This article is a biography on Idelette de Bure the wife of John Calvin.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2004. 4 pages.

Idelette De Bure: Beauty That Wins the Soul

Calvin did not marry until early August 1540. He was thirty-one and an exile from Geneva in the French-speaking city of Strasbourg. Under the direction of Martin Bucer, Calvin had been invited to give leadership in a church of mainly refugees. He lived in a large house turned dormitory for students for extra but, as it happened, insufficient income. He hired a cook-housekeeper who had the tendency to scream at students during the time Calvin was editing the second edition of his Institutes. Martin Bucer suggested to him that the solution would be marriage! A “search committee” was formed, to which Calvin gave specific instructions:

Remember, what I expect from one who is to be my companion for life ... The only kind of beauty which can win my soul, is a woman who is gentle, pure, modest, economical, patient, and who is likely to interest herself about my health.1

Some eighteen months later a candidate was found: a woman of some financial means whose brother was a supporter of Calvin. Calvin demurred (to his friend Guillaume Farel): she spoke no French, and her money could be “embarrassing.” Farel suggested someone of his own choosing, a woman in her mid-forties. Calvin never pursued the suggestion. A third suggestion was made: a woman from another city with a good reputation. Marriage was suggested and invitations issued, but Calvin grew less and less fond of her as the wedding approached. Finally, he wrote that he wouldn’t marry her “unless the Lord had altogether demented me.”2Calvin’s brother, Antoine, was dispatched to give her the bad news.

Idelette de Bure Stordeur was a widow in his own congregation in Strasbourg whose husband had died of the plague some months earlier. She was 31 and had been well-aware of the search for a wife for Calvin! She and her husband had escaped persecution in Holland because of their Anabaptist persuasions and for a year or so had embraced the Reformed faith as taught by Calvin. Calvin himself had conducted her husband’s funeral a few months before. What had impressed him was her diligence in caring for her husband during his illness. She had two children.

Within two months, and only a month after Calvin had taken strasbourgeois citizenship,3they were married, William Farel officiating at the wedding. Their honeymoon lasted barely two weeks when sickness affected them both.4

Within six months of marriage, the first of three pressing invitations came for Calvin to return to Geneva. The four most powerful syndics who had banished him (and Farel) three years previously had gone — one to the scaffold, one had died, and the other two had fled. Finally, after being persuaded by Bucer, Calvin left for Geneva. A mounted herald was sent to escort him loaded with honors from the magistrates of Geneva. Three weeks later, three horses and a wagon were sent for Idelette and her two children.

A house was provided for them in Rue de Chanoines from the rear of which could be viewed Lake Geneva and the Jura mountains (on one side) and the Alps (on the other). Calvin was paid the princely sum of 500 Genevese forms (about $200), twelve measures of corn and two casks of wine and some cloth from which to make a robe. Calvin and his wife had barely turned thirty years of age!

On the 28th July, 1542, following their return to Geneva, and almost two years following their marriage, Idelette bore prematurely a son, Jacques, who died within two weeks of birth. The delivery was “not without extreme danger.”5

Some biographers pass over the account of two more children that were born (a girl and another boy), expressing doubt about its authenticity.6

However, writing much later in response to an attack by FranVois Baudouin, a former secretary, Calvin would say:

He reproaches me that I am without children. The Lord gave me a little son (filiolus), and then he took him away7

This has led some to the view that Calvin only had one child. But on May 30th, 1544, Calvin wrote to Farel of his “daughter”: “The pestilence again alarms us, and seems to be on the increase. My little daughter labors under a continual fever.”8She died shortly afterwards.

Calvin’s home housed not only Calvin, Idelette, and her two children, but also Calvin’s brother, Antoine, together with his wife and children. This relationship was almost bound to be a difficult one, especially since Antoine eventually divorced his wife over allegations of his wife’s adultery with Pierre Daguet, his factotum.9

Hospitality was greatly in evidence in the Calvin home. During the early years of their marriage, Clement Marot, a French lyrical poet who had published a book of twenty-five psalms in meter composed from the French translation of the psalms, was a frequent guest. So popular had Marot’s psalms become, and so identified with the Reformed movement in France and beyond, that Marot’s life was increasingly in danger. He was eventually forced to take refuge in Geneva and in Calvin’s home. In 1543, a set of fifty of Marot’s versified psalms were published by Calvin in Geneva. Marot died in 1544.

