriage to Anna Reinhard was known to have a degree of romance to it. Not Calvin though.

No insane lover

Calvin’s marriage to Idelette de Bure did not occur in a vacuum. He did not simply meet her, fall in love, get married and live happily ever after. Instead, he formed a committee of sorts, where friends such as William Farel and Martin Bucer were put to the task of finding a wife for him. At the time, Calvin was a 31year old bachelor who said that he was not one of those “insane lovers who embrace also the vices of those with whom they love, where they are smitten at first sight with a fine figure.” In other words, his concern was not physical attraction or outward beauty. Calvin said he was looking for a woman who was “chaste, modest, economical, patient and careful of her husband’s health.” This search would not be easy.

It wasn’t until Calvin moved to Strasbourg, France that he began to seriously contemplate having a wife. It was 1538 and he had just been banished from Geneva when Martin Bucer invited Calvin to join him in leading a church of refugees. While ministering in France, Calvin’s income was not substantial, which led him to rent his house out to several different people, including his brother, his step-sister, and some students. Additionally, over the course of his life, he suffered from: stomach problems, headaches, gallstones, hemorrhoids, gout, fever and chronic asthma. As a young man, Calvin had never seriously considered having a wife. He was consumed with leading a reformation, preaching, and writing his famous Institutes of Christian Religion. How would he have time for a wife and could he bring a woman into this sort of lifestyle? The only purpose in having a wife was to be “better freed from numerous worries,” so that he could “devote [himself] to the Lord.” He eventually became so convinced that a wife would be necessary for him that he reserved a date to be married “a little after Easter” in 1539.

“Is it not wisest to abandon my search?”

A few months after Calvin set the date for his marriage, the first candidate was presented to him. She was a wealthy German woman who had a brother who was a strong supporter of Calvin and his cause in the Reformation. For a man who had been kicked out of Geneva and was struggling financially, this seemed to many like
a plan sent from God. But Calvin was the only one who did not see it this way. In a letter to William Farel, Calvin said, “Two reasons, however, induce me to decline: she does not know our language (French) and I think that she is too proud of her birth and education.” Calvin was not interested in money, as he thought it unbecoming of a minister of the gospel. Nor did he desire a woman who was proud of her status in life. But if she would consent to learn the French language, Calvin would consent to marry her. The plan was eventually abandoned.

A few months later, another opportunity was given for Calvin to marry. The potential bride was found in William Farel’s congregation. She had never been married and she was known for being a devout Protestant. The only problem was that she was about 15 years older than Calvin. He never followed up with her.

The third candidate would surely be the charm. Although she lived in another city, she had a great reputation. Writing to Farel, Calvin said, “her praise is in every mouth.” She didn’t have any money, which to Calvin seemed to be a virtue. So Calvin sent his brother, Anthony, along with some other friends to go and make a proposal for marriage to her. But something happened. As Calvin got to know her, he didn’t like her. She was deeply in love with him, but there was something about her character that Calvin did not like. With a wedding planned and friends invited, Calvin called it off. It was at this point that he wrote to Farel, “I have not yet found a companion; is it not wisest to abandon my search?”

“What about the gentle Idelette?”

As Calvin was about to lose hope of ever being married, Martin Bucer had one final suggestion for him. There was a widow in Calvin’s congregation whose husband had contracted the plague and had died. Her name was Idelette de Bure. Click To TweetShe and her husband Jean Stordeur were refugees in Strasbourg after having fled persecution for their Anabaptist beliefs. Anabaptists at that time would have been considered radical in their beliefs as they were rejected not only by the Roman Catholics, but by the Reformers as well. Eventually Jean and Idelette became convinced of the truth taught by the Reformed faith, leading them to leave their Anabaptist faith and join Calvin’s church. It was there that they grew in their love for the scriptures as they sat under Calvin’s preaching.

As Jean and Idelette began listening to Calvin, Idelette then went on to read the Institutes. She even attended many of Calvin’s daily Bible lectures. Calvin enjoyed his friendship with them and even considered them as some of his disciples. He admired, as he said, “the simplicity and sanctity of their lives.” This is likely why Calvin never considered Idelette for marriage once her husband died. When Jean did die, it proved to be a profound blow to Idelette. Not only did she miss her husband dearly, but she also had no way to support herself and their two children. It was at this point in Idelette’s life, and when Calvin had given up on marriage in his, that Martin Bucer approached him and said, “What about the gentle Idelette?”

Calvin had always enjoyed Idelette’s company. She had displayed a great deal of faithfulness during their hardships of suffering and persecution. She was devoted to her husband, concerned with the education and the raising of her children, and she was very attractive, according to Calvin’s friend William Farel. Theodore Beza even described Idelette as “a serious-minded woman of good character.” Once he considered the suggestion of his friend Martin Bucer, it didn’t take Calvin long to write again to his friend William Farel to ask him to come and perform a wedding ceremony.

