The change in religious doctrine brought about by the Protestant Reformation had widespread consequences well beyond what we usually think of as religious life. Among a great many other changes, Protestant theology forced a rethinking of marriage and family life. The Roman Catholic Church held that celibacy was a spiritually superior state to marriage and thus forbade the clergy from marrying; at the same time, the Catholics viewed marriage as a sacrament and a bond that could never be dissolved by divorce.
Protestants rejected all of these ideas, and instead argued that marriage was completely honorable and should be open to all, including the clergy, that it was not a sacrament but a creation ordinance established by God and thus binding on all humanity, not just Christians as would be the case were it a sacrament, and that under certain limited circumstances (adultery and abandonment), divorce could be permitted.
Although the Eastern Orthodox Church maintained the ancient teaching that priests could be married, there was no model available to Protestant Reformers in Western Europe of how married clergy would function in the community. There were many notable women who married Reformers, including Katherina Schütz Zell, Wilibrandis Rosenblatt (who outlived three successive husbands, all of whom were reformers), and Idelette de Bure, the wife of John Calvin. But the most remarkable of these women was Katharina von Bora, alias Katie Luther.
Very little is known for sure about Katharina’s early life. She was probably born on January 29, 1499, in Lippendorf, Saxony, to a family in the lower nobility. She was sent to a monastery, possibly the Benedictine house at Brenna, when she was five. When she was nine years old, she moved to the Cistercian convent Marienthron in Nimbschen, where an aunt was already a nun. We know she was there in 1509-1510 since she appears in the monastery’s records, the earliest definite source we have for her life.
Although many young monks and nuns were happy in their lives in the cloister, many others were not. Girls in particular were put in convents unwillingly by parents too poor or too cheap to supply them with dowries so that they could marry well. Katharina fell into this category, and when she heard about Luther and the Reformation, she saw an opportunity to escape the confines of the monastery. She and several other nuns secretly contacted Luther and asked for his help to get them out of the monastery.
Luther obliged. He had a contact named Leonhard Köppe, a city councilman at Torgau and a merchant, who regularly delivered fish to the Marienthron convent. The day before Easter, 1523, he delivered several barrels of herring to the monastery and then smuggled the nuns out on Easter hidden among—some sources say in—the herring barrels. They made their way to Wittenberg and joined the Reformation.
Luther at first tried to get the nuns’ families to take them back, but they refused, possibly because it was against the canon law to take in an escaped nun. So Luther and his associates went to work trying to find appropriate employment for them. Several were married off to students training for the pastorate; others found employment. After two years, only Katharina remained.
Katharina had stayed with several people during the interim, including the famous painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. She had two potential marriages, but neither worked out. In the end, she told Nicholas von Amsdorf, a friend and coworker with Luther, that she would marry either him or Luther, no one else. Luther was reluctant to marry: he had been declared an imperial outlaw at the Diet of Worms (1521), so anyone who found him could legally kill him, and he expected that his life would end by being burned at the stake as a heretic. Nonetheless, he eventually agreed to marry Katharina in a small, private ceremony on June 13, 1525. He was 42 and she was 26.
Personally, I suspect she was looking to marry Luther from before she left the convent.
John Frederick, the son of John, the brother and successor of Frederick the Wise, Luther’s patron and Elector of Saxony, gave the Luthers the Black Cloister, the former Augustinian monastery and dormitory for students from the order studying at the University of Wittenberg. The Luthers moved in and Katharina immediately began to run the household as well as the lands that came with the cloister. This was no small task: she had to manage the farms as well as take care of the thirty or so students and guests who lodged at the Black Cloister, an important supplement to the family’s income. Along with those duties, she also began breeding and selling cattle and brewing beer. She was very successful in her business ventures, so much so that the family began to depend less and less on Martin’s salary and was largely supported by her efforts.
She also contributed directly to the ministry at Wittenberg. She ran a hospital in the Black Cloister, working alongside the other nurses in caring for the sick. Martin sometimes even consulted her on church matters and allowed her to deal with his publishers. Mostly, though, she oversaw the household to allow Martin to devote his time to his work in the church and at the University.
She also bore Martin six children, and they raised another four orphans at the house.
Martin and Katie’s Relationship
Martin had unending respect for his wife and loved her deeply. He referred to her as “Katie, my rib,” “the Boss of Zulsdorf” (the name of their farm), or “the morning star of Wittenberg,” apparently due to her habit of rising at 4:30 in the morning to get all her work done. She returned the compliment, calling Martin “Herr Doktor” throughout her life.
Still, Luther could not have been an easy person to live with. He had a brilliant mind, but was loud, crude, and increasingly cranky as he got older due in no small measure to his increasingly ill health. Katie, though, was more than a match for him. He once wrote, “Get you a wife and then your mind, however fussy, will become straight as a ribbon. It will be reduced to one idea: Do and think as she wishes.” He was once reported to have said to her, “Katie, you have a husband that loves you. Let someone else be empress.”
This was truly a match made in heaven.
The End of the Story
Martin urged Katie to sell the cloister and move into a smaller house after he died, but she would have none of it. After his death in 1546, Katie was disconsolate. She said, “He gave so much of himself in service not only to one town or to one country, but to the whole world. Yes, my sorrow is so deep that no words can express my heartbreak, and it is humanly impossible to understand what state of mind and spirit I am in…I can neither eat nor drink, nor even sleep…God knows that when I think of having lost him, I can neither talk nor write in all my suffering.” She refused to sell the cloister, perhaps because so much of her life and love were found there.
Unfortunately, however, Martin’s advice was proven right by subsequent events. She was forced to flee Wittenberg twice during the First Schmalkaldic War (1546-47), after which the cloister and farms were left in shambles and all the farm animals stolen or killed. Had she sold the property earlier, she would have been in a stable condition financially, but as it is she had to move out of the cloister. She lived in poverty, and only managed to keep the family alive through the generosity of Elector John Frederick.
Then in 1552 plague broke out in Wittenberg. Katharina left the city for Torgau, where her cart was involved in an accident that left her seriously injured. She died in Torgau three months later, on December 20, 1552, at age 53. She is reported to have said on her deathbed, “I will stick to Christ as a burr to cloth.” She was buried in Torgau, far from her beloved husband.
Are you better suited to be a leader or a helper? In either case, what contribution—great or small—do you believe you have to make to your town, your country, the world? Are you making it?