Idelette D’bures, Calvin’s Wife

Rev. James I. Good

THE wife of Calvin is an almost unknown, but very interesting character, and worthy of a more prominent place among the women of the Reformed Church. Calvin did not think of marrying till he was thirty years of age, when he came to Strasburg in 1539. Then it was that he had more leisure to consider this important matter. His friends, too, urged him to marry. Well-meaning friends had anxiously concerned themselves about it long before he did, for he was over thirty years of age when he began to seriously consider it. An irate housekeeper drove him to seek for a wife. For she was so ill-tempered that one day she spoke to Calvin’s brother, Antoine, with such impertinence that he left the house, saying he never would enter it again as long as she was there. Whereat she replied, “Then I am going, too,” and she left Calvin, without any one to care for him.

So as he wished to be freed from the petty worries of life that he might give himself more fully to the work of the Lord, he began to search for a suitable person for a wife; or rather, he let his friends search for him, as he thought they knew better than he did. But he reserved for himself the final decision in the matter. He seems to have had several ladies recommended to him. “I was offered,” he wrote to Farel, his closest friend, “a lady who was rich, young and of noble birth, and whose dower surpassed all that I could desire. Two things, however, urged me to refuse. She could not speak French, and it seemed to me she must be rather proud of her birth and education.”

The main difficulty Calvin experienced was in the moral qualities of the person he sought. He looked beyond mere beauty of face or form, seeking beauty of soul. He says “he wished a wife who would be gentle, pure, modest, economical, patient, and to whom the care of her husband would be the chief matter;” probably owing to his poor health he felt especial need of the last named requisite. He evidently had a lofty ideal of the wife he wanted. Indeed, it has been said that his marriage was not so much of the heart as of the head, and made not through falling in love as much as being a business matter. He has, therefore, been charged with being a cold, though kind husband. This would in some sense seem natural to one like Calvin, who was so eminently intellectual. And yet D’Aubigné says, “This seems to me doubtful; when once married, he had a genuine affection for his wife. There was, we believe, a lofty intellect and a sublime genius, but also that love of kindred, those affections of the heart that complete the man.”

These high ideals of Calvin only reveal how high must have been the character of Idelette De Bures (Van Buren) to be able to fulfill them. When Calvin had sought for a wife until he was almost ready to give up, Bucer called his attention to Idelette, for Bucer had known her for her piety, her watchful tenderness and power of self-sacrifice as a wife, widow, and mother. She had fled from Liege for the sake of her Protestant faith, and had married John Storder who had been an Anabaptist, but both had been converted to the Reformed faith through Calvin’s efforts. Calvin, therefore, had become acquainted with her before her husband’s death. She, it seems, had been living so retired that he did not think of her at first. He, however, had noticed her deep-seated faith, devoted affection and Christian courage, that had led her to give up all for her faith. So Calvin proposed to her and was accepted.

The marriage took place August 1, 1540. It was quite a large public wedding, some of the Swiss towns, as Neuchâtel, being represented by deputies. Calvin’s friends from France also took part in the wedding. Calvin was very happy after the wedding. He called Idelette “the excellent companion of his life, the ever faithful assistant of his ministry.” He believed what the Bible says, “that whoso findeth a wife, findeth a good thing and obtaineth favor of the Lord.” D’Aubigné calls attention to the fact that the reason why we know so much less about her than we do of Luther’s wife, is because Calvin wrote less about her. And he did this purposely. For what Calvin prized most in his heart was her modesty. He, therefore, had such a sense of propriety that he did not obtrude her in his letters or his work any more than he would have thought of seeing her gadding about in the street. With him, too, everything was swayed by the thought of the work of Christ, and all his private and domestic affairs were eclipsed by this. For these reasons he wrote less about her than Luther, and therefore, unfortunately for us, we know less about her. But this very silence is in itself a beautiful tribute to her character.

Hardly had Calvin been married than he had to leave her. He was summoned to go to the conferences at Hagenau and Worms on account of political affairs. He left his wife at Strasburg in the care of his brother Antoine, and of a family named Richebourg, whose sons had been his pupils. Hardly had he gone, before the awful plague broke out in Strasburg. But duty to the Protestant cause, which was imperiled at these conferences, was stronger than duty to his family, and he could not come home. Meanwhile the plague raged violently. Young Louis De Richebourg and Claude Ferey, an intimate friend of Calvin’s, soon died of it. Antoine, his brother, fled from Strasburg. Calvin in agony watched the mail for the news, fearing the worst for his wife. He wrote to a friend in Strasburg, “Day and night I see my wife before my eyes, who is in the midst of these dangers without help and advice, because her husband is away. I make great efforts to resist my grievous anxiety. I have recourse to prayer and holy meditation.” His prayers were heard, Idelette’s life was spared, and she was permitted to welcome him back to Strasburg.