Idelette had never been in good health and, from time to time, Calvin wrote of his wife’s illnesses. In 1548, for example, he speaks of her being confined to bed with a “prolonged illness.”10

Calvin’s enemies made her sickness an opportunity for further attacks; one — Françoise Favre — suggesting that she was no worse than she deserved seeing that she had been formerly married to an Anabaptist leader and Libertine!11

Nor was Calvin himself particularly well during these years. In March 1546, he wrote to Monsieur DeFalais:

I was much more feeble when I wrote to you a while ago than I am at present. But being in a good state of general bodily condition, I am unceasingly tormented with a heaviness, which, as it were, suffers me not to do anything. For, besides the sermons and lectures, there is a month already gone in which I have scarce done anything, in such wise that I am almost ashamed to live thus useless ... If, however, he does not graciously restore me to a better condition, I am not likely ever to get on horseback. Even more than that, were I ever to be sent for, I could not stir out of the house in such a state.12

Five years after returning to Geneva, trouble ensued with the Libertines. Some of the aristocratic and wealthy families of Geneva began to chafe under the reforms, so much so that in December of 1547, a group of them, swords in hand, called for Calvin to attend a council meeting. Idelette, too sick to rise from bed, witnessed her husband leave the house to attend the meeting uncertain of the outcome. A temporary peace was followed by open hostility. It was not uncommon for Idelette to hear in the streets outside her bedroom window Calvin’s name being used for street dogs!

Throughout 1548, Idelette was gravely ill. Three days before her death she spoke to Calvin about her own two children, commending them to the Lord and being reassured of His care over them.

She died in late March 1549, after being married to Calvin for only nine years. Calvin was with her at the end, speaking to her of the happiness of the nine years they had been granted together and reassuring her that she was exchanging an earthly abode for her Father’s house above.

A week after her death, on April 7th, 1549, Calvin wrote to his friend Viret of some intimate details of the final few hours with his wife:

Although the death of my wife has been exceedingly painful to me, yet I subdue my grief as well as I can ... I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, of one who, had it been so ordered, would not only have been the willing sharer of my indigence, but even of my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance. She was never troublesome to me throughout the entire course of her illness; she was more anxious about her children than about herself.

As I feared these private cares might annoy her to no purpose, I took occasion, on the third day before her death, to mention that I would not fail in discharging my duty to her children. Taking up the matter immediately, she said, “I have already committed them to God.” When I said that that was not to prevent me from caring for them, she replied, “I know you will not neglect what you know has been committed to God.” Lately, also, when a certain woman insisted that she should talk with me regarding these matters, I, for the first time, heard her give the following brief answer: “Assuredly the principal thing is that they live a pious and holy life. My husband is not to be urged to instruct them in religious knowledge and in the fear of God. If they be pious, I am sure he will gladly be a father to them; but if not, they do not deserve that I should ask for aught in their behalf.” This nobleness of mind will weigh more with me than a hundred recommendations.[1] 13

A few days later, in a letter to Farel, he would relate his wife’s final words:

O glorious resurrection! O God of Abraham, and of all our fathers, in thee have the faithful trusted during so many past ages, and none of them have trusted in vain. I also will hope.14

Calvin would never re-marry and in one of his sermons on 1 Timothy, preached in 1554, some five years after the death of his wife, he included a rare moment of self-reflection as he pondered the reason:

“As for me, I do not want anyone to think me very virtuous because I was not married. It would rather be a fault in me if I could serve God better in marriage than remaining as I am ... But I know my infirmity, that perhaps a woman might not be happy with me. However that may be, I abstain from marriage in order that I may be more free to serve God. But this is not because I think that I am more virtuous than my brethren. Fie to me if I had that false opinion.”15

