12 June 2007
Idelette de Bure and John Calvin
Idelette de Bure
Wife of Calvin
By J. H. Alexander
STRASBURG in the 1530s was an intensely interesting and lively city, second only to Wittenberg where Luther and his disciples presided. It had become the refuge of many persecuted people, chiefly, over the last ten years, from France. These were the first who had to escape from that country since the dawn of the Gospel there. Bucer and Capito were the Protestant pastors in Strasburg, and the hazardous course of the Reformation, the translation of the Bible, and the writings of Luther and others were the daily topics in university and market. There were open debates and almost daily lectures for the public.
Among the ordinary citizens attracted to these things was a John Storder from Liege, who, with his wife, Idelette de Bure of Guelderland, had come to live in Strasburg for the sake of the Gospel. We do not know if they were actually refugees or what their circumstances were, but they were of cultured mind, and are described as ‘persons of enlightened and ardent piety’. They were connected with the Anabaptists, who were at first a branch of the Protestant churches but later broke away from the faith as held by the Reformers.
One day news came that John Calvin had been invited to come and be pastor to the French congregation in Strasburg (he — a Frenchman). Everyone was interested in this news, for the name of this man was familiar with the French sector, and many of them had copies of his small book, The Institutes, then in just six chapters. He had written this book to clarify the confusion in the minds of both Protestants and papists as to what the Reformed doctrines really were, and why the martyrs had died.
They also knew that he and William Farel had just been expelled from Geneva and all were eager to welcome the young man. Bucer and Capito had procured him this appointment, though his own inclinations had been for a life of study at Basle. The council, too, had granted him the post of Professor of Theology at the university.
He arrived in September 1538 and at once took up his appointments. It was not long before the fame of his eloquence was being talked of everywhere, and John Storder and his wife went to hear him. They were charmed with his style of preaching, modest and yet clear in every point he took up. In his expositions of the Scriptures he showed great mastery, but above that his love for the divine Word shone in his face. His firm belief in the inspiration of the Scriptures impressed them too. They very soon gave up their attendance on the Anabaptists and attended the French church.
Calvin was also under duty to give a daily lecture on the Scriptures and to preach four times a week. Storder and Idelette attended as many as they could (they had two little children), and the deep doctrines of the Bible as expounded by this man of God entered their hearts. ‘They were persuaded of them and embraced them.’
They invited him to their home and warm friendship developed. They heard about the two amazing years he and William Farel had spent in Geneva battling with disputes in church and state. The Reformed ministers there had held up their hands loyally but an unruly section of the city had stirred up strife at every turn. Calvin’s great principle in church government was that holy things should not be given to the unholy, and that a profession of Christianity should carry with it a Christian walk in life. This principle would bring more purity into the church and morality and liberty into state government. Many had agreed with him, he told them, but many could not tolerate a rebuke on their lives or any restraint on them. Thus, finally, he and Farel had been banished from that wicked city — a turbulent place indeed, very different from Strasburg with its leaven of French scholarly families.
Calvin worked endlessly: he took his pastoral duties seriously; he lectured at the University; he enlarged his Institutes from six chapters to seventeen and saw it published. As a disputant, with his clear vision and sound theology as well as his ability to present arguments, he was chosen as deputy for Strasburg in several conferences which strove after unity, political (called by the Emperor) and religious (sponsored by the Pope’s representatives). In each case the result was a stalemate. Nothing could unite the Papacy and the Reformed religion. The only pleasure Calvin got from the first conference was a meeting with Philip Melancthon, a great joy to both men of God. He was very badly paid (the council only gave him a small stipend the third year he was there!) and doubtless the French refugees could hardly give him anything. He had a small interest in his father’s estate, but to his sorrow had to sell some of his books in order to live. The hospitality of the Storders must have been very welcome to him, though he never spoke about money. He loved to think of them, as they styled themselves, his disciples, and he on his side admired their knowledge and love of the truth and ‘the simplicity and sanctity of their lives’.
There were but two years of this happy friendship before sorrow came to the home. The plague! Dreaded word. And John Storder was its victim. A three-days’ illness was its course, and between one week and the next, Idelette was a widow and her little children fatherless. Was Calvin with them when this stroke fell? We do not know. It could not have been a raging epidemic for there is no mention of any others in the little circle getting it. The house would have to be ‘purged’ and then life went on as before. The young minister still came to his kind hostess and relaxed at her hearth. She cooked him a meal and listened to his troubles and joined in his evening devotions.
