October 19, 2017

“My Lord Katie”

By Chaplain Mike

If someone wanted to do an intriguing Hollywood historical drama about a strong woman, holding her own in momentous times, he or she could do worse than to produce a film about Katharina von Bora, the nun who became Martin Luther’s wife.

Today, December 20, she is commemorated by Lutherans on their calendar of saints.

Born in 1499, Katharina was placed in a convent when she was three years old, after her mother had died. Von Bora was raised in relative seclusion, but in her teen years she and her fellow nuns heard of Martin Luther’s teachings and became persuaded of Reformation principles. Learning of their faith and desire for a life outside the convent, Luther himself became involved in a plot to help twelve nuns escape. A merchant friend who delivered fish to the convent smuggled them out and hid them in his empty fish barrels, leading them on a dramatic, smelly, ride to freedom. Some of them returned to their families, some found positions as servants, and some married. Eleven of the twelve found a measure of security in ordinary life.

All but Katharina von Bora.

At age 24, Katharina was considered beyond marriageable age. Rejected by one suitor’s family because of her background, she also resisted other attempts by others to find her a husband. Eventually, she agreed to marry, but it had to be one of two men: either Nikolaus von Amsdorf, an associate of Martin Luther’s, or Luther himself. She held out until the leader of the Reformation, a former monk not inclined to marry, was persuaded otherwise.

And so, on June 13, 1525, 42 year-old Martin Luther wed Katharina von Bora. With a humor natural to a 42 year-old bachelor, Luther said he married her not out of love, but but to please his father, who wanted grandchildren; to spite the pope, who forbade clerical marriage; and to witness to his convictions before he was martyred.

John Frederick, the Elector of Saxony, gave the Luthers some former monastery property and buildings for a wedding present, and Mrs. Luther became the manager of the household and estate. She was indefatigable, a virtual image of the Proverbs 31 Woman of Excellence, and her husband began calling her, “boss of Zulsdorf,” and the “morning star of Wittenberg” for her habit of rising at 4 a.m. to tend to business.

In addition to overseeing the operations of the farm, she also ran a brewery to support the family. Luther had a steady stream of visitors and students, including many who took up residence in their home, and she organized their audiences and stays. She even started a hospital and served alongside others in nursing the sick. And she and Martin had six children together and raised four orphans in their home.

It was a partnership for the ages. Kathryn Hauelsen writes:

Katie . . . freed Luther up to focus on preaching, teaching, writing, and reforming as she handled the family finances. She took charge of managing a large garden–really a small farm–as well as making the wine and beer they shared with their many visitors. Most of what they ate and drank was the result of her considerable skills in the garden, vineyard, and kitchen.

Their Wittenberg home had been a cloister so it had many small rooms. The Luther’s rented these out to students at the nearby university and to visiting clergy passing through. These tenants frequently dined with the Luther family.

In addition to managing their busy household, Katie also handled many details of Luther’s growing publishing business. She attended meetings with him, something rarely done by women in that century. Luther often turned to her for insights on various Reformation issues.

Reformation scholars have noted that the Luthers’ marriage was one of the most revolutionary and visible signs of the Reformer’s teachings on Christian liberty and vocation, an example that prompted lasting social and cultural change in Europe. The partnership between Martin and Katie was so strong that he named his remarkable wife his sole heir, an unusual act in that day. To him, she would always be his “Lord Katie.”

When the Reformer died in 1546, a third and final chapter in Katherina’s life began.

The world was in tumult, a much less stable place, and the Luther family was not exempt from the religious, social, and political tribulations unleashed by the Reformation. The final six years of Katharina Luther’s were hard. She and the children still at home had to flee more than once from the dangers from wars that broke out in the region, and the last time they returned, they found an estate that had been leveled and destroyed. Impoverished and homeless, she nevertheless survived through the generosity of friends until the outbreak of the Black Plague forced one final exodus. When the cart on which she was riding was involved in an accident, causing her serious injury, the end was near. Katie Luther died three months later, on December 20, 1552. It has been reported that her final words were, “I will stick to Christ as a burr to cloth.”

