Women of the Reformation, Part 2: Katherine Zell—Speaking Truth to Power
The Big Idea: By celebrating the legacy of women heroes of the Reformation, we learn how to speak Gospel truth in love.
Katherine Zell: Afflicting the Comfortable and Comforting the Afflicted
Katherine Zell (1497-1562) defended her right to minister in Christ’s name, though always doing so in a spirit of humility. Speaking of her relationship to her husband, she describes herself as “a splinter from the rib of that blessed man Matthew Zell.”
Matthew Zell was a celibate Catholic priest turned married Lutheran pastor. Marrying Katherine Schult, he found a life partner with courage and conviction. As she portrays herself, “Ever since I was ten years old I have been a student and sort of church mother, much given to attending sermons. I have loved and frequented the company of learned men, and I conversed much with them, not about dancing, masquerades, and worldly pleasures but about the kingdom of God.”
Protestant leaders concurred with her self-assessment. Church historian Philip Schaff noted that the well-known Reformers of her day who frequented her home said that she “conversed with them on theology so intelligently that they ranked her above many doctors.” The admiration and the ministry were mutual. “I honored, cherished and sheltered many great, learned men, with care, work and expense. . . . I listened to their conversations and preaching, I read their books and their letters and they were glad to receive mine.”
Speaking the Truth in Love
To her ministry in her home, Katherine added a public ministry—often in defense of her husband and their ministry. When Matthew was excommunicated for marrying her, opponents of the Reformation circulated the tale that she had caught him with their maid and that, when she protested, he had thrashed her. She published a refutation, saying, “I have never had a maid. . . . And as for thrashing me, my husband and I have never had an unpleasant 15 minutes. We could have no greater honor than to die rejected of men and from two crosses to speak to each other words of comfort.” Katherine exemplifies a rare and worthy-to-be-followed balance of confronting enemies while comforting loved ones.
In the same tract, she not only refutes this particular slander, but provides a vigorous defense of her ministry. “You remind me that the Apostle Paul told women to be silent in the church. I would remind you of the word of this same apostle that in Christ there is no longer male nor female and of the prophecy of Joel: ‘I will pour my spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters will prophesy.’ I do not pretend to be John the Baptist rebuking the Pharisees. I do not claim to be Nathan upbraiding David. I aspire only to be Balaam’s ass, castigating his master.” Thus with wit and wisdom she offers shrewd biblical confrontation based upon the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers—male and female.
At her husband’s funeral, Katherine assures her listeners that she did not seek to become “Doctor Katrina” as rumor had it. “I am not usurping the office of preacher or apostle. I am like the dear Mary Magdalene, who with no thought of being an apostle, came to tell the disciples that she had encountered the risen Lord.”
It’s Normal to Hurt
Such courageous boldness might mistakenly cause us to think that Katherine was above suffering and grieving. However, the ceaseless criticism along with her overwhelming grief after Matthew’s death exposed her human neediness. Friends arranged for her to stay in the home of a pastor in Switzerland, and the renowned Reformer Martin Bucer sent a letter of introduction. “The widow of our Zell, a godly and saintly woman, comes to you that perchance she may find some solace for her grief. She is human. How does the heavenly Father humble those endowed with great gifts!” It truly is normal, human to hurt.
Even in her ongoing grief, Katherine ministers to others. In less than a year she was back in the parsonage in Strasbourg. To one of the displaced Protestant leaders she wrote, “I have been allowed to keep the parsonage which belongs to the parish. I take any one who comes. It is always full.”
Yet she was able to candidly admit that she still struggled. In a letter to two Protestant Reformers, whom she helped to hide from authorities, she apologizes for what she perceived as a lack of hospitality. “I wish I could have done better for you but my Matthew has taken all my gaiety with him.”
Out of Katherine’s grief, she was able to comfort other grieving wives, offering them both sustaining empathy and healing encouragement. At Kensingen in Breisgau, the minister was forced to leave by those enforcing the Edict of Worms against Luther and his followers. They evicted one-hundred-fifty men of the parish along with the pastor. One man was executed. The rest fled to Strasbourg where Katherine housed eighty in the parsonage and fed sixty for three weeks, while finding shelter and provisions for the rest.
