Category Archives: The Marriage of John Calvin and Idelette De BUre

John Calvin on Women

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In late October a friend of mine told me about some quotes of Calvin’s she had read that seemed to point to him being a sexist male chauvinist. I went on a wild goose chase and hunted down these quotes and what people were saying about them, read some context surrounding his quotes, and have come back to my original conclusion. John Calvin was not a sexist male chauvinist. ‘Tis true. My own research, as well as the research done by many who have made a lifetime of studying this topic, declare otherwise. John Calvin haters will always hate, but if they actually carefully read what he wrote on women, they would find that he was no radical. His theology on women fits pretty well within the complementarian box, which was actually quite rare in his day. Calvin’s views on women were no different from the Apostle Paul’s. Woman was created from man, to be his helper, and thus holds an earthly rank that could be called inferior to the rank given to the man. But Calvin was careful to point out that spiritually, and in regards to the humanness of man and women, they are equal. Unlike many theologians before him who thought woman was the more “sinful” of the genders (Aquinas was one of these), Calvin points out example after example of how a woman’s uniquely-created gifts bless not only her husband and children, but also the entire world. She does not have to have the same ranking as her husband to be equally used of God for furthering His kingdom. I don’t have the space here to quote every example of this that I found in Calvin’s commentaries, but I am putting it all in my book.

Even an essay by Jane Dempsey Douglass in the book Religion and Sexism (not exactly the place I’d expect to find it) revealed that John Calvin had a beautifully biblical view of women and their role in the family, culture, and church. She describes the “new” theology that the Reformation taught, and proves how this theology elevated women and gave them more freedom than the previous medieval and Roman Catholic perspective. Several other researchers and writers agree with Douglass’s statement that:

“The protestant doctrines of Christian vocation and the priesthood of all believers, along with a new view of marriage, did in fact tend to change the image and role of women in the direction of greater personal freedom and responsibility, both immediately and over the centuries.” (p. 141 in Religion and Sexism)

The doctrine of Christian vocation placed equal honor on the work of the field-laborer, the merchant, the mother, and the housekeeper, as on the pastor or preacher. All vocations that are not outside of the law of God, are blessed of God, and holy when done to the glory of God. Therefore, the wife and mother who found herself entirely occupied by the tasks of “taking pains about housewifery, making clean her children when they be arrayed, killing fleas, and other such like,” as Calvin writes, is giving “sacrifices which God accepteth & receiveth, as if they were things of great price and honourable.” (A Sermon of Master John Calvin, upon the first Epistle of Paul, to Timothie, published for the benefit and edifying of the Church of God [London: G. Bishop and T. Woodcoke, 1579], excerpted from Calvin’s sermon on 1 Timothy 2:13-15)

The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers freed all women to have as deep a relationship with their Lord Jesus Christ as was previously only attributed to men and nuns. Calvin used many of the stories of women in the Bible to bring out rich and nourishing commentary designed to encourage women in their faith. He writes of the power of women’s prayers, of the beautiful honor of the resurrected Christ appearing first to the women, and then with almost breathless wonder, he describes the miraculous way that women have been gifted to defeat the effects sin by bringing children into the world. His practice was no different than his writing. In 1541 during Calvin’s time in Geneva, the city set up its first Protestant school for young girls. Calvin also was the one who suggested a change in the divorce law of the city so that women could initiate divorce proceedings as well as men (within the lawful biblical parameters for divorce, of course). The Protestant Reformation, and particularly the reformation in Switzerland, brought the first instance of women joining their voices with men during the congregational singing during church, and one refugee visitor to Calvin’s church described, with great pathos, the grandeur of “women and men singing together.”

The new view of marriage which Bucer, Luther, and many other reformers held, gave women a more hopeful perspective in the way they viewed themselves and their work. Previous to the reformation, women were considered to be the cause of lust. According to some church fathers, women were specially gifted with all the pleasing characteristics that caused good men to stumble. Therefore, righteous men who were not “gifted” with celibacy or could not take the vow of the monk, married to escape the sin of lust. Yet even then, marriage was “second best” because it allowed physical intercourse, and celibacy was the ideal, if it could be achieved. Virginity received special rewards in heaven, and women who could deny every womanly desire for a husband and children were the most revered.

