Although it is in France today, Strasbourg has a much longer history as part of the Holy Roman Empire. The city was founded in 12 BC and became part of the Empire in 932 AD. In 1262, the city was made an Imperial Free City, meaning that it largely governed its own affairs and had no responsibilities to any overlord except the Holy Roman Emperor.
Katherina Schütz was born in Strasbourg in 1497 or 1498. She was the youngest of five children, two boys and three girls. Though not part of the city’s elite, the family was reasonably well off and was able to provide all the children including Katherina with a good education. She was able to read and write German well, and she learned Latin later, probably from her husband.
Even as a girl, Katherina was very interested in religion. Then in 1518, a young priest named Matthew Zell was appointed by the Catholic bishop of Strasbourg to the Cathedral of St. Lawrence. Zell was a follower of Luther, whose “95 Theses” had been published the year before and circulated widely. Zell began teaching Luther’s understanding of salvation from the pulpit, and from Zell’s preaching and Luther’s writings, Katherina adopted Lutheran theology as her own.
Up to this point, virtually all of the clergy in Europe had been celibate, whether as Catholic priests or as newly-minted Protestant pastors, and that was what people expected of their clergy. But Luther had taught that marriage was an honorable estate and that there was no biblical reason clergy had to be celibate. And so, five years after Zell arrived, he and Katherina got married, making him one of the first Protestant pastors to marry. They even beat Luther to the altar by two years.
The marriage was controversial, though, since it felt wrong even to Protestants to have married clergy. When the bishop heard about it, he excommunicated Matthew Zell. Further, rumors began to circulate of infidelity. In response, Katherina vigorously defended their marriage and pointed out the rampant sexual irregularities that were well known among the Catholic clergy.
This incident points to an important element in the Zells’ marriage: it was a partnership among equals in an era in which women were expected to be silent and submissive. Matthew understood Katherina’s gifts and talents and allowed her full scope to exercise them.
Katherina Zell took very seriously the responsibility of presbyters to exercise hospitality. Their home became a haven for visiting Reformers and Protestant refugees. (Many French Protestants made their way to Geneva to escape persecution, including John Calvin, whom she hosted in her home.) She not only took care of their physical needs, but also actively participated in their theological discussions. She was so astute in her theological understanding that many Reformers considered her more knowledgeable than some university-trained theologians.
In this period Strasbourg was far more tolerant of different religious views than most other places; Martin Bucer, the principal reformer of the city, was well known for his irenic disposition. The Zells were even more tolerant than most others: Matthew commented that he would welcome into his home anyone who recognized Jesus as the Son of God and the only Savior of the world. Even Anabaptists, who were considered heretics by most Protestants and Catholics, were welcome. Katherina strongly supported her husband’s attitude toward religious toleration. As Kirsi Stjerna put it, “She believed a distinction should be made between people and creeds, the care for the former outweighing disagreements on the latter.”1
Katherina went beyond taking care of the visitors in her home, however. She was very active in what Bucer would label the diaconal branch of the ministry: taking care of the poor, the sick, widows, and orphans. In one incident, a local magistrate came down with leprosy and had to be quarantined. Katherina visited him and wrote letters to encourage him. She also became an advocate for victims of injustice. She was so effective in this role that her husband named her “Church Mother of Strasbourg.”
Katherina also became involved in the Reformation outside of Strasbourg. A Protestant minister in the nearby town of Kentzingen was forced to flee due to religious persecution. 150 men from his church accompanied him, but when they returned they found the gates of the city locked against them. They were pursued, and one was killed. The rest fled to Strasbourg.
Katherina saw to it that most of them found beds, many in her own home. And she wrote a tract entitled, Letter to the suffering women of the community of Kentzingen, who believe in Christ, sisters with me in Jesus Christ to try to comfort the wives whose husbands were now in exile.
This was Katherina’s first public work, but it was far from her last. Katherina was a prolific writer of pamphlets, an essential tool for communicating the message of Protestantism in her day. Many of her letters and pamphlets were devoted to comforting the wives of Protestant leaders who had to spend extended periods away from their families. She also wrote catechetical instructions, devotional writings, biblical meditations, and a sermon; she even participated in written theological debates with [male] theologians and corresponded with Reformers in other parts of Europe.
She also was involved in the publication of the hymnal of the Bohemian Brethren, the descendents of the Hussites, proto-Protestants from Bohemia. Like Luther, she realized that music was a powerful tool for the spread of the Reformation. The texts of the hymns were unalterable due to the wishes of their author, but Katherina oversaw new musical settings for them and also wrote the introduction to the hymnal.
She ended up being the most published woman theologian of the Reformation.
Of course, as a woman, taking this kind of public role brought on a great deal of criticism from traditionalists who believed that women should be silent and submissive to their husband. Her reply was twofold. First, although Paul talked about women being silent in church, Joel said that God’s menservants and maidservants would prophesy; in light of this, she didn’t see herself as John the Baptist rebuking the Pharisees, but as Balaam’s ass rebuking his master. Second, everything she did, she did with the full support and consent of her husband; she was thus not violating any biblical precepts dealing with submission by her writings.
Unfortunately, Katherina faced a serious sorrow in her personal life: her only two children died in infancy. She interpreted this as punishment by God. When her husband died in 1548, she was heartbroken but nonetheless spoke at his funeral. Bucer sent her to Basel to stay with a young pastor and his wife, but she soon decided to return home in Strasbourg to continue her biblical studies and works of mercy.
That same year, in the wake of the First Schmalkaldic War, the religious settlement put in place by the Augsburg Interim made Bucer’s position in Strasbourg untenable.2 Katherina kept him and several other reformers hidden in her house until Bucer was able to go into exile to England in 1549.
In the midst of all this turmoil, Katherina continued her work. She continued her writing and her biblical studies as well as her works of mercy. In 1562, in keeping with her earlier practice of toleration, she conducted the funeral of a follower of Caspar Schwenkfeld, a spiritualist and Anabaptist, since there was no one else in the city willing to do it. She was quite ill herself at the time, and died shortly thereafter.
Katherina Schütz Zell was one of several formidable women who were wives of Protestant Reformers. Given the dangers of that era and the larger than life personalities of some of the Reformers, it is not surprising that they had wives with equally strong personalities. In Katherina Zell’s case, her voice was even more prominent than her husband’s even though she was careful not to overstep the boundaries she saw in Scripture for herself as a wife and as a woman. That she believed Scripture gave her far more latitude than most people of her day recognized made her all the more remarkable as she sought to balance her calling, her understanding and interpretation of Scripture, and her commitment based on that understanding of the Bible to remain under her husband’s authority.
2The details of this get very complicated and not particularly important for present purposes. They include Protestant disputes over the nature of Christ in the Eucharist, the various texts of the Augsburg Confession, and the Emperor’s desire to extirpate Protestantism in the Empire and instituting a compromise replacing Protestantism with a kind of liberal Catholicism.
Do you sense God calling you to take any risky steps or actions on behalf of His Kingdom? If so, what’s stopping you? Is there any contribution you can make to support whatever He might be doing in your community?