His position being secure and honourable in that strangers came to Strasburg specially to meet and converse with him, his friends thought he ought to marry and have a home of his own. (He was probably in modest lodgings.) He pondered the question himself and wrote to a friend that he would like a wife. ‘The only kind of beauty which can win my soul is a woman who is chaste, not fastidious, economical, patient, and who is likely to interest herself in my health.’ He also said, when actually negotiating a marriage with a lady at a distance ‘If she answers her reputation she will bring, in personal good qualities, a dowry large enough without any money at all.’ (This lady, however, failed in her reputation and Calvin’s negotiations came to a rapid end there.) All this time he was still coming to Idelette’s house, eating at her table, watching her attend to her little ones, and enjoying her conversation. It appears as though it was his friends who suggested to him, when he had given up his mind to living a single life, ‘What about the gentle Idelette?’ and his eyes opened to see her worth. She was about his own age, comely, kindly, and very intelligent. Suddenly he began to court her, and in a very few months married her. His friends all rejoiced with them and the occasion was celebrated with all hilarity and yet solemnity, as was the custom of the times. There is no record of the setting-up of a new home. Very likely he moved into the Storder house. It was a very happy union.
They had not been married more than six months when the first of three pressing invitations came to him to return to Geneva. The four most powerful syndics (councillors) who had banished him and Farel before were now gone — one to the scaffold, one to death, and two to flight. The city which had begun to see the moral advantages of a reformed system of religion was now in a state of great disorder and stood to lose its freedom if the papal party took over. All realized they needed an authoritative voice from pulpit and council-chamber, and their banished Calvin was the very one they needed. ‘But I dread’, wrote Calvin to Farel, ‘throwing myself into that whirlpool I found so dangerous.’ For several months letters kept arriving from the two Protestant ministers there and from many private citizens begging him to return. Finally Bucer, though loath to see him leave Strasburg, told him it was his duty to go. Calvin gave in. If Bucer thought it was his duty, that settled it. He consented, and Geneva immediately sent a mounted herald to escort him. ‘Loaded with honours from the magistrates’ he left alone, slowly, pausing awhile at Neufchâtel to confer with his dear friend, Farel. A week or two later three horses and a wagon were sent for Idelette and the furniture and a herald to protect her and her children.
A house was provided for them at the top of the rue des Chanoines, a house with a little garden behind and magnificent views of Lake Leman (Geneva) and the Jura Mountains to one side and the Alps on the other. Calvin was given a salary of 500 Genevese forms (about £120), twelve measures of corn, and two casks of wine. On his arrival he had been presented with a piece of cloth for a gown.
Calvin set about his new work immediately. ‘I declared’, he says ‘that a church could not hold together unless a settled government should be agreed on such as is prescribed to us in the word of God’ — a kind of Biblical church-state. He drew up a plan whereby a presbyterian consistory was interwoven with the magistracy, so that the morals of the people should not only be preached about but enforced and, if necessary, punished by the church, and failing that, the law. This plan was closely examined by the magistrates, adopted by the Two Hundred, accepted by the General Council, and then put to the vote by the people. All this within three months!
Unsympathetic historians have painted ‘Calvin’s Geneva’ as a dreary place where no one dared to smile and Calvin himself as a stern tyrant, but documents of the time show a different picture, and it must always be remembered that the Genevese people themselves voted agreement. ‘They engaged to frequent public worship regularly, to bring up their children in the fear of the Lord, to renounce all debauchery, all immoral amusements, to maintain simplicity in their clothing, frugality and order in their dwellings.’ When the great body of citizens filling St. Peter’s Cathedral raised their hands in agreement as each ordinance was read out and explained to them, it must have reminded Calvin of the wonderful scene when the Israelites vowed to Joshua that they would serve the Lord and obey his voice only.
It was one of the most inspiring moments in the social history of Europe — even of the world. Other reformers had broached some such ideals but none laid down such clear rules as Calvin, nor had such a free hand to see them put into practice.
