The new issue of Credo Magazine is unique, drawing our attention to an aspect of the Reformation often forgotten: The Reformation of the Family. Today we would like to highlight Michael Nelson’s article, “The Best Companion of My Life: John Calvin’s search for a wife.”
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.
Here is an excerpt from his article:
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. His natural disposition was reserved and serious. It is only when you peer into the depths of his marriage that you begin to see what kind of man John Calvin really was.
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?” …