Today we honor strong women of faith and action, and praise God for such a model as Katie Luther.

Some sources for this post:

Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this. I think she may be my favorite of all the heroines of the faith who I share a name with!

  2. Mike, thanks for a wonderful post about one of my favorite women in church history. I had not heard her reported last words before, but they are a fitting conclusion tonher life.

  3. My favorite Luther quote: “In domestic affairs I am led by my wife, Katie. In all other maters I am led by the Holy Spirit.”

    • I’m shocked! Did he not know that the man is the head of the household and women should model wifely submission?

      🙂

      • I thought the same thing! So much for our reformed friends theology.

      • Like your smiley face!! I have always found that if the spiritual head of the family, in Christ-like manner, designates and empowers his wife to function fully and effectively in her role, the wife totally respects and submits to her man and benefits him greatly in all areas!!!

      • Be careful there! Wifely submission can only go so far. It does NOT mean letting him pick the color of the curtains! That would just be un-godly 😛

    • This whole story about Katie reinforces my belief that every couple works out their own relationship in a way that matches their personalities and their life stories.

  4. Thanks for this enlightening post. Being in Europe, it’s so helpful to be reminded of those who took their place on the wall, but were far from standing in the limelight. This woman, an countless others, who have dedicated their lives to Christ and the realities that follow from that, merit our thanks and recognition as we seek in our own times to be faithful and to find a place on the wall.

  5. I had never heard of Katie before and this was very interesting. I agree that her story would make a great movie, if done well.

    For a man who didn’t care about getting married, Luther did well in the making babies department!

  6. textjunkie says:

    I’d never heard her story before either. Thanks for sharing that!!

  7. That Other Jean says:

    Because she was the wife of Martin Luther, I knew of her— but not about her. Thank you for telling her story. I hope somebody does make a movie. Or maybe a multiple-episode Masterpiece Theatre?

    • Kathleen Smith says:

      Yes…a Masterpiece Theatre series would be wonderful…no one translates a story better than Masterpiece!

  8. When we read any of Luther’s “Table Talk” comments, we should probably imagine them fueled and oiled by the fruits of Katherine von Bora’s garden and brewery.

  9. I had always heard that she was a former nun, as if that was scandalous. I did not know she had been reared in the convent from such an early age. Did the convent run an orphanage and is that how she wound up there at 3? I know in England at one time it was customary for children to be presented to the abbeys with the intention that they would be monks but I thought that custom ended earlier.

  10. This isn’t necessarily tied to Katharina, so pardon me for being off-topic – but what is the Lutheran(/evangelical) take on vows? For all that Katharina went on to do as Luther’s wife, she – they both, actually – had taken a vow of celibacy…are vows such as that considered to have any binding force, of any sort?

    • Margaret Catherine,

      Short answer: Luther (and Lutherans) would say “No” to your question. My guess is that modern evangelicals, on the whole, would say “No” as well, but for a wide variety of reasons.

      I have a much longer answer, but since it is off-topic, I don’t want to post it here. Click on my name and contact me there if you want the longer answer that includes the reasons why Luther thought the vows weren’t binding.

      Merry Christmas!

      Jacob

  11. Wonderful insights into the life of Katherine Von Bora! I would have loved to have met this woman. (And I wouldn’t have minded meeting her husband, either!)

  12. Thanks Chaplain Mike. Last year did some reading on Kate and was thrilled to learn more about her, this post was awesome. I stole her last words quote you cited for my Twitter feed earlier, hope you don’t mind! …I share links back to the blog here quite often on my FB page but failed to on this one.

  13. Michael Boyd says:

    Try and get a copy of the little book ‘Luther and his Katie’ by Dolina MacCuish (Christian Focus Publications). Martin is my favourite man in church history and after reading about Katie in that book she quickly became my favourite woman.
    Their marriage is a great testimony and a real joy to read about.