Calvin — only thirty-two years old, remember, was now committed to an immense amount of civil work — committees met every week — as well as preaching, teaching, writing, and correspondence. He used to rise at 5 am. and begin dictating to a student. He was again expanding his Institutes for the third edition and was also writing a commentary on separate books of the Bible. Idelette in her loving care of his health and comfort was all that he could desire. By her cheerful, soothing words she would revive his spirits when, as sometimes, they were dejected almost to despair as the larger troubles of European Protestantism were added to his burdens. ‘Her counsel to him always was to be true to God at whatever cost; and that he might not be tempted from a regard for her ease and comfort to shrink from the conscientious performance of his duty, she assured him of her readiness to share with him whatever perils might befall him.’
In July 1542, the first year of the new regime getting under way in Geneva, a little son was born to them. Idelette was dangerously ill. Calvin wrote to his friend Peter Viret at Lausanne, whose wife was a close friend of theirs, ‘This brother, the bearer, will tell you in what anguish I now write to you. My wife has been delivered prematurely, not without extreme danger. May the Lord look down upon us in mercy!’ Idelette recovered and in this child the fondest hopes of the parents were centred. They regarded him with grateful hearts as the gift of that bountiful Benefactor whose ‘heritage’ children are. As often as they kneeled at the throne of grace he was the object of their fervent prayers. But to their great grief the little boy was early taken from them. Idelette was overcome. ‘Greet all the brethren’, writes Calvin to Viret, ‘and your wife, to whom mine returns her thanks for so much friendly and pious consolation. She could only reply by means of an amanuensis, and it would be very difficult for her even to dictate a letter. The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound by the death of our infant son. But He is himself a Father and knows what is necessary for his children.’
Two years later they had a daughter, but on 30 May of that year Calvin writes to Farel, ‘My little daughter labours under a continual fever’, and the dear child was presently dead. A third child was given them and in like manner taken away in infancy. These were deep griefs to Calvin and Idelette in the midst of their pressing duties. Popish writers from their hatred to Calvin have said cruel things. ‘He married Idelette’, writes one, ‘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.’ Some of these lying statements were made even in Calvin’s lifetime. ‘Baudouin twits me’, he writes, ‘with my want of offspring. The Lord gave me a son but soon took him away. Baudouin reckons this among my disgraces that I have no children. I have myriads of sons throughout the Christian world.’
As the fame of Geneva grew so did its population, with the influx of interested strangers, students wishing to train under Calvin, and refugees from France, Netherlands, England, and Italy.
A welcome refugee to Geneva at that time was Clement Marot, a French lyrical poet who had published a book of twenty-five psalms in metre, done from the French translation of the Book of Psalms. This book had spread with astonishing rapidity throughout the Reformed churches and was so popular, being sung to ballad tunes all over the countryside, that the Sorbonne had set a black mark against Marot’s name, and he had fled, first to Navarre, where Marguerite the Queen had very kindly housed him, and thence to Italy, back again to France, and now towards the end of his life to Geneva. Calvin and Idelette gave him help and hospitality. Calvin instantly saw the value of the versified psalms and got him to versify twenty-five more psalms, and this book of fifty was published in 1543, with a preface by himself. Editions were quickly published in France, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland, and the presses could hardly keep pace with the demand. It was a new thing for the congregation to take part in the service of the sanctuary. In the past the people had to stand silent as choir-boys sang in a dead language. There was not even respect among them! Now they knew what was going on and, better still, they could sing. It was lovely! It was inspiring!
Calvin also considered the importance of suitable tunes to match the dignity and beauty of the words, and applied to the most distinguished musicians of the day. William Franc of Strasburg responded, and to him we owe some beautiful Genevan tunes. Now would the noble ‘Old Hundredth’ be heard in the large churches, in the homes too. Christoffel records that at Appell am Zell the congregation became too large for the church and moved into the meadows. ‘The echo of their mountains awoke responsive to the voice of the preacher and the psalms with which they closed blended with the sound of the torrents.’
‘This one ordinance alone’, writes one historian, ‘contributed mightily to the propagation of the Gospel. It became an especial part of the morning and evening worship in the Christian homes.’ How Idelette must have delighted in this divine relaxation for her husband. She would teach the psalms to her little girls, just as the ministers taught them to the illiterate children who, though they could not read, would sing them in their peasant homes and thus again teach their parents. So the lovely words of David rang again upon the earth.
