Oct 12, 2023

The Reformation Ideal of Marriage

3 Min Read

Our memory of what took place during the sixteenth-century Reformation has been somewhat selective. As heirs of Reformed Protestantism, we have remembered it chiefly as a recovery of the gospel and the biblical way of worship. But we also need to recall it as a great recovery of the biblical understanding of marriage.

Building on the monastic piety of late antiquity—found in authors such as Augustine and Jerome—the medieval church had come to regard the celibate life of the monastery or nunnery as the seedbed of a spirituality far superior to that found in the homes of those who were married. The celibate, it was argued, lived the life of the angels, and thus already experienced in some ways the life of the world to come. With the growing corruption of the church in the late Middle Ages, however, the reality was that far too many of the clergy were celibate but not chaste.

Luther, Pioneer Husband And Father

Although Martin Luther was not the first of the Reformers to marry and have a family, his marriage to Katharina von Bora on June 13, 1525, became in many ways the paradigmatic ideal for the Protestant family. Initially, their marriage was no love match. Katharina had escaped from a nunnery in Nimbsch, near Grimma, with a number of other nuns and wound up in Wittenberg seeking refuge. For a time, Luther acted as a sort of marriage broker, seeking to find husbands for the nuns. Eventually, Katharina alone was left, and Luther married her, he said, to please his father, who had always wanted grandchildren, and also, as Luther inimitably put it, to spite the pope.

We also need to recall the Reformation as a great recovery of the biblical understanding of marriage.

These are hardly the best of reasons for marriage, but in time, their marriage “blossomed into a partnership of real depth and touching devotion,” to quote Andrew Pettegree in his recent study of Martin Luther. This “joyous success” of Martin and Katharina’s marriage and the six children who came from their union became, in Pettegree’s words, “a powerful archetype of the new Protestant family.” Luther’s love for his children led him to rightly see that central to the joys of marriage was the gift of sons and daughters. And “people who do not like children,” he once said in his blunt style, are “dunces and blockheads, not worthy to be called men and women, because they despise the blessings of God, the creator and author of marriage.”

The Marriage Of John Calvin

When John Calvin came to marry, he told his close friend and coworker William Farel in the late 1530s that he was not at all concerned with physical beauty. What he wanted was a wife who was chaste and sensible, economical and patient, and able “to take care of my health.”

Unlike Luther, who was quite public regarding details of his married life, Calvin rarely spoke about his marriage to Idelette de Bure during their eight-and-a-half years of marriage—she died in March 1549, having suffered from ill health for a number of years. But now and then, a remark shows how close they were to one another. For example, Calvin was with his wife in Strasbourg during the spring of 1541. A plague was raging in the city, and Calvin decided to stay in Strasbourg but sent his wife away for her own safety. He wrote to Farel that “day and night my wife has been constantly in my thoughts, in need of advice now that she is separated from her husband.”

They had one son, Jacques, who died soon after birth in 1542. “The Lord,” Calvin wrote to a close friend Pierre Viret, “has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our baby son. But he is himself a Father and knows best what is good for his children.”

At the time of his wife’s death, Calvin stated in a letter to Farel:

Truly mine is no common grief. I have been bereaved of the best friend of my life, of one who, if it had been so ordained, would willingly have shared not only my poverty but also my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry.

This is a remarkable passage and reveals the depth of the change that the Protestant Reformation had brought about. Marriage was now seen as God intended it in Genesis 2: the union of intimate allies, working for a common cause, namely, the extension of God’s kingdom.