The ROAD TO REFORMATION
In observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation,
we are presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series continues
with major events in the life of the Reformer that took place after 1517.
For many hundreds of years, the Roman Catholic Church had exalted celibacy above marriage, and had even prohibited its priests, monks, and nuns from marrying. Martin Luther, however, taught from Scripture that bishops or pastors could be married (see I Timothy 3:2). In fact, the Apostle Paul wrote that
“it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (I Corinthians 7:9)
Nevertheless, Luther himself did not intend to get married. Because he had been declared a heretic, he posed a danger to those who kept company with him. In 1521 he said, “They will never force a wife upon me.” But in 1523 a group of nuns became aware of Luther’s criticism of required celibacy and monasticism. Luther helped arrange for their escape from a convent. The nuns hid in fish barrels on the back of a cart and escaped to Wittenberg. Within months Luther was able to find husbands or employment for all of them except one—Katherine von Bora.
Katherine von Bora
Very little is known of Katherine’s birth (1499) and early life. She entered a cloister at age five and became a nun in 1515. After her escape from the nunnery, Luther tried without success to arrange for her marriage. She stated that she would marry only Luther or a friend of his, Nicholas von Amsdorf. Although reluctant at first, Luther (42) married Katherine (26) on June 13, 1525. Philip Melanchthon spoke out against the union, thinking it would distract from the goals of the Reformation, but Luther said that “his marriage would please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.” Luther wanted to show that Protestant clergy could and should get married if they chose to.
The Luther Home
Somewhat unusually for that time, Luther allowed Katherine to share in the managing of the household. Their home in Wittenberg was a three-story former monastery, the “Black Cloister,” a wedding gift from Elector John Frederick. Katherine soon managed a large staff, operated a brewery, gardened, raised pigs and cows, and conducted much of the daily business. In addition to the six children of their own, they took in four orphans and often housed university students and extended family. During times of widespread illness, Katherine cared for the sick, using their home as a hospital. Luther had several nicknames for his wife, including “Lord Katie,” the “Boss of Zulsdorf,” and the “Morning Star of Wittenberg,” because she was often up by 4:00 A.M. to tend to her many duties. Because of her great competence, Luther could spend much of his time studying, writing, teaching, and preaching. In this respect, she set a good example for pastors’ wives today, working behind the scenes to enable their husbands to devote more time and energy to ministry with the Word.
But Katherine also contributed to the many theological conversations around the dinner table. She was a true companion in every way. The Luther home was filled with love, laughter, and music. No doubt it was because of her that Luther wrote, “There is no more lovely, friendly, and charming relationship, communion, or company than a good marriage.”
After Luther’s death in 1546, Katherine had a difficult life. She outlived him by only six years, dying from complications caused by a carriage accident in 1552. On her deathbed she is reported to have said, “I will stick to Christ as a burr to cloth.”
Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.