When we look back on the Reformation – the great era of human history that changed our view of God and the gospel (as well as greatly influencing or modern world), most of the attention is on the men of the Reformation – Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Tyndale, Cranmer, and others. That is all good and well because they were great leaders in their own right. But hardly a whisper is made about some of the great women.
I started doing some digging and didn’t have to go very far. I was shocked how many there were, and how little I knew about them. There’s women like Katharina Schutz Zell (1498-1562) of Strasbourg, who developed women’s ministries and published a book of Psalms for women to sing. She also took a lead role in organizing relief for 150 men who were exiled from their towns for their faith, and she wrote scriptural encouragements to the wives and children who were left behind. What an invaluable woman to have around at that time!
There was also Jeanne d’Albret (1528-1572) who provided shelter for the Huguenots during the French Wars of religion, at great risk. Her children were kidnapped and her life was continually threatened. But that didn’t stop this fearless woman. Known as “the little princess” she believed that like Esther, God had put her in a position to defend his people.
And then there’s Anna Bullinger (1504-1564) of Switzerland. Along with raising 11 children, she welcomed vast numbers of Protestants and refugees into her home. When she wasn’t busy with her own household, she visited the poor of Zürich, giving out food, clothes, money when she could.
But the woman I want to focus on today is Katherine van Bora, who became Luther’s wife. I think it’s because her story is so lovely. And I think she has a certain spark in her that appeals to me. Here’s her story:
In the early hours one Easter morning, 12 runaway nuns climbed into empty fish barrels and were smuggled out of their convent. At the receiving end was a renegade monk they had written to, imploring him to rescue them so they could leave the convent, marry and one day become mothers. Their “hero” in waiting was none other than Martin Luther (you can already see where this is going).
So how did this all come about? Well, after the Diet of Worms and Luther’s famous “Here I Stand” speech, things were taking an interesting turn. Monks in Wittenberg were renouncing their vows of celibacy (a smart move) and marrying nuns who were leaving their cloisters (an even smarter move). Luther’s tracts about the gospel were making their way into convents and Luther was giving nuns advice on how they might escape (this by the way, was not only a violation of the law but regarded as a capital offense).
Luther felt it was his responsibility to find husbands and homes for these women. They were theologically minded. They were literate. And after coming to faith in Christ they became strong, committed Christians. Martin started pairing them up and he got everyone married off except for Katherine. Katherine had found someone she thought suitable, but he did not want her. He said she was too feisty.
Some were suggesting he himself should marry Katherine, but Luther expected he would die a heretic any day and that would be unfair to her. But then, much to everyone’s surprise he agreed to marry Katherine because his marriage “would please his father, rile the pope, make the angels laugh and the devils weep.” They wedded on June 13, 1524. She was twenty-six; he was forty-two.
Though initially a marriage of convenience, they grew to love each other very deeply and affectionately. Thirteen years after their marriage, Martin would say of Katherine, “If I should lose my Katie I would not take another wife though I were offered a queen.”
One of the things that appeals to me with Katie was her sense of humour. On one occasion, Martin had been in a foul and grumpy mood. Nothing seemed to be going right for him, so he would stomp around the house. Katie did not say anything. Instead, she dressed up in black like a grieving widow, put a veil over her head and just sat there. He came through the door and asked, “What is wrong with you. What are you doing, woman?” She replied, “Oh, dear, it is just terrible. The Lord in Heaven is dead.” He asked what she was talking about that the Lord in Heaven was dead. “God is not dead!” Katie replied, “Oh really, well the way you have been acting I thought that is what had happened.” She soon had Martin laughing. She had a way of bringing him out of his moods.
On another occasion he was in one of these moods and locked himself in his office. Guests were soon to arrive wanting to talk with him. He couldn’t be doing that. So, Katie hires a workman from the village to come and take the door off the hinges. When the door comes off Martin is sitting there on one side and Katie and the kids on the other. I found that brilliant – the kind of thing my wife would do!
Katie raised six of her own children. She also cared for six other children who were orphans of Luther’s family – nieces and nephews and a great-nephew. She worked hard in running the home, ministering to the guests, taking food to the homeless and you’ll love this one – she even brewed her own beer. Every good German wife needs to know how to brew beer! And people loved it.
Katherine often sat with Martin as he wrote his letters. We know that because they include comments about what she was doing while he was writing. I wonder what interaction and input she had in his writings – I expect her influence often came through.
There are lots of written records regarding the theological discussions Martin had with people (they were recorded and published as Luther’s “Table Talk”. You can access them online here). On many occasions, Katie would join in these discussions and also debate. I can just imagine, knowing what I know about them both, the banter that passed back and forth between them. It must have been quite entertaining for their guests.
Katie drove wagons, looked after their fields and gardens, raised cattle, rented horses, sold linen, helped edit his writings, and was often up by 4am and working to 9pm. She worked so incredibly hard Martin had to frequently urge her to slow down and relax. The longer they were married, the more tenderly her spoke to her. “I am a happy husband,” he wrote “and may God continue to send me happiness, from that most gracious woman, my best of wives.”
If you read Luther’s earlier teaching on marriage he portrays it as a necessary evil to stave off sexual temptation. But that greatly changed as the years went on and his love for Katie grew. Later he said, “The greatest gift of grace a man can have is a pious, God-fearing, home-loving wife, whom he can trust with all his goods, body, and life itself, as well as having her as the mother of his children.”
I think that about says it all.
Katie now even has her own Facebook page. You can find out all kinds of other things about here: https://www.facebook.com/KatieLutherProject/
You can also learn more interesting things about Martin and Katie in the age of the Reformation here: http://www.corndancer.com/fritze/reformation2/refmaton2_home.html