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July 2009

John Calvin

johncalvin1On July 10, 1509, John Calvin was born in a small town in France. That means that this month marks the 500th anniversary of his birth.

Calvin was a remarkable man. By the age of 27 he had written his Institutes of the Christian Religion, a seminal work that laid out the Christian religion in detail from start to finish. There is no denying the influence John Calvin has had on the Church and on the world at large. It has been argued that Calvin's writings were the seedbed of concepts such as capitalism and democracy.

There is no doubt that there will be many magazine articles, books and lectures about Calvin in the coming weeks. But I would like to take a slightly different approach to things. Instead of focusing on the theologian, I would like to look at John Calvin the man and, in particular, his family life.

To understand Calvin's family life, one has to remember that during the debates of the Protestant Reformation, celibacy for ministers was required by Rome. Calvin argued that this was unbiblical. He wrote:

"With what impunity fornication rages among them it is unnecessary to remark; emboldened by their polluted celibacy, they have become hardened to every crime. Yet this prohibition clearly shows how pestilent are all their traditions, since it has not only deprived the Church of upright and able pastors, but has formed a horrible gulf of enormities, and precipitated many souls into the abyss of despair. The interdiction of marriage to priests was certainly an act of impious tyranny, not only contrary to the Word of God, but at variance with every principle of justice. In the first place, it was on no account lawful for men to prohibit that which the Lord had left free. Secondly, that God had expressly provided in his Word that this liberty should not be infringed is too clear to require much proof." (Institutes, 4:12, 13)

However, Calvin did not want to be seen as arguing against celibacy just so he could get married. He wrote to a friend, "I shall not be accused of attacking Rome...only to be able to take a wife." When he did decide to marry, he had certain criteria: "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." Calvin biographer T.H.L. Parker notes that Calvin needed a wife. "His health was poor; he was not a good manager of his own affairs; his impatience and irritability might be softened by marriage."

In 1539 Calvin arranged with William Farel to have a wedding "a little after Easter." Next, he set out to find a wife. The first candidate was a wealthy German woman who did not speak French. Calvin rejected her because she did not want to learn French and would appear to be unhappy at a lower station of life. The second candidate spoke French and was an ardent Protestant, but was 15 years older than Calvin. Calvin never followed up. The third candidate spoke French, was an ardent Protestant and was poor. They set a date but for some reason they never married. However, in the spring of 1540 he married Idelette de Bure Stordeur, the widow of Jean Stordeur, an Anabaptist leader who had died of the Plague. She had two children. She is described as "attractive and intelligent, a women with culture, apparently from an upper middle-class background who had character and quiet strength." It is very clear from letters they wrote to each other that John and Idelette loved each other very much.

Being married to John Calvin was a difficult task. They were separated for 32 of the first 45 weeks of marriage. In September of 1541, Calvin was asked to go to Geneva. He did not want to go because he knew he would face stiff opposition there. He went ahead of the family to make sure it was safe. Calvin's supporters, though, showered him with gifts. "There was a new robe of black velvet, trimmed with fur. And a house near the cathedral. At the back of the house was a garden which overlooked the blue lake." The Spiritual Council sent a two horse carriage to bring Idelette and the children along with their belongings. This would have been like a limousine today.

As happy as they were with each other, Calvin's family life was one of suffering. While in Geneva, Idellete bore a pre-mature son, Jacques, who died two weeks after birth. Three years later a daughter died at birth and, two years after that, another child died at premature birth. Calvin's enemies publicly ridiculed the Calvins and would taunt them. Some even named their dogs "Calvin", an act of derision. A rumor spread that since Idelette and her first husband's wedding was not solemnized by a civil ceremony, (that was against Anabaptist belief) that she was a woman of ill repute and that God was punishing the Calvins by killing their children. Idelette died in 1549 at that age of 40. Calvin wrote to a friend, "You know how tender, or rather, soft my heart is. If I did not have strong self-control I would not have been able to stand it this long. My grief is very heavy. My life's best johncalvin2companion has been taken from me. Whenever I faced serious difficulties she was ever ready to share them with me." John Calvin never remarried and vowed to live a "solitary life." He died 15 years later in 1564.

God has used many great men for many great works. Often these are met with great difficulties, suffering and persecution. John Calvin was no exception. The Church and the world are a better place because of John Calvin. Happy 500th birthday!

 

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