The problems in Geneva revealed a young man, maybe a hothead, but they were not unforgivable. Left to fester, however, and they would limit severely Calvin’s future work. Bucer took it upon himself to invite Calvin to Strasbourg to continue working on his publications. The two shared a love of books and theology, and already Calvin’s writing style was showing the lucid brevity he would be known for.
Calvin agreed and came to live in Strasbourg, drawn both to Bucer and the libraries there. When he arrived he was lodged in a home that shared a garden with Bucer and his family.
This relationship to Bucer is, it seems, part of the story in Calvin recovering from his setback. Calvin not only conversed with Bucer on theology and worked on both an expansion of the Institutes but also his Romans commentary, he also ate frequently at the Bucer table and witnessed for the first time the intimate life of a Protestant family. Calvin later would remark how much he learned about life, family, and leadership by living so closely to his mentor.
Martin Bucer who was the chief Pastor of the Strasbourfg Church was happy to have such scholars and immediately contacted them and invited them to his church. Thus Calvin found refuge for the next three years in the German Protestant city of Strasbourg. Strasbourg was the capital city of the Grand Est region, formerly Alsace, in northeastern France. It's also the formal seat of the European Parliament and sits near the German border, with culture and architecture blending German and French influences.
Here he was pastor of a church for French-speaking refugees called Huguenots.
Huguenots are an ethnoreligious group of French Protestants who follow the Reformed tradition. The term was used frequently to describe members of the Reformed Church of France from the early 1500s until around 1800.
"Huguenot" is: "a combination of a Dutch and a German word. In the Dutch-speaking North of France, Bible students who gathered in each other's houses to study secretly were called Huis Genooten ('housemates') while on the Swiss and German borders they were termed Eid Genossen, or 'oath fellows,' that is, persons bound to each other by an oath. Gallicised into 'Huguenot', often used deprecatingly, the word became, during two and a half centuries of terror and triumph, a badge of enduring honour and courage."
The chief ministers of the Reformed Church then settled there were, Bucer, Capito, Sturm, Hedio and Niger, by all of whom Calvin was received with open arms. The council of Strasburgh appointed him professor of theology, with a moderate salary. There he published his commentary on the Letter of Paul to the Romans. During his Strasbourg years Calvin also learned much about the administration of an urban church from Martin Bucer, its chief pastor. Meanwhile Calvin’s attendance at various international religious conferences made him acquainted with other Protestant leaders and gave him experience in debating with Roman Catholic theologians. Henceforth he was a major figure in international Protestantism.
Marriage to Idelette de Bure
It is hard to say when the quest began. Until he turned 29 and took the pastorate of the French refugee church in Strasbourg, he hadn’t much time to think about marriage. Besides that, he once wrote, “I shall not belong to those who are accused of attacking Rome, like the Greeks fought Troy, only to be able to take a wife.” So he was in no hurry.
Shortly after he had arrived in the city, he moved in with Martin and Elizabeth Bucer. Martin was the warm-hearted pastor of the church of St. Thomas in the city. Elizabeth was as hospitable as he. Their home was known as “the inn of righteousness.”
John Calvin had never seen such a happy marriage. Bucer was so pleased that he urged marriage for all his ministerial colleagues. “You ought to have a wife, Calvin,” Martin had said more than once. Philip Melanchthon once noted that John Calvin seemed uncharacteristically silent and absent-minded at the end of a day-long conference. “Well, well,” said Melanchthon, “it seems to me our theologue is thinking about a future spouse.”
By this time, Melanchthon had been married for nineteen years, and his marriage was also a happy one. Mrs. Melanchthon, who had a rollicking sense of humor, took good care of Philip in every way. His only complaint, which he undoubtedly relayed to John Calvin, was “She always thinks that I am dying of hunger unless I am stuffed like a sausage.”
Calvin, too, realized that he needed somebody to take care of him. When he moved out of the Bucer “inn,” he rented a house for himself, his brother, his stepsister and some student boarders. He found it a strain, not only on his time but also on his sanctification, to manage a boarding house and serve as a pastor of a growing church. It was another reason for needing a wife. So he told his associates that he was now in the market for a wife and that he was open to any suggestions.
Of course, as usual, he knew what he wanted. The job qualifications: “Always keep in mind what I seek to find in her, for I am none of those insane lovers who embrace also the vices of those with whom they are in love, where they are smitten at first sight with a fine figure. This only is the beauty that allures me: if she is chaste, if not too fussy or fastidious, if economical, if patient, if there is hope that she will be interested about my health.”
Meanwhile, Calvin was having personal problems that he felt might be eased, if not solved, by having a wife. “I can’t call a single penny my own. It is astonishing how money slips away in extraordinary expenses.” As T.H.L. Parker writes, “His health was poor: he was not perhaps a good manager of his awn affairs; his impatience and irritability might be softened by marriage.”
In fact, Calvin seemed so convinced that the next step in his life during 1539 should be marriage that he reserved a date “a little after Easter” with his friend William Farel, whom he wanted to officiate at the ceremony. We don’t know whether he had a particular bride in mind.
But Strasbourg was a bit of a refuge for Calvin. Shortly after he had arrived in the city, he moved in with Martin and Elizabeth Bucer. Martin was the warm-hearted pastor of the church of St. Thomas in the city. Elizabeth was as hospitable as he. Their home was known as “the inn of righteousness.”