When Calvin was recalled to Geneva he left her at Strasburg. The council of Geneva sent three horses and a carriage to bring her and her household. They allotted a house with a garden attached for Calvin and his wife. There she revealed the same beautiful characteristics of a faithful wife. She was devoted to her husband. As he was naturally sickly and weak, she watched by his bedside in sickness, and cheered him in moments of weakness and depression. She thus greatly soothed him in the midst of the tremendous burdens of his labors. Doubtless we owe much of the abundance and clearness of his thoughts to her kind ministry in the home. Often she watched by his bedside at night, holding up his weary head, for he was a terrible sufferer of headaches. In his sad hours, when adverse news came, she strengthened and comforted him. When the rebellious raged through the streets, crying out against the ministers of Geneva, she retired to her chamber, fell on her knees and prayed.

Like a good pastor’s wife she visited the sick. She was often seen comforting the sorrowing. Her house was an asylum for the numerous refugees who came crowding to Geneva. She cared for them with such beautiful hospitality that by some she was blamed for being more careful of strangers than of the natives of Geneva. She delighted in the company of his friends, especially of Farel, Beza, and others. She would accompany her husband on his walks, which he took only too rarely, to Cologny and Bellerive. Viret’s wife was to her as a sister, and in May, 1545, when her husband went to Zurich to stir up the German cantons to intercede for the Waldenses, she visited Viret’s wife at Lausanne.

But she had great sorrows which brought much sickness. One by one her children were taken away from her by death in infancy. In July, 1542, she became very sick, and Calvin was greatly alarmed. He wrote to Viret, ‘‘I am in great anxiety.” The next month her newborn babe died. Great was Calvin’s grief. Writing to Viret, he says, “Salute all the brethren—salute also thy wife, to whom mine sends her thanks for the sweet and holy consolation which she received from her. She would write to acknowledge these with her own hand, but she had not strength to dictate a few words. In that He hath taken away our son, He hath stricken us sorely, but He is our Father. He knoweth what is meet for His children.” Thus wrote Calvin, and yet he has been reproached as one whose heart was in his head, and as having no tender, deep feelings.

Two years after this another child died, an infant daughter. And the next year another baby died. But like Rachel of old, Idelette mourned, and yet, unlike Rachel, she did not refuse to be comforted, for her consolation was that they were with Christ, which is far better. This sorrow was made all the greater because the Catholics claimed that their deaths were a judgment on them for being heretics. Calvin and his wife bore these reproaches with meekness, Calvin replying to them that though he had no natural children living, he had myriads of spiritual sons throughout the Christian world.

Her married life lasted only nine years. She never had been strong. In 1549 it was evident that she was becoming seriously ill. For three years she had suffered from fever, which with her sorrows had completely broken her down. Calvin now wrote to Viret, “I fear a fatal termination. The Lord will perhaps show us a more favorable countenance.” His fears proved only too true. Although his wife had the best of physicians, Textor, who was a refugee and warm personal friend of Calvin’s, yet all the physician’s efforts failed to stay the disease. She gradually grew worse, and by April first her condition became so serious that all hope of cure was given up. Beza and others of Calvin’s friends, as soon as they heard this, hastened to Calvin to comfort him. As she neared death, only one thing seemed to trouble her—her children of her former marriage to Storder. Calvin, seeing she was troubled, divining the reason, promised to treat them just as if they were his own children. At which she said, “I have already commended them to the Lord, but I know well that thou wilt not abandon those whom I have confided to the Lord.”

This last worldly care having been cast off her mind, she calmly waited for death. Although suffering very much, her face revealed the sweetness of the peace that reigned within. Her pastor Borgonius, who visited her on the evening of April 6, speaks of her simplicity of faith and elevation of hope as truly edifying. “O glorious resurrection,” she exclaimed while he was speaking, and again, “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, too, trust in Thee from time to time.” At six o’clock she said, as her friends had moved her to another bed and she was feeling very weak, “Pray, my friends; pray for me.” Calvin drew closer to her; she still recognized him; he spoke to her of the grace of Christ and of that strength which was made perfect in weakness. He reminded her—though his voice faltered in doing so—of the blessed eternity of joy upon which she was about to enter. And then he prayed with her, commending her to Him in whom both believed. About 9 o’clock (April 5, 1549) she ceased to breathe, but so peacefully did she pass away that for some moments the watchers by her bedside were uncertain whether she slept or was dead.

Calvin, writing of her to Farel and Viret, says of her: “I have lost her who would never have quitted me either in exile, or misery, or death. She was a precious help to me, and never occupied with self. The best of partners has been taken from me.” And seven years later, when writing to Valeville, the French pastor at Frankford, who had lost his wife, he says, “I know from my own experience how painful and burning are the wounds which the death of an excellent wife causes. How hard it has been to become master of my sorrows.” Calvin, although duties pressed on him more than ever, never forgot Idelette—never for a moment thought of filling her place by marrying again. And when he pronounced her name, his tone and meaning revealed how dear she was to him. If her husband, who knew her best, could thus revere and honor her, it becomes us to honor her memory as one of the truest and most devoted of the wives of the reformers.

(From, Famous Women of the Reformed Church, Rev. J. I. Good, published by the Sunday-School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1901, pp. 21-30.)

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