The men of the Reformation are almost household names in Church History: Luther. Calvin. Zwingli. Knox. As with every era of history, several women played important roles during this period of rebirth in the Church. History records the venerable lives of several important women of this era, most of whom had their roots in the Catholic Church. Some were royalty, others were nuns or former nuns, and many were supportive wives of men who were called by God to change the religious landscape of the West forever.
Katherine von Bora (1499-1552), who married Martin Luther when she was 26 and he 42, was perhaps the most important woman of the early Protestant Reformation. The bulk of her leadership was provided from within her own home. Before marrying Martin Luther, she herself had been a nun. In fact, it had been her desire to leave the convent and experience religious freedom that paved the way for her to meet Martin Luther. Katherine had heard several stories about “Dr. Luther” and his desire to see men and women freed from the bondage of religion in order to experience God and Scripture in a more personal way. Amazingly to Katherine, many of the men who had joined Luther on this new path were monks and priests who believed it was not unbiblical to be married. Because Katherine had become a nun out of obligation, having been set upon that path from her early childhood after losing her parents, she had never fully embraced the idea of lifelong celibacy.
Katherine was an intelligent, confident, and often stubborn young woman. She refused to settle for any regular old minister or monk. When Luther and his companions rescued Katherine and several other nuns from her cloister, they tried to arrange courtship for Katherine with more than one eligible Christian man. But she was not interested. She would only pledge herself to a man of high rank. Little did she know that her destiny was the eventual courtship by Dr. Luther himself. Their union was not without scandal, of course, as many people accused of them of breaking their vows to God, breaking God’s law, and even forsaking their purity before marriage.
A Unique Couple
From the beginning their marriage relationship was unique. For the first time, both Martin and Katherine had met their match in will and wit.
To put this in its historical context, the Luthers were married in 1525, which was eight years after the Martin’s composition of his 95 theses and four years after the Diet of Worms that condemned him as a heretic.
Martin called Katherine, “Katie,” but he often used even more humorous titles to address her including, “the boss,” “Lady Doctor Luther,” “Lady of the Pigmarket” (the market near their home), and a German form similar to “ball and chain.” His most favorite name for her was “Lord Katie,” to which he added the title for himself: her “willing servant.”
Martin said, on more than one occasion and in various ways, that he had married Katherine for three reasons: 1) he wanted to please his father (who despised the fact that luther had ever chosen to be a celibate monk), 2) to anger the pope, and 3) to give Katie a true family name before it was too late for her.
Classic Martin and Katie
One of my favorite stories from the Luther household has been passed down more as lore as opposed to historical record. I say, you can’t make this stuff up. The Luthers’ first home was formerly the Augustinian monastery in which Martin spent a lot of time as a younger man. The basement quickly became Martin’s study and sanctuary. The room was entered through a heavy door with a large, strong lock. On one particular day, a few years after Martin and Katie were married and more than one of their six children had been born, Katie was fed up with Martin’s overuse of the study. Apparently, he had been in the study for several days without coming out. Katie, who had grown tired of tending the children and the house without help, decided it was time for Martin to emerge and take to his paternal duties. After beckoning him several times with no answer, Katie skillfully removed the door from its hinges and let it fall to the floor. Seeing that his options had diminished, Martin resumed his duties as “willing servant.”
One of the most legendary aspects of the Luther home was their dinner table. Mealtimes often included many invited guests in addition to the Luther family including relatives, adopted children, and Martin’s students. Some of his students compiled many of their memories from the Luthers’ table into a collection that has come to be known as the Luthers’ “Table Talk”. Whereas many people are more familiar with Martin Luther’s formal correspondences like the 95 theses, or his heavy theological works like his commentary On Romans;“Table Talk” provides a glimpse into the less formal side of Martin, Katie, and life in the Luther household.
Katherine was perhaps even more important to the spectacle that became the Luther mealtime than Martin. The Luthers had a happy home and Katherine was its administrator. Along with being a good wife and mother, she also took care of the finances, ran a brewery, cared for the sick and orphans, and provided some income for the family from the farm they acquired in addition to their home.
Katherine was the first well-known pastor’s wife among Protestants. Before this time, pastors and preachers weren’t married. Their were no predecessors, save the minimal descriptions of the families of the apostles and church fathers. The Luther home became the model for the Protestant parsonage and the ministry family dynamic. As Estep has said, “[Katherine] as much as [Martin] was responsible for providing an attractive model for Protestant family life.”
So here, without further delay, are some statements from Martin Luther about his beloved Katie that are recorded in “Table Talk.”
-In such a friendly fashion does Katie speak to our little Martin Jr. In this way she reminds me of how God treats me, yet He is even more loving! (a very modernized translation)
-Dr. Luther said one day to Katie (playfully): You make me do what you want; you have full sovereignty here, and I give you, with all my heart, the full command in household matters, reserving my rights in other points. No good ever came from female domination. Go created Adam master and lord of living creatures, but Eve spoiled it all when she persuaded him to set himself above God’s will. ‘Tis you women, with your tricks and cunning, that lead men into error.
-The greatest blessing that God can confer on man is the possession of a good and pious wife with whom he may live in peace and tranquillity; to whom he can confide his whole possessions, even his life and welfare, and who bears him children. Katy, thou hast a pious man who loves thee for a husband; thou art a very empress, thanks be to God!
To read a full version of several pieces of “Table Talk,” click here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/tabletalk.html
MORE ABOUT KATHERINE VON BORA
Katie dreaded the day she would lose her beloved husband. That day finally came, when Luther died of heart failure in 1546. They had been married for 21 years and had lost two of their six children at this point. The four remaining children, however, would grow up to be healthy and for the most part successful.
After Martin’s death, their family farm and the surrounding areas quickly became hostile territory as a result of the religious and political wars of the mid sixteenth century. While attempting to move to a safer place, Katherine endured a serious carriage accident and was never able to recover. She died in the winter of 1552. In his will, Luther described Katie as “a pious, faithful, and devoted wife, full of loving, tender care towards him.”
Next to God’s Word, there is no more precious treasure than holy matrimony. God’s highest gift on earth is a pious, cheerful, God-fearing, home-keeping wife, with whom you may live peacefully, to whom you may intrust your goods and body and life.
MORE ABOUT MARTIN LUTHER
Read my post from August 11 by clicking here