The Big Idea: By celebrating the legacy of women heroes of the Reformation, we learn how to speak Gospel truth in love.
More Faith Stories: Read Part 1 Don’t Bury Your Talent. Read Part 2 Speaking Truth to Power. Read Part 3 Unfading Beauty. To learn life lessons from 52 women heroes of the faith, read Sacred Friendships, which is the source for today’s blog post.
Katherine von Bora Luther: Living the Truth in Love
Katherine von Bora is the best known of all the women of the Reformation because she was Martin Luther’s wife. However, she was much more than that. Katherine was born in January 1499 in a little village near Leipzig. Her parents enjoyed a degree of financial security and unlike most girls her age she received an education, studying at a Benedictine school beginning at age six. At age ten, when her mother died and her father remarried, they sent Katherine to a Cistercian convent to prepare for solemn vows, eventually taking them when she was sixteen.
A Wagon Load of Vestal Virgins
In the early 1520s, Luther’s writings began to infiltrate monastic houses. “The sisters at Nimschen, nine of them, disquieted in conscience, sought his counsel. Luther advised escape and undertook to make the arrangements.”
Luther turned to a highly trusted layman, Leonard Kopp, who delivered barrels of smoked herrings to the nuns. Hidden in the covered wagon, they rumbled into Wittenberg. A student there wrote to a friend, “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town all more eager for marriage than for life. May God give them husbands lest worse befall.”
Luther felt responsible that worse should not befall. All were placed either in teaching posts, in homes, or in matrimony. Katherine spent two years working in a home while Luther sought a husband for her. Finding no match, and at her initial suggestion, Luther agreed to marry Katherine because his marriage “would please his father, rile the pope, make the angels laugh and the devils weep, and would seal his testimony.” She was twenty-six; he was forty-two.
Though initially a marriage of convenience, they grew to love and depend upon each other profoundly. In fact, Luther would say of her, “In domestic affairs, I defer to Katie. Otherwise I am led by the Holy Ghost.” When he thought her at the point of death, he pleaded, “Don’t die and leave me.” Thirteen years after their marriage, Martin would say of Katherine, “If I should lose my Katie I would not take another wife through I were offered a queen.”
A Physician of the Soul
What was it about Katherine’s character and ministry that so endeared her to Luther? She “ministered to her husband’s diseases, depressions, and eccentricities.” Her son, later a physician, praised her as half a doctor. He could not have survived his depression, which he interpreted as satanic temptations to doubt God’s forgiveness, without her sustaining and healing ministry. At night he would turn over and plead with Katherine, “Forbid me to have such temptations.” Based upon Luther’s own methods of soul care for such depression, we can surmise that Katherine responded by ministering sustaining empathy and healing encouragement through spiritual conversations and scriptural explorations.
Luther’s own testimony further describes Katherine’s empathic care. Speaking from the experience of their marriage and parenting he writes:
“Marriage offers the greatest sphere for good works, because it rest on love—love between the husband and the wife, love of the parents for the children, whom they nourish, clothe, rear, and nurse. If a child is sick, the parents are sick with worry. If the husband is sick, the wife is as concerned as if it were herself. If it be said that marriage entails concern, worry, and trouble, that is all true, but these the Christian is not to shun.”
Undoubtedly, Martin frequently experienced Katherine’s as if compassion numerous times in his battles with depression.
Katherine was unafraid to lovingly rebuke Martin. When his language was too foul, she would say, “Oh come now, that’s too raw.” Luther’s Table Talks also disclose that Katherine at times prodded her husband to respond forcefully to unfair attacks and doctrinal error.
A Hospital for the Hurting
As with Idelette Calvin, Katherine’s ministry was not exclusively to her family. The Augustinian Cloister where Luther had lived as a monk was first loaned and then given to the couple by the Elector. It had on the first floor forty rooms with cells above. Eventually not a single room was unoccupied. A friend described the scene. “The home of Luther is occupied by a motley crowd of boys, students, girls, widows, old women, and youngsters.” Katherine “came to be a mistress of a household, a hostel, and a hospital.”
Luther recognized and appreciated her versatility and creativity. “To my dear wife Katherine von Bora, preacher, brewer, gardener, and whatsoever else she may be.” On other occasions he referred to her as “my kind and dear lord and master, Katy, Lutheress, doctoress, and priestess of Wittenberg.” Yet again, ten years after they married, he had this description. “My lord Kate drives a team, farms, pastures, and sells cows . . . and between times reads the Bible.”
Sticking to Christ
But for Katherine, reading the Bible was insufficient. She longed to apply it. “I’ve read enough. I’ve heard enough. I know enough. Would to God I lived it.”
Such was her testimony to her dying day. Ill for three months after an accident landed her on her back in a ditch filled with icy water, Katherine died on December 20, 1550, at age fifty-one. The final words from her lips depict how she lived her entire life. “I will stick to Christ as a burr to a top coat.” The last words of Idelette Calvin and Katherine von Bora Luther each communicate that they were not simply wives of Reformers, but more so daughters of the King of King.
Join the Conversation
Which aspect of Katherine’s life most powerfully impacts you?