Clement Marot, a sick man after his perils, died in 1544. Some few years later Calvin asked Theodor Beza to do a complete Psalter.
In 1545 hundreds of Waldensians, driven by terrible persecution from their valleys, came over the Alps to Geneva. Calvin and his wife did their utmost for them in the way of hospitality, finding them lodgings and employment. Calvin set up a subscription for their relief and got the council to employ them in repairing the fortifications. In fact so zealous were they that they were blamed for being more careful of these strangers than of the native population.
For only five years did Geneva’s remarkable church-state flourish before cracks began to show in it. Although the ‘working members’ were elected each year and could be changed if proved unsuitable, there was a hard core in the Two Hundred that the state found it difficult to touch. This consisted of members of some of the old aristocratic and wealthy families. Used to an idle social life they began to chafe at the restraints and gradually a most vicious faction developed called the Libertines. Aiming at being no respecters of persons, the council judged the atrocities of these people impartially but roused them to great rage and unfortunately awakened some sympathy in many of the Two Hundred. A great crisis arose in December 1547 which threatened to ruin the little republic. It was Calvin himself they hated. A meeting was called and the Libertine members of the Two Hundred went sword in hand. Friends of the ministers begged them not to go. Idelette lay at home in a declining illness and with trepidation saw Calvin go alone to the council chamber. A great clamour arose. He looked undismayed and silence fell. ‘I know’, he said, ‘that I am the primary cause of these divisions. If it is my life you desire I am ready to die. If you desire once more to save Geneva without the Gospel, you can try.’ This challenge brought the council to its senses. The men remembered the old disorders and how they had sent imploringly to Strasburg for this very man. Peace fell upon the meeting and Calvin held out his hand to the ringleader.
But it was only a truce. ‘Not a week but might not be Calvin’s last in Geneva’ we read. And now his dear Idelette was fading. It was a very dark time to the Reformer. He was openly insulted in the streets, dogs were called by his name, and he saw that same ring-leader, Perrin, so ingratiating himself as to be voted First Syndic. He could see that the day would come when Geneva must stand or fall. We know that it did stand, and that the Libertines were defeated in a memorable scene six years later at the Lord’s Table, but Calvin did not know that, and his last days with Idelette were heavily clouded. Three days before her death he spoke to her about her own two children. ‘I have already commended them to the Lord’, she said. ‘That will not prevent me from caring for them’, he said. ‘I am sure you will not neglect the children whom you know to be commended to the Lord’, she answered. ‘This greatness of soul’, said Calvin later, ‘will influence me more powerfully than a hundred commendations would have done.’
‘O glorious resurrection’ were her dying words, ‘O God of Abraham and of all our fathers! Thy people have trusted in thee from the beginning and in all ages. None has been put to shame. I also will look for thy salvation.’ Calvin was with her at the end and ‘spoke to her of the happiness which he and she had enjoyed in each other during the period of their union (nine years only), and her exchanging an abode on earth for her Father’s house above’.
She died on April 1549. Calvin was only forty and had to face fifteen years (Hezekiah’s number) without her. During the whole of her illness she had been attended by the distinguished physician Benedict Textor, to whom, in grateful remembrance, Calvin dedicated his Commentary on II Thessalonians.
Calvin felt her death most keenly, but because he was able to discharge his duties without intermission his enemies have said he was heartless. ‘I do what I can’, he writes, ‘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.’
Time alleviated the bitterness of his sorrow, but in thinking of Idelette he was often afterwards filled with heaviness, and in the longings of his weary spirit for the rest of Heaven, the thought of being associated for ever with her made even Heaven more desirable. From what he suffered in his heart on this occasion he was touched with a tenderer sympathy than he had previously felt for his brethren when visited with the same kind of trial. ‘How severe a wound’, he wrote to a friend who lost his wife, ‘the death of your most excellent wife has inflicted upon you I know from my own experience. I remember how difficult it was for me to master my grief. . . . May the Lord of your widowhood allay your sadness by the grace of His spirit, guide you by His spirit, and bless your labours.’