After the Reformation, as many historians have pointed out, the new role of “pastor’s wife” was formed. Though she was not up front teaching, she was ministering to the congregation in her own womanly way. We see this in Idelette Calvin, who could take dictation for her husband in Latin when his secretary wasn’t available, and who visited sick beds with Calvin, and who helped Calvin to open their home to house and feed many wayfaring strangers.

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John Calvin and Hospitality in Geneva

It’s well known that John Calvin the bachelor practiced active hospitality before he was married, and that during the first months of his marriage to Idelette, many guests and boarders enjoyed John and Idelette’s home for both long and short periods of time. Calvin believed that hospitality was not a question of personal preference, but of obedience to the command to show kindness to “strangers within your gates.” Hospitality has “nearly ceased to be properly observed among men,” Calvin writes, “for the ancient hospitality celebrated in histories is unknown to us, and inns now supply the place of accommodation for strangers.” (Calvin, John, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1948), p. 340)

Calvin was especially hospitable to religious refugees, teaching others in his congregation that “no duty can be more pleasing or acceptable to God” than to provide kind hospitality to religious refugees.

“Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him. Say, ‘He is a stranger;’ but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that He forbids you to despise your own flesh (Isa. 58:7, Vg.). Say, ‘He is contemptible and worthless;’ but the Lord shows him to be one to who He has deigned to give the beauty of His image. Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to Himself. Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.” (Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.7.6.)

Calvin’s preaching on hospitality influenced more than his own home and congregation. During Calvin’s years in Geneva, the city’s population more than doubled! Most were refugees looking for a place to safely raise their families, and with Geneva being just a few miles from the border of anti-Protestant France, Geneva was a practical and nurturing “city of refuge.” We find numerous letters of Calvin’s inviting his friends and friends of friends to Geneva. He loved having all his friends near him, and he loved adding people he had not met yet to his circle of friends.

One modern-day visitor to Geneva described some of the homes from Calvin’s era that still carry a visible mark of the incredible hospitality the Genevans practiced during the reformation. With the streets in Geneva narrowly winding in a tightly-cramped city and the surrounding gardens being very small, there was no place to expand a house’s square footage, but up! So roofs were literally lifted off these homes and another floor or two was added onto the upper story in order to accommodate more guests. The roof was then put back on the highest story, and the house was twice as accommodating than before. Like a high water-mark in a river, these homes show a high point in Geneva’s history. (Rev. Mark Englund-Krieger, “Report to the Presbytery, May 22, 2012,” on Carlisle Executive Presbyter, <http://markekrieger.blogspot.com/2012/05/report-to-presbytery-may-22-2012.html> accessed on June 16, 2012.)

Calvin was also known to have established the “5% rule” amongst local businessmen in order to obtain loans for foreign refugees in Geneva. He personally requested that banks loan refugees what the refugees would need to start a life and a business in Geneva, and to only charge them 5% interest, with no increases. This request was not a civil or pastoral command, but more of a challenge and encouragement to the business owners of Geneva. As a result of this wise “hospitable” strategy of Calvin’s, the city’s economy boomed, bringing in more still more merchants and business owners.

Calvin Writes on the Blessing of Marriage to Men and Society

Calvin had no sympathy with those husbands who jokingly repeated the “vulgar proverb” that a wife is a “necessary evil.” It was years later, after Idelette had passed away and Calvin was near his own death, that he wrote his commentary on the phrase, “it is not good that the man should be alone.” He wrote, “Many think that celibacy conduces to their advantage, and, therefore, abstain from marriage, lest they should be miserable. Not only have heathen writers defined that to be a happy life which is passed without a wife, but the first book of Jerome… is stuffed with petulant reproaches, by which he attempts to render hallowed wedlock both hateful and infamous. To these wicked suggestions of Satan let the faithful learn to oppose this declaration of God, by which He ordains the conjugal life for man, not to his destruction, but to his salvation.”

