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John Calvin was devoted to Scripture and to the church. He emphasized God’s sovereignty and Christian living in his preaching and writing, and he was surrounded by many loyal Christian friends. Not surprisingly, he also had a very happy marriage. Yet finding a suitable marriage partner had proved to be a daunting task for Calvin. Many of his well-meaning friends and family members had attempted to play matchmaker for him, and each time Calvin had been disappointed. Eventually he nearly resigned himself to celibacy.1 When Calvin’s friend William Farel wrote to tell of yet another possible life mate, Calvin responded: “I do not belong to that foolish group of lovers, who are willing to cover even the shortcomings of a woman with kisses, as soon as they have fallen for her external appearance. The only beauty that charms me is that she is virtuous, obedient, not arrogant, thrifty, and patient, and that I can expect her to care for my health.”2

When Calvin finally married Idelette van Buren, he found the one thing needful for which he was looking: a sincere and obedient heart of piety toward God. For Calvin and Idelette, such piety was key to braving the difficulties and challenges of married life.

While we know little of Calvin and Idelette’s home life, from all indications it was serene and godly despite its many tragedies and hardships. As we examine Idelette’s life with Calvin, let us focus on several lessons that we can learn from her godly example. In Idelette we see what can be called the blueprint for Christian marriage. It is the pattern of holy living that Colossians 3:12–13 says includes “kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another” (KJV). These ingredients that permeated John and Idelette’s marriage still offer us today a variety of helpful ways to enrich and bless our marriages.

Courtship

Calvin’s duties as a pastor and Reformer were too much for his health. He contracted so many diseases under his heavy load that his friends persuaded him that he needed a helpmate to relieve some of the burdens of domestic life. Calvin had several students living with him, a few retirees (pensioners), and a surly housekeeper and her son. Calvin’s good friend William Farel attempted twice to find Calvin a spouse who would match his biblical ideal.

Eventually Martin Bucer suggested the widow Idelette van Buren as a suitable candidate. By this time, Calvin was ready to remain single for the rest of his life. After contemplating Bucer’s suggestion, however, Calvin realized that Idelette indeed appeared to have the character that he sought.

Idelette was a young widow with two young children. Her former husband, Jean Stordeur, a cabinet maker from Liège (one of “those cities of the Netherlands in which the awakening had been most remarkable,” J.H. Merle D’Aubigne writes),3 contracted the plague in 1540 a little more than a year after Calvin’s arrival there and died within a few days. The Stordeurs lived in Strasburg, which was a refuge for Christians fleeing Roman persecution. They were Anabaptists, who were rejected by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and the Reformers alike. It is possible that Idelette was the daughter of a famous Anabaptist, Lambert van Buren, who in 1533 was convicted of heresy, had his property confiscated, and was banished from Liege.4

In addition to not believing in infant baptism, the Anabaptists embraced several teachings that differed from those of the Reformed faith. For example, the Anabaptists believed they should not participate in government or fight in wars. They also believed they should never swear an oath, even in court. In some cases, Anabaptists tried to separate themselves from the world by establishing their own communities. Though Jean and Idelette did not belong to the radical wing of the Anabaptists, generally speaking, the Anabaptists were radical in comparison to movements in the Magisterial Reformation (Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and the Reformed). Some Anabaptists stressed spiritual life at the expense of Scripture and sound doctrine. Others took radical measures to promote their beliefs, even to the point of violence. Interestingly, Calvin helped suppress Anabaptism by his writings and by supporting the imprisonment and banishment of some of its more radical members.5

For Calvin and Idelette, such piety was key to braving the difficulties and challenges of married life.