In August of 1540, Calvin finally married. Idelette was grateful to find a good father for her children, and Calvin was relieved to have finally discovered a good wife. Soon after they were married, however, Calvin and Idelette become very sick and were confined to bed. Calvin in his thank you note to Farel wrote, “As if it had been so ordered, that our wedlock might not be over joyous, the Lord thus thwarted our joy by moderating it.” Unfortunately, their joy was in fact moderated at the beginning of their marriage. Not only were they both sick, but once recovered, due to his travel schedule, Calvin and Idelette only spent 13 of the first 45 weeks of their marriage together. These difficulties would be followed by an even greater challenge to come.

A house of edification

In September of 1541, Calvin headed back to Geneva. He had been asked to return and continue his fight for the Reformation there. Having been kicked out, Calvin was initially reluctant to return. He wrote to Farel saying, “I dread throwing myself into that whirlpool I found so dangerous.” But Calvin was a man of God. He desired to honor the Lord’s call, no matter where it was. Upon his arrival in Geneva, he was showered with gifts and given a house with a garden overlooking Lake Leman with the Jura Mountains on one side, and the Alps on the other. Idelette, despite her love for Strasburg and her ill feelings concerning Geneva, graciously came with her daughter Judith, while her son stayed behind.

Things began to look up for Calvin and Idelette. While in Geneva, the city council even loaned them furniture, and Idelette kept a vegetable garden behind their house, along with other flowers and herbs. In fact, Calvin was so proud of her garden that he would often show it off to their guests. Calvin had never known much of a loving home growing up. His best model was the home of his friend Martin Bucer and his wife Elizabeth. Of the Bucer home, Calvin wrote, “During the entire time I saw not the least occasion of offense, but only ground for edification.” It is likely that Calvin was finally experiencing this first hand in his own home with Idelette.

A severe and bitter wound

Despite the joys of marriage for Calvin and Idelette, they were still met with much difficulty and sadness. Click To TweetSoon after their return to Geneva, Idelette prematurely gave birth to a little boy named Jacques. Unfortunately, he died only a month later, in August of 1542. Calvin wrote to his friend Pierre Viret saying, “The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound by the death of our infant son.” Then, only two years later, Idelette gave birth to a daughter. Calvin wrote to Farel, “My little daughter labors under a continual fever.” Days later, she too passed away. In addition to this, sometime later a third child was delivered stillborn. Calvin and Idelette had no surviving children of their own.

Added to the sorrow of their lost children, Calvin and Idelette received great insult for their childlessness. The gossip around Geneva was that God was punishing them through their loss. In Idelette’s marriage to Jean Stordeur, since they were Anabaptists at the time of their marriage ceremony, they never had it civilly solemnized. Therefore, the rumor was that Idelette was an immoral woman who had her two children with Jean out of wedlock. That is why they said that she was unable to have children with Calvin. Despite not having children, Calvin wrote to Viret that he found comfort in knowing that he had “myriads of sons throughout the Christian world.”

Bereaved of the best companion of my life

Idelette and Calvin both continued to suffer from various illnesses. In August of 1548, Calvin wrote of his wife, “she is so overpowered with her sickness that she can scarcely support herself.” Her sickness went on for the final three years of her life. By March 1549, she was bedridden. She passed away on April 5, 1549. Calvin was at her side, speaking to her about the happiness they had enjoyed for the nine years they had been married, as well as speaking to her of the joy that awaited her in “exchanging an abode on earth for her father’s house above.” In another letter to his friend Viret, Calvin wrote this about his wife only two days after her death:

Truly mine is no common source of grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, of one who, had it been so ordered, would not only have been the willing sharer of my indigence, but even of my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance. She was never troublesome to me throughout the entire course of her illness; she was more anxious about her children than about herself.

John Calvin, a man who was serious about the study of God, a man who wrote, who preached, and who fought for truth, was also a man who deeply loved. It may appear as if he only wanted a companion to aid him in his work, but through his steadfastness in pursuing a godly wife, he never weakened his standards, and as a result, he found great joy.

His studies were not separate from his experiences, as he lived out what he wrote in his commentary on Ephesians 5:28, “The strong affection which a husband ought to cherish towards his wife is exemplified by Christ.” Nothing was theoretical for Calvin, for as he pursued Christ, he grew in love for his wife. As Thomas Smyth wrote, “Calvin was great without ceasing to be good; he joined the qualities of the heart to the gifts of genius….He tasted domestic happiness in too brief a union, the secrets of which, dimly revealed by his correspondence, shed a melancholy and sweet light over his life.”

Michael Nelson

Michael Nelson (ThM, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Grandview, MO, as well as a PhD candidate at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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