Calvin’s explanation of how the woman is a blessing to the entire world, as well as to her husband, is fascinating:

 Moses now explains the design of God in creating the woman; namely, that there should be human beings on the earth who might cultivate mutual society between themselves… Since it was not expedient for man to be alone, a wife must be created, who might be his helper. I… take the meaning to be this, that God begins, indeed, at the first step of human society, yet designs to include others, each in its proper place. The commencement therefore, involves a general principle, that man was formed to be a social animal…

Now, the human race could not exist without the woman; and, therefore, in the conjunction of human beings, that sacred bond is especially conspicuous, by which the husband and the wife are combined in one body, and one soul… But although God pronounced, concerning Adam, that it would not be profitable for him to be alone, yet I do not restrict the declaration to his person alone, but rather regard it as a common law of man’s vocation, so that everyone ought to receive it as said to himself, that solitude is not good, excepting only him whom God exempts as by a special privilege. Many think that celibacy conduces to their advantage, and, therefore abstain from marriage, lest they should be miserable. Not only have heathen writers defined that to be a happy life which is passed without a wife, but the first book of Jermoe, against Jovinian, is stuffed with petulant reproaches, by which he attempts to render hallowed wedlock both hateful and infamous. To these wicked suggestions of Satan let the faithful learn to oppose this declaration of God, by which he ordains the conjugal life for man, not to his destruction, but to his salvation… 

Now, since God assigns the woman as a help to the man, he not only prescribes to wives the rule of their vocation, to instruct them in their duty, but he also pronounces that marriage will really prove to men the best support of life. We may therefore conclude, that the order of nature implies that the woman should be the helper of the man… The voice of God [is] to be heard, which declares that woman is given as a companion and an associate to the man, to assist him to live well. I confess, indeed that in this corrupt state of mankind, the blessing of God, which is here described, is neither perceived nor flourishes; but the cause of the evil must be consider, namely, that the order of nature, which God had appointed, has been inverted by us. For if the integrity of man had remained to this day such as it was from the beginning, that divine institution would be clearly discerned, and the sweetest harmony would reign in marriage; because the husband would look up with reverence to God; the woman this would be a faithful assistant to him; and both, with one consent, would cultivate a holy, as well as friendly and peaceful [communication].

Did the “sweetest harmony” reign in Calvin and Idelette’s marriage? Did he look up with reverence to God for his instruction in how to lead his wife; and was she a faithful assistant to him, helping him to “live well?” Did both in unity cultivate a holy, friendly, and peaceful relationship with each other? Every scrap of information I have gleaned about their marriage says they did.

[All these quotes from John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 1, Genesis, (Grand Rapids, Baker Books: 2009) p. 128 – 130]

John Calvin and Idelette DeBure

A few years ago I was looking for information on John Calvin’s family. Specifically, on his wife Idelette. There was so little material, and what there was, was spread thinly over Calvin’s biographies, like butter over too much bread.

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So I began a research project that has extended into two years so far, and which I expect to continue for at least another year. Some of my findings have been unexpected: glimpses into the heart of a man who greatly influenced Christianity and yet who was so human that he overate when he was distressed about a piffle between his housekeeper and his brother, and so loving that he wrote hundreds of letters his childhood friends for his entire life.

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And Idelette, the mysterious lady who captured Calvin’s heart and served the Lord as a  worthy companion to her husband in Geneva, and whose dying words were centered on the resurrection of Christ, this lady has dropped many fascinating clues about her life. She shows up at the end of Calvin’s letters, sending her greetings to his friends. She is found at the deathbed of an elderly pastor, who uses his dying words to encourage her in her newlywed life of ministry alongside her husband, that she should not fear what Geneva would hold for her.

My research on John and Idelette is almost completed, but there is still much to write in order to turn it into an enchanting biography worthy of publication. My next project is to work through Calvin’s commentaries to glean out every reference to family, marriage, children, and women, and to work his eloquence on those topics into the story I’ve already written about Mr. and Mrs. Calvin.

This blog will be my training ground. I plan to put scraps from my book on this blog to see what people think of what I’ve written so far. It will also serve as accountability for my writing: for I will try to always post a portion of what I’ve written each day after I write it.