When Calvin and Farel were expelled from Geneva in 1538, Calvin began preaching in the French church in Strasburg, where Jean and Idelette attended services. How curious they must have been to hear Calvin, who was already well known for writing the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Convinced of the Reformed truth, Jean and Idelette soon left the Anabaptists and joined Calvin’s church. There they acquired a love for Scripture and its central place in worship. They also enjoyed the clear preaching, pastoral care, and warm friendship of their leader.6

At this time, Idelette was already exhibiting a strong commitment to Christ and a teachable spirit. Instead of resenting Calvin’s stern policy against the Anabaptists, she read the Institutes and learned to appreciate Calvin’s devotion to the Word of God. She and her husband attended many of Calvin’s daily Bible lectures. They were also very hospitable to Calvin. Calvin enjoyed their friendship and considered them, as they called themselves, his disciples. He admired “the simplicity and sanctity of their lives.”7

Jean Stordeur’s death was a profound blow to Idelette. Not only did she miss her dear husband, but she had no way to support herself and her children as a widow. However, shortly after Stordeur’s death, Bucer asked Calvin, “What about the gentle Idelette?” Though Calvin had formerly thought of Idelette as a dear sister in Christ, he now began to reconsider that relationship. While working hard to expand the Institutes from six chapters to seventeen, he must have periodically had Bucer’s question “Why not Idelette?” echoing in his mind. After all, the woman was godly, kind, and intelligent. Though she was a few years older than Calvin, she was strikingly youthful-looking and attractive. Machiel van den Berg noted that “the extroverted Farel expressed his astonishment that she was such a pretty woman!”8 Ultimately, though, it was the evident fruit of Colossians 3:12 in Idelette’s life that impressed Calvin, who pursued godliness in every aspect of his life.

Calvin had enjoyed Idelette’s hospitality both before and after her first husband had died. Those visits increased when Calvin formally began to court Idelette. A few months later, on August 17, 1540, Calvin married Idelette, taking her and her children (a son and daughter) into his home. Friends came from near and far to attend Calvin’s wedding.9

Character

Idelette was quiet, unassuming, cheerful, and yet sober.10 Theodore Beza, Calvin’s first reliable biographer, called her a most choice woman—“a serious-minded woman of good character.”11 Although she was petite and suffered from poor health, Idelette devoted all her strength to educating her children.12 Idelette’s faithfulness amid the hardships she faced indicated her meekness and humility. These responses did not mean that she was weak or fearful, however. Following Christ on the path of suffering takes great strength and courage, and Idelette submitted patiently to God’s various providences.

To make room for Idelette and her children in his little home in Strasburg, Calvin had to let two of his renters go. Letting these sources of revenue go was a significant sacrifice for Calvin, considering his meager salary, but he appears to have made it gladly. Only weeks after he was married, he wrote to Farel about how pleased he was with his new wife. As van den Berg writes, Calvin “clearly found marriage a special experience of joy.” Van den Berg goes on to say that their “marriage was more than simply a rational agreement; it became a true and solid bond of love and loyalty. The quiet and patient Idelette was an exceptionally suitable friend-in-marriage.”13

Shortly after he married Idelette, Calvin went to Regensburg to attend a theological debate. While he was gone, the plague hit Strasburg. One of Calvin’s closest friends, Claude Feray, died from it. Calvin worried about Idelette, who took refuge outside the city. He wrote, “Day and night my wife is in my thoughts, now that she is deprived of my counsel and must do without her husband.”14 Eventually Calvin could not take the worry anymore; he left the debate early to return to Idelette.

Idelette and Calvin stayed in Strasburg for less than a year before Calvin was called back to Geneva to continue his great work as a Reformer. The stress of this decision weighed heavily on him. Calvin’s letters from this period indicate that he was very happy in Strasburg and did not want to return to Geneva. He wrote to Farel, “I dread throwing myself into that whirlpool I found so dangerous.”15 While we have no account of Idelette’s thoughts and feelings at that time, the couple decided to move to Geneva in response to the will of God. Idelette’s daughter, Judith, accompanied them, while her son remained in Strasburg with relatives.

