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Advice for Idelette Calvin from a Dying Old Man

In the summer of 1542, a few months after Idelette had arrived in Geneva as the new wife of John Calvin, a friend of Calvin’s lay dying. His name was Ami Porral, and he was the chief magistrate of the city, as well as the one who Calvin had consulted in drawing up the Ecclesiastical Ordinances the year before. Porral was the kind of man who loved to teach and exhort. Calvin visited him before his wife Idelette had a chance to, and they talked about salvation, the resurrection, and church unity.

Calvin recounted, “Whoever called to see him, heard some suitable exhortation; and that you may not suppose it to have been mere talkative vanity, as far as was possible he applied to each individual what was best adapted to his circumstances, and most likely to be of use to him.” Porral directed some extraordinary advice to Calvin and Viret, who visited his bedside each day that week. His advice nearly knocked them over.

John CalvinCalvin says, “We were both of us in a sort of stupor of astonishment; and whenever it recurs to my memory, even yet I grow bewildered. For he spoke in such a way, that it seemed to reflect some discourse by one of ourselves after long and careful meditation… Thence he proceeded to exhort us both, as well regarding the other departments of our charge as ministers, as also to constancy and firmness; and when he discoursed at some length on the future difficulties of the ministers of the Gospel, he seemed inspired with the foresight of a prophet. It was wonderful how wisely he spoke to purpose on what concerned the public weal.” The tone of Calvin’s letter shows how sincerely he took to heart this strangely insightful advice from his dying friend. The “future difficulties of the ministers of the Gospel” were to be great indeed, and Calvin no doubt pondered Porral’s words in his heart for many years after.

The second afternoon, when Idelette was able to free herself from household duties, she joined her husband at Porral’s deathbed. Porral’s specific advice for Idelette penetrated her heart as well. Porral “told her to be of good courage whatever might happen, that she ought to consider that she had not been rashly led hither, but brought by the wonderful counsel of God, that she also might serve in the Gospel.”

Idelette de bure calvinThat the dying man chose this topic to encourage Idelette is interesting, because it exposes that she may have been distressed about her move to Geneva and the role it would play in her life (or he may have thought as much, whether or not it was true). At this point, she was eight months pregnant with her third child, feeling like she might be coming down with the flu, still trying to navigate this strange and new city of Geneva, and finding the inhabitants not very welcoming to foreigners. To “be of good courage, whatever might happen,” was probably exactly what she needed to hear. Porral’s encouragement that “she also might serve in the Gospel” shows his desire for her to be a true helpmeet to Calvin, “also” serving Geneva by preaching the Gospel in her work alongside her husband.

Reading over this detailed account in Calvin’s letter, I am struck by how fully the Lord used this man’s dying words to prophetically address specific fears and weaknesses in both John and Idelette Calvin’s lives. John Calvin was young and timid, by his own admission, and shied away from public spectacle whenever he could. Yet here he was exhorted to “constancy and firmness” in every future difficulty that he must take on. Idelette was far away from the home, and family, and religion of her youth, and may well have felt “rashly led” to Geneva. But Porral’s exhortation was to consider that it was by the Lord’s providential counsel that she had been brought here, and that she should courageously serve in the Gospel.

Calvin and Idelette remained at his bedside the rest of the day until he could no longer speak. Since it was getting late, Calvin and Idelette started for home, walking slowly up the dark street, pondering together the unique charges they had been given to carry out. The next morning they found out that Porral had passed away. “Scarcely had we left,” Calvin writes, “when he gave up his pious soul to Christ.”

Hospitality in John Calvin’s Home

Calvin and Idelette’s home was famous for its hospitality. One guest to their home wrote to the couple, “Your hospitality in the name of Christ is not unknown to anybody in Europe.” One of Calvin’s personal friends, Theodore Beza, recounts several times in which Calvin invited people with disputes or questions into his home fora meal. As they relaxed and enjoyed their meals, they would inevitably end up talking about whatever it was that had troubled them, and usually in a peaceable manner. Friendship extended over a table of steaming platters did much to soothe a troubled heart. Beza describes Calvin’s “remarkable affability,” revealed in how “he could meet the very young on their own level when the need arose,” and how he demonstrated great “gentleness… in bearing with the weaknesses and failings of others.”Image

He was also a fascinating conversationalist because of his great knowledge and memory. “If someone brought up the subject of particular things that he had witnessed in the past, whether in France, Italy, or Germany, [Calvin] would be able to talk about them, mentioning people and places by name and turning the discussion to good account.”

One preacher who enjoyed the hospitality of the Calvin house was John Knox, the famous reformer of Scotland. He greatly admired Calvin and had many questions for him, especially about his opinion on women in a civil office of authority. He was also astonished to find that “the Theologian” Calvin liked to play a game of “clef” after dinner! When all the dishes were cleared from the table, two objects—books or bottles perhaps—were set up at the opposite end of the table as “goal posts.” Each player was to slide a key across the table so it went between the two objects but did not fall off the other side of the table. Local lore also holds that he enjoyed playing lawn bowling too. This was a simple game of rolling a ball across the lawn, attempting to hit or touch a certain object.

Sometimes Calvin and Idelette took their visiting friends on a tour of the countryside, introducing them to other friends along the way. Writing to his friend Viret, Calvin dangles a tempting itinerary, hoping he’ll stay.

“Someone told me that you are inclined to come to Geneva. I have seized the hope with as much fervor as if you were already here. If such is truly your intention, come Saturday. Your arrival could not be more timely. You will preach for me Sunday morning in the city so that I can preach at Jussy, and join me after dinner. We’ll take a visit to Monsieur de Falais; then, crossing the lake, we’ll enjoy the pleasures of the country together at the home of our friends Pommier and Delisle, and we shan’t return until Thursday. The day following, if you’d like to go to Tournay or Bellerive, I’ll accompany you. Above all, you can count on the warmest reception.” (“Les Amitiés de Calvin,” Bulletin de la Société de L’Histoire du Protestantisme Français (Paris, 1864), page 93. Author’s translation.)

The warmest reception. Those who know little of Calvin’s theology and even less of the man himself assume that he was austere, judgmental, and scared people away. Yet both those who disagreed with him and those who were his closest friends were invited into his home for a warm meal, invigorating and affirming conversation, with games on the lawn to finish off the day.

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.