Writing in November 1555 to Richard Vauville, who had also lost his wife, Calvin would say:

How deep a wound the death of your wife must have inflicted on your heart, I judge from my own feelings. For I recollect how difficult it was for me seven years ago to get over a similar sorrow. But as you know perfectly well, what are the suitable remedies for alleviating an excessive sorrow, I have nothing else to do than to remind you to summon them to your aid. Among other things, this is no mean source of consolation, which nevertheless the flesh seizes upon to aggravate our sorrow, that you lived with a wife of such a disposition, that you will willingly renew your fellowship with her when you shall be called out of this world. Then an example of dying piously was offered to you by the companion of your life. If it were my task to exhort a private person, I should order him to weigh in his own mind, what he owes to his Creator. For we unjustly defraud God of his right, unless each of us lives and dies in dependence on his sovereign pleasure.16

Calvin would spend fifteen years without Idelette, until he too would be called to join her in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ above.


  1. ^ Ioannis Calvini Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia. (hereafter CO) Edited by G. Baum, E. Cunitz, and E. Reuss. 59 vols. (Braunschweig, 1863 1900), 10:348 (in a letter to Farel, May 19 1539). Translations taken from Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, (hereafter TL) eds. Jules Bonnet and Hnery Beveridge. English trans. D. Constable and M. R. Gilchrist. 7 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 4:141.
  2. ^  CO 11:30 (in a letter to Farel, March 29 1540, TL 4:175).
  3. ^ Alister E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1990), 102.
  4. ^ CO 11:83-86 (in a letter to Farel in October 1540, TL 4:204-206). See also, J. Wilkinson, “The Medical History of John Calvin,” in Pro­ceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 22:3, 370.
  5. ^ CO 11:419-420 (in a letter to Viret, July 1542, TL 4:335-336).
  6. ^  For this view, see Wilkinson., ibid.
  7. ^ CO 9:576 (answer to the reproaches of Baudouin, 1561).
  8. ^ CO 11:722 (TL 4:416-421). For the view that John and Idelette Calvin had three children all of whom died in infancy, see TL 4:420 note 2, 5:47 note 2. 
  9. ^ See Emanuel Stickelberger, John Calvin, trans. D. G. Gelzer (Cam­bridge: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1959), 87. For a full account of the divorce proceedings that followed, see Robert M. Kingdon, Adultery and Divorce in Calvin’s Geneva (London, England; Harvard, MA:Harvard University Press), 79-86, 94-96. Following her mother’s death, Judith (Calvin’s stepchild) also committed adultery. See Calvin’s moving letter to Bullinger in which he spoke of “the dishonor of my step-daughter (which) compelled me to seek the privacy of solitude for a few days.” CO 19:327 (12th March 1562 TL 7:262-265).
  10. ^ CO 13:35-36 in a letter to Farel, August 1548, TL 5:175-176.
  11. ^ T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 102. 
  12. ^  CO 12:319-320 (TL 5:47-52).
  13. ^ CO 13:230-231 (TL 5:216-217). Viret wrote him on this occasion as follows: “Wonderfully and incredibly have been refreshed, not by empty rumors alone, but especially by numerous messengers who have informed me how you, with a heart so broken and lacerated, have attended to all your duties even better than hitherto... and that, above all, at a time when grief so fresh, and on that account all the more severe, might have prostrated your mind. So on then as you have begun... and I pray God most earnestly that you may be enabled to do so, and that you may receive daily greater comfort and be strengthened more and more.” CO 13:233 (in a letter of 10th April 1549).
  14. ^ CO 13:229 (in a letter to Farel, 11th April 1549, TL. 5:215).
  15. ^ CO 53:254 (Sermon 21 on 1 Timothy 3:1-14). The English text is taken from a facsimile edition of 1579 English translation, John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistles to Timothy and Titus (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1983), 258. Calvin’s “infirmity” is probably a reference to his own bad health, though others have suggested the possibility of his irritability. See, Parker, 102.
  16. ^ CO 15:867 (TL 6:236-237).

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