While the Genevan city council provided a beautiful parsonage for Idelette and Calvin at the top of the Rue de Chanoines—it had a little garden and a magnificent view of Lake Leman and the Jura mountains on one side and the Alps on the other—Calvin received only a salary of about $200 per year, twelve measures of corn, and two casks of wine. Though the resources at her disposal were very modest, Idelette gladly opened up her home to numerous refugees and frequently extended hospitality to Calvin’s friends, such as Farel, Beza, and Pierre Viret, who all highly respected her.

Idelette was willing to share with Calvin whatever burdens he carried and assured him that he should never be tempted to shrink from his duties for the sake of her ease and comfort.

Idelette was a wonderful wife and companion for Geneva’s most prominent pastor. When Calvin’s work as a pastor, writer, and civil servant threatened his health, Idelette proved to be a much-needed confidant, counselor, and sounding board. She tended to his downcast spirit and his fragile health, and visited the sick in his place. She also went out of her way to assure Calvin that she respected him for remaining true to God and Scripture, no matter the cost. Idelette was willing to share with him whatever burdens he carried and assured him that he should never be tempted to shrink from his duties for the sake of her ease and comfort. She was deeply committed to Calvin’s ministry as a preacher and teacher as well as to his organization of a form of church-state government founded on the principles of Scripture.16

After Idelette’s death in 1549, Calvin wrote to a friend: “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 exile and poverty, but even of my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance.”17

Perhaps the crucial point of Calvin and Idelette’s marriage is that God’s wisdom shines brightest in poor, earthen vessels. A woman Calvin considered marrying before marrying Idelette was very wealthy. Although she could have provided a substantial dowry, she did not speak his native French.18 Can you imagine trying to carry out the world-changing, church-shaping task of providing spiritual direction for the people of God during one of the most challenging times in history with a spouse who did not speak your own language? When we seek God’s will first for our lives, we obtain the blessing, says Colossians 3:24. Calvin and Idelette did not seek riches, status, or worldly gain for themselves. They are a beautiful example of believers who united together as spouses to do God’s work in a magnificent way.

Trials and Perseverance

Soon after their return to Geneva, Idelette prematurely gave birth to a little boy they named Jacques. The baby died a month later in August 1542. “The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound by the death of our infant son,” Calvin wrote to Viret. “But He is himself a Father and knows what is necessary for His children.”19 In the same letter, Calvin noted that Idelette was too grief-stricken to write, though she was submitting to God in her affliction. She had also nearly lost her life in the delivery of their baby. Calvin wrote to Viret that she had been in “extreme danger.”

Idelette recovered, but sorrow followed upon sorrow. Two years later, she gave birth to a daughter on May 30. Calvin wrote to Farel, “My little daughter labors under a continual fever,” and days later she too died.20 Sometime later, a third child was stillborn. In the midst of Calvin’s overwhelming duties and pressures, the grief of losing children was most profound, particularly for Idelette. Yet she and Calvin pressed on, submitting to the Lord and putting their trust in Him.

Insult was then heaped upon sorrow as some Roman Catholics wrote that since sterility in marriage was a reproach and a judgment, the childless condition of Calvin and Idelette must be God’s judgment against Calvin.21 One writer, Baudouin, even wrote, “He married Idelette by whom he had no children, though she was in the prime of life, that the name of this infamous man might not be propagated.”22

Calvin later said the profound affliction of his childlessness was lifted only by meditating on God’s Word and through prayer. He wrote privately to his close friend Pierre Viret that he also found comfort in knowing that he had “myriads of sons throughout the Christian world.”23

More heartbreak followed. Around this time, the plague struck people all over Geneva. It spread all over Europe, displacing hundreds of thousands of people from their cities and homes. From a letter (April 1541) to his father, we learn that Calvin sent Idelette and the children to Strasburg for safety. The separation from Idelette was unbearable. Though Calvin was deeply anxious about his wife’s safety,24 he was also unwavering in his confidence in Christ. We should learn from this that nothing on earth bound Idelette and Calvin together as strongly as their bond of love anchored in Christ.