But a few months later the first candidate was brought forward. She was a wealthy German woman, who had a brother serving as her campaign manager. A strong supporter of Calvin, the brother argued that such a marriage would be most beneficial. Calvin had often said that he wished to live the life of a scholar. Since royalties from sales of theological books would not provide much of an income, it would be helpful for him to have a wealthy wife.
Calvin had two problems with the first candidate: first, she didn’t know French and did not seem eager to learn it; secondly, as he explained to Farel, “You understand, William, that she would bring with her a large dowry, and this could be embarrassing to a poor minister like myself. I feel, too, that she might become dissatisfied with her humbler station in life.”
Farel had his own candidate to suggest. She spoke French and was a devout Protestant, but was about fifteen years older than Calvin. Calvin never followed up on this one.
The next candidate spoke French and didn’t have any money, but was highly recommended by friends. Calvin seemed interested, enough to invite her to Strasbourg for an interview.
Calvin again alerted Farel, “If it come to pass, as we may certainly hope will be the case, the marriage ceremony will not be delayed beyond the tenth of March.” The year is now 1540; Calvin is now 31. “I wish you might be present, that you may bless our wedlock,” but then Calvin added, “I make myself look very foolish if it shall so happen that my hope again fall through.” But fall through it did.
John was now so embarrassed by the entanglements and by his off-and-on again letters to William Farel that he wrote, “I have not found a wife and frequently hesitate as to whether I ought any more to seek one.”
But when he stopped seeking, he found. In his congregation of refugees was a young widow, Idelette de Bure Stordeur. She, her husband, and their two children had come to Strasbourg as Anabaptists. Listening to John Calvin’s faithful exposition of Scripture, they were converted to his Reformed views.
Jean Stordeur, Idelette’s husband, had been an Anabaptist leader, and undoubtedly John Calvin had discussed theological matters with the Stordeurs in their home. In 1537, when Calvin was still in Geneva, Stordeur had come to that city to debate with the Reformers there. Stordeur lost the debate, was ordered out of Geneva, and returned to Strasbourg. Undoubtedly, the discussions continued when Calvin arrived in Strasbourg two years later. Eventually, Calvin’s use of Scripture convinced the Stordeurs in most of their areas of difference, but not all. In some, perhaps, Calvin tempered his own thinking. But soon the Stordeurs were in Calvin’s church, partaking of the Lord’s Supper; after further discussion, they had their son baptized by Calvin; eventually, the entire family became members of the church which now numbered nearly 500 refugees from France and the Low Countries.
Then, in the spring of 1540, Jean Stordeur, stricken with the plague, suddenly died. Idelette grieved for the loss of her husband; John sorrowed for the loss of a friend.
It was at this time, as John Calvin had almost given up thoughts of marriage because of the string of fiascoes, that his pastor-friend Martin Bucer said to him “Why not consider Idelette?” John did. Idelette was attractive and intelligent, a woman with culture, apparently from an upper middle-class background. She was also a woman of character and quiet strength.
It didn’t take much time for the Reformer to pen another letter to William Farel, asking him to come and perform a wedding ceremony. This time it was no false alarm, and in August, John and Idelette were married. Idelette was perhaps more concerned that her children have a good father, and John was relieved to have finally discovered a good wife.
Her first major adjustment was to move into Calvin’s student boarding house and learn how to cope with a sharp-tongued housekeeper.
There were also health problems. Both of them became ill shortly after the wedding and were confined to bed. Calvin’s thank-you note to Farel said, “As if it had been so ordered, that our wedlock might not be overjoyous, the Lord thus thwarted our joy by moderating it.”
In his writings, John Calvin did not say much about his personal circumstances and even less about his wife—certainly not as Martin Luther did—but nevertheless you get from his letters a glimpse of Idelette as a wife who deeply cared for her husband as well as for her children. His biographers speak of her as “a woman of some force and individuality,” and John himself described her as “the faithful helper of my ministry” and “the best companion of my life.” He certainly was not disappointed in marriage.
Though he delighted in her company, during the first year of their marriage he didn’t have much of it. After their stint in their sickbeds, John had to travel, leaving his bride to cope with the boarding house problems as well as her two children. He was not eager to leave, but Emperor Charles, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, had called the leading Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars together to discuss how they might stop their bickering and form a united front against the Turks, who were menacing his empire.
Three months later he arrived back home for a month before going to another conference called by the Emperor. “I am dragged most unwillingly,” he wrote, but he went.
While attending the conference, he received news that a plague was ravaging Strasbourg. He was concerned. “Day and night my wife has been constantly in my thoughts,” he wrote. He realized that
just as the plague had taken her first husband only a year earlier, so it could now take Idelette, who was still weak from illness. He wrote, urging her to leave Strasbourg until the plague was over.
But Idelette had already taken action. She had taken her children and moved in with her brother Lambert. Lambert had been a wealthy landowner in Liege before he was forced to flee, leaving behind everything he had. But in only a few years in Strasbourg, he had once again become an honored citizen. Later that year, John was called to another conference. He and Idelette were separated for 32 of the first 45 weeks of their marriage.
Then came an even greater challenge than separation—the call to return to Geneva. He did not want to go; “I would rather face death a hundred times” than return to Geneva, he said. “If I had a free choice, I would prefer doing anything else in the world.”
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