Founders Journal 75 · Winter 2009 · pp. 28-31
John and Idelette Calvin
Excerpt from: The Christian Lover: The Sweetness of Love and Marriage in the Letters of Believers by Michael A.G. Haykin with Victoria J. Haykin (Reformed Trust Publishing, 2009).
If Martin Luther was the pioneer of the Reformation, his younger contemporary, John Calvin (1509-1563), should be regarded as the Reformantion’s systematic theologian. For nearly all of his ministry, from 1536 till his death in 1564, Calvin was in exile in Francophone Geneva. These years in Geneva were interrupted, though, by a period spent in Strasbourg from 1538 to 1541, and it was during that period that Calvin was married.
At the urging of a number of friends, including his close colleague Guillaume Farel (1489-1565), Calvin had drawn up a list of the attributes he sought in a wife. He was not really concerned with physical beauty, he told Farel on one occasion. Instead, he was looking for a woman who was chaste, sober-minded, prudent, patient, and able “to take care of my health.” Farel told him that he knew just the woman, but it didn’t work out. Then a woman from the upper class was proposed. But she couldn’t speak French, about which Calvin was not at all happy. Calvin was also afraid that her social status might be an inducement to pride. Calvin’s brother Antoine (d. 1573), though, was keen about the marriage. So Calvin agreed to consider marriage as long as the woman promised to learn French. This was at the beginning of 1540. But by late March of that year, Calvin was saying that he would never think of marrying her “unless the Lord had entirely bereft me of my wits.”
By August, however, he had met and married another woman, a widow by the name of Idelette de Bure (ca. 1499-1549) who had two children. Her first husband, Jean Stordeur (d.1540), had been an Anabaptist leader, who, through discussing theology with Calvin, had become convinced of the Reformed position.
Calvin did not say a lot about his wife in his letters during their eight and a half years of marriage (she died in March 1549, having suffered from ill health for a number of years), but two statements reveal how close they were. For example, during the spring of 1541, before he returned to Geneva, Calvin was with his wife in Strasbourg. A plague was raging in the city, and Calvin decided to stay in Strasbourg but send his wife away for her safety. He wrote to Farel that “day and night my wife has been constantly in my thoughts, in need of advice now that she is separated from her husband.” A second statement appears in a letter written after the death of their one son, Jacques, who died soon after his premature birth in 1542. “The Lord,” Calvin wrote to another close friend, Pierre Viret (1511-1571), “has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our baby son. But he is himself a Father and knows best what is good for his children.”
In the two letters that follow, Calvin gives details of Idelette’s death to Viret and Farel. His intense grief speaks to his deep love for her. And one sees Calvin’s tenderness toward his wife as he tells of his steps to relieve any anxieties she may have had about the future of her children after her death. Such kindness is a model for spouses.
John Calvin to Pierre Viret 
April 7, 1549
Although the death of my wife has been exceedingly painful to me, yet I subdue my grief as well as I can. Friends, also, are earnest in their duty to me. It might be wished, indeed, that they could profit me and themselves more; yet one can scarcely say how much I am supported by their attentions. But you know well enough how tender, or rather soft, my mind is. Had not a powerful self-control, therefore, been vouchsafed to me, I could not have borne up so long. And truly mine is no common source of grief, I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, of one who, had it so been 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. As I feared these private cares might annoy her to no purpose, I took occasion, on the third day before her death, to mention that I would not fail in discharging my duty to her children. Taking up the matter immediately, she said, “I have already committed them to God.” When I said that was not to prevent me from caring for them, she replied, “I know you will not neglect what you know has been committed to God.”
John Calvin to Guillaume Farel 
Geneva, April 11, 1549
Intelligence of my wife’s death has perhaps reached you before now. I do what I can to keep myself from being overwhelmed with grief. My friends also leave nothing undone that may administer relief to my mental suffering. When your brother left, her life was all but despaired of. When the brethren were assembled on Tuesday, they thought it best that we should join together in prayer. This was done. When Abel, in the name of the rest, exhorted her to faith and patience, she briefly (for she was greatly worn) stated her frame of mind. I afterwards added an exhortation, which seemed to me appropriate to the occasion. And then, as she made no allusion to her children, I fearing that, restrained by modesty, she might be feeling an anxiety concerning them, which would cause her greater suffering than the disease itself, declared in the presence of the brethren, that I should henceforth care for them as if they were my own. She replied, “I have already committed them to the Lord.” When I replied, that that was not to hinder me from doing my duty, she immediately answered, “If the Lord shall care for them, I know they will be commended to you.” Her magnanimity was so great, that she seemed to have already left the world.
About the sixth hour of the day, on which she yielded up her soul to the Lord, our brother Bourgouin addressed some pious words to her, and while he was doing so, she spoke aloud, so that all saw her heart was raised far above the world. For these were her words: “O glorious resurrection! O God of Abraham, and all our fathers, in thee have the faithful trusted during so many past ages, and none of them have trusted in vain. I also will hope.” These short sentences were rather ejaculated than distinctly spoken. This did not come from the suggestion of others, but from her own reflections, so that she made it obvious in few words what were her own meditations.
I had to go out at six o’clock. Having been removed to another apartment after seven, she immediately began to decline. When she felt her voice suddenly failing her, she said: “Let us pray: let us pray. All pray for me.” I had not returned. She was unable to speak, and her mind seemed to be troubled. I, having spoken a few words about the love of Christ, the hope of eternal life, concerning our married life, and her departure, engaged in prayer. In full possession of her mind, she both heard the prayer, and attended to it. Before eight she expired, so calmly, that those present could scarcely distinguish between her life and death. I at present control my sorrow so that my duties may not be interfered with .
Adieu, brother, and very excellent friend. May the Lord Jesus strengthen you by his Spirit; and may he support me also under this heavy affliction, which would certainly overcome me had no he, who raises up the prostrate, strengthens the weak, and refreshes the weary, stretched forth his hand from heaven to me. Salute all the brethren and your whole family.
1 T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1975), 71.
2 Ibid., 71-72.
3 Cited in ibid., 72.
4 T. H. L. Parker, Portrait of Calvin (London: SCM Press, 1954), 70-71.
5 Cited in ibid. 71.
6 Cited in ibid.
7 From Letters of John Calvin, compiled by Jules Bonnet (1858 ed.; reprint, New York: Burt Franklin, 1972), 2:217-219.
8 From Ibid., 216-217.
9 François Bourgouin was one of the elders in the Geneva church.