In 1545, hundreds of persecuted Waldensians took refuge in Geneva. Idelette was at Calvin’s side during that time, working hard to provide lodging and employment for them. They were so tireless in their devotion to the immigrants that some Genevans accused them of being more helpful to strangers than to friends.

John and Idelette Calvin experienced joyous times as well as many heartaches. In our day, when so many psychologists and therapists promise help for marriages, it is tempting to dismiss Scripture as insufficient for telling us what married life should be. Yet Calvin and Idelette offer a striking example of how a Scripture-based, Christ-centered marriage can function in the midst of challenging circumstances. Losing children and friends, uprooting from one community to another, facing an incredibly demanding schedule, and adjusting to a new marriage are just some of the trials that this couple faced. Yet, they were blessed with a peaceful and joyous marriage and family life.

The Calvins were so tireless in their devotion to the immigrants that some Genevans accused them of being more helpful to strangers than to friends.

Calvin and Idelette attributed the success of their marriage to the grace of God. God was their source of forgiveness, compassion, mercy, tenderheartedness, patience, and contentment through all their difficulties. By God’s grace, these gifts and principles do not change with the times but remain stable in Christ for believers who pursue God-glorifying marriages. When we live by these principles in union with Christ, our marriages can know a joy that far exceeds worldly happiness.

Idelette’s Death

Idelette’s health steadily worsened during her nine years with Calvin. She suffered from fever during the last three years of her life. By March 1549, she was bedridden. At that same time, Calvin was being hounded by powerful enemies in Geneva (who would be defeated six years later). For the moment, it seemed that everything in his life was crashing down on him. The city appeared to be rejecting him, his reforms were failing, and his precious wife was dying. Yet, through it all, God sustained His servant.

Idelette’s last earthly concern was for her children. Calvin promised to treat them as his own, to which she replied, “I have already commended them to the Lord, but I know well that thou wilt not abandon those whom I have confided in the Lord.”25

“This greatness of soul,” Calvin later wrote, “will influence me more powerfully than a hundred commendations would have done.”26

At the close of her earthly life, Idelette prayed: “O God of Abraham and of all our fathers the faithful in all generations have trusted in Thee, and none have ever been confounded. I also will hope.”27 She passed on to glory on April 5, 1549. Calvin was at her side, speaking to her of the happiness they had enjoyed for nine years and about the joy she would soon have in “exchanging an abode on earth for her Father’s house above.”28

Calvin’s letters shortly after Idelette’s death expressed his grief over losing his dearest companion, who he said was a rare woman without equal.29 Even on her deathbed “she was never troublesome to me,” he wrote.30 That made Calvin’s sorrow even more profound. This trial shows us that submitting ourselves to the will of God does not excuse us from hardship.

Calvin was only forty when Idelette died. Like Hezekiah, he would see fifteen more years in his life, but they would be years without his precious wife. He wrote to his friends that he could scarcely continue with his work, yet he steeled himself to do so. His enemies charged Calvin with being heartless for working so diligently, but Calvin was anything but heartless. He wrote to a friend: “I do what I can that I may not be altogether consumed with grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life; she was the faithful helper of my ministry. . . . My friends leave nothing undone to lighten, in some degree, the sorrow of my soul. . . . May the Lord Jesus confirm you by His Spirit, and me also under this great affliction, which certainly would have crushed me had not He whose office it is to raise up the prostrate, to strengthen the weak, and to revive the faint, extended help to me from heaven.”31

Conclusion

Our culture has a cynical view of marriage and promiscuity. A recent report on the rising rate of divorce shows that it is highest among people ages twenty-five to thirty-five. However, the biblical view of marriage is quite different. Scripture teaches us that sin has deeply disfigured God’s intentions for marriage, but Christ has lovingly restored it.32 True joy in marriage results when a husband strives to love his wife the way Christ loves the church and when the wife strives to respect her husband the way the church respects Jesus Christ. John and Idelette Calvin knew that joy. One of the most amazing things about their relationship is that they exuded joy even in the most traumatic circumstances. They knew what it meant to rejoice in God in the midst of persecution. They found joy in the fear of God as they strove to glorify Him. They found joy in their salvation, joy in their fidelity to each other, joy in each other’s love and companionship, and joy in service to their neighbor. In short, Idelette was a genuine, joyous helpmate to her husband.