Katherine pens a letter of scriptural exploration to the wives left behind. “To my fellow sisters in Christ, day and night I pray God that he may increase your faith that you forget not his invincible Word. ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, saith the Lord’ (Isa. 55:8). ‘Whom I make alive I kill’ (Deut. 32:39). The Lord would wean you from the world that you may rely only on him. Has he not told us that we must ‘forsake father and mother, wife and child’? (Luke 14:26). ‘He who denies me him will I deny in the presence of my father,’ (Matt. 10:33). ‘Those who would reign with me must also suffer with me’ (2 Tim. 2:12).
Katherine continues with healing words of spiritual conversation. “Had I been chosen to suffer as you women I would account myself happier than all the magistrates of Strasbourg at the fair with their necklaces and golden chains. Remember the word of the Lord in the prophet Isaiah (54:8) ‘In overflowing love I will have compassion on you.’ ‘Can a woman forget her suckling child? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you’ (Isa. 49:15). Are not these golden words? Faith is not faith which is not tried. ‘Blessed are those that mourn.’ Pray, then, for those who persecute you that you ‘may be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (Matt. 5:4, 44, 48).”
Katherine did not limit her soul care ministry to other women. In 1558, though ill herself, she ministers to Felix Ambrosiaster, the chief magistrate of Strasbourg who had been diagnosed with leprosy and quarantined. Her letter to Felix depicts a sensitive awareness of his level one external suffering. “My dear Lord Felix, since we have known each other for a full 30 years I am moved to visit you in your long and frightful illness. . . . We have often talked of how you have been stricken, cut off from rank, office, from your wife and friends, from all dealings with the world which recoils from your loathsome disease and leaves you in utter loneliness.”
Not stopping there, Katherine’s words also represent brilliant insight into his level two internal suffering—and how to face it with faith. “At first you were bitter and utterly cast down till God gave you strength and patience, and now you are able to thank him that out of love he has taught you to bear the cross. Because I know that your illness weighs upon you daily and may easily cause you again to fall into despair and rebelliousness, I have gathered some passages which may make your yoke light in the spirit, though not in the flesh. I have written mediations on the 51st Psalm: ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness,’ and the 130th: ‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord,” and then on the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed.”
Bold to the End
One would hope that such ministry to others would always lead to ministry from others. However, Katherine’s last days were filled with strife and betrayal. Ludwig Rabus, a former resident in her home and indebted to her for spiritual counsel, preached against her, calling her a “disturber of the church.”
Bold to the end, Katherine responds with the light of truth. “A disturber of the peace am I? Yes indeed, of my own peace. Do you call this disturbing the peace that instead of spending my time in frivolous amusements I have visited the plague infested and carried out the dead? I have visited those in prison and under sentence of death. Often for three days and three nights I have neither eaten nor slept. I have never mounted the pulpit, but I have done more than any minister in visiting those in misery. Is this disturbing the peace of the church?” Like the Apostle Paul throughout 2 Corinthians, false accusations forced her to “the foolishness of self-defense,” but always for the purpose of defending a woman’s right to biblical ministry.
Her own words best summarize the nature of her lifelong ministry. In 1534, she issued a collection of hymns that she had compiled, publishing them in four pamphlets that sold for a penny each. Her ministry goal was to inspire lay people of all ages, all walks of life, and both genders toward greater spirituality. “When I read these hymns I felt that the writer had the whole Bible in his heart. This is not just a hymn book but a lesson book of prayer and praise. When so many filthy songs are on the lips of men and women and even children I think it well that folk should with lusty zeal and clear voice sing the songs of their salvation. God is glad when the craftsman at his bench, the maid at the sink, the farmer at the plough, the dresser at the vines, the mother at the cradle break forth in hymns of prayer, praise and instruction.” In all her ministry endeavors, spiritual equality in Christ motivated Katherine Zell.
The Rest of the Story
Return tomorrow to learn from Idelette Calvin how to live as a daughter of the King.
Join the Conversation
What does Katherine Zell’s life and ministry say about the role of women in the church today?