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.
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.
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
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
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.