Idelette and John Calvin proved that true joy is not found in living for one’s self; it is found only in serving God as number one, serving our spouse as number two, and serving ourselves as number three. That is the essence of the blueprint for a truly joyous marriage and joyous life that Paul outlines for us in Colossians 3:12–17. 33

 

  1. John Calvin, Tracts and Letters (repr., Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 4:191. ↩︎
  2. Machiel A. van den Berg, Friends of Calvin, trans. Reinder Bruinsma (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009), 125 (cf. Tracts and Letters, 4:141). ↩︎
  3. J.H. Merle D’Aubigné, History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin (repr., Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle, 2000), 6:508. ↩︎
  4. D’Aubigné, History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin, 6:508; cf. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1985), 8:415. ↩︎
  5. Willem Balke, Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, trans. William J. Heynen (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1981). ↩︎
  6. J.H. Alexander, Ladies of the Reformation: Short Biographies of Distinguished Ladies of the Sixteenth Century (repr., New York: Westminster, 2002), 88. ↩︎
  7. Alexander, Ladies of the Reformation, 89. ↩︎
  8. Van den Berg, Friends of Calvin, 129. ↩︎
  9. D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin, 6:509. ↩︎
  10. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8:416. Farel recalled her disposition as “grave.” ↩︎
  11. Theodore Beza, The Life of John Calvin (Darlington, England: Evangelical, 1997), 35; cf. Edna Gerstner, Idelette (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992). ↩︎
  12. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8:415. ↩︎
  13. Van den Berg, Friends of Calvin, 130. ↩︎
  14. Van den Berg, Friends of Calvin, 131. ↩︎
  15. Alexander, Ladies of the Reformation, 91. ↩︎
  16. Alexander, Ladies of the Reformation, 91–92. ↩︎
  17. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8:419. ↩︎
  18. She spoke German, which Calvin did not know well. ↩︎
  19. Alexander, Ladies of the Reformation, 93. ↩︎
  20. Calvin, Tracts and Letters, 4:420. ↩︎
  21. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8:418–19. ↩︎
  22. Alexander, Ladies of the Reformation, 93. ↩︎
  23. Alexander, Ladies of the Reformation, 93. ↩︎
  24. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8:421. ↩︎
  25. James I. Good, Famous Women of the Reformed Church (repr., Birmingham, Ala.: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2002), 29. ↩︎
  26. Alexander, Ladies of the Reformation, 97. ↩︎
  27. Good, Famous Women of the Reformed Church, 29. ↩︎
  28. Alexander, Ladies of the Reformation, 97. ↩︎
  29. Michael Haykin, “Christian Marriage in the 21st Century: Listening to John Calvin on the Purpose of Marriage,” in Calvin for the 21st Century (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage, 2009), forthcoming—page 13 of manuscript of address given at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary Conference, Grand Rapids, Mich., August 2009. ↩︎
  30. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8:419. ↩︎
  31. Alexander, Ladies of the Reformation, 97. ↩︎
  32. Haykin, “Christian Marriage in the 21st Century,” 15. ↩︎
  33. This article has been adapted from an address given on October 31, 2009, to a breakout session for women at the seventeenth annual Audubon Bible Church Reformation Celebration in Laurel, Miss. ↩︎

The Wholly Holy Love of God

How Dare We Say That We Know...