The story of the Reformation is often centered on Martin Luther, the towering figure of church history who nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517. However, as is often the case, behind every giant there are numerous unnamed and uncelebrated supporters who made it all possible. That is certainly true of the wife of Martin Luther— Katharina von Bora.
Today is my 19th wedding anniversary and as I contemplate how my wife has faithfully served alongside me in gospel ministry, today I want to focus on Katie Luther who faithfully supported her husband, making it possible for Luther to accomplish his work as the leading figure of the Protestant Reformation.
A Smelly and Sweet Providence
Katharina von Bora was born on January 29th, 1499. As was typical of the families in her era, they would raise their children on farms and often the children would never receive a formal education. Katie, as she was known, was sent off to a cloister at the young age of five. This would begin her trajectory to enter the life of a nun. By age ten, she was sent off to a Cistercian cloister and “take the veil” in marriage to Christ.
Sometime following Luther’s famous Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, Luther organized an effort to rescue twelve nuns from the convent in Nimbschen. The plan involved a calculated escape. After the normal delivery of fish in barrels was brought into the monastery on a covered wagon, the nuns climbed inside the barrels and patiently waited on the wagon to begin moving. On the following morning, they were taken to Wittenberg where Luther would assist the escapees find husbands and begin their new lives as ex-nuns of the Roman Catholic Church.
One of the nuns who was delivered to Wittenberg in a fish barrel was Katharina von Bora. She was a very driven woman who had her eye on Martin. Luther himself was not interested in marriage. He was likewise a driven man who had been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church and had a death sentence looming over him. After two failed marriage proposals and as Katie continued to find it difficult to find a man who suited her, Luther proposed—and the rest is history. They married on June 23rd, 1525. Luther said he married Katie for the following reasons:
- To anger the pope.
- To practice his theology.
- He owed his parents grandchildren.
As they grew in their relationship, Luther would eventually come to see that his great love for Katie was the true reason for their successful marriage.
Working Alongside Luther
It has been stated that behind every great man is an equally great woman who is supporting him in his work. That statement could not be more true of the woman who is known as the Morning Star of Wittenberg—Katie Luther.
Martin Luther would not have been able to accomplish half of his work apart from the aid and work of Katie. She was consistently bringing organization to his disorganization and working long hours to manage their home. Katie’s typical workload involved the management of their farm animals (cows, goats, chickens), their finances, and their six children. Katie also managed their brewery where they brewed beer.
When the Black Death raised its nasty head again in 1527 in Germany, many people began to panic. People were fleeing for their lives. Yet, Martin and Katie, decided to stay in their home. Rather than running for the hills, they turned their home into a makeshift hospital. They took in the sick, cared for them, demonstrated genuine Christian hospitality, and risked their own lives in the process. During this crisis, their son almost died.
A Life and Marriage of Theology
One of the typical duties of Katie would have involved the day-to-day discipleship of their children. Luther was in and out of the home as a busy professor of theology, and she spent much time investing in their children. She was no lightweight when it came to theology.
The setting for the famous “Table Talk” was the table in the Luther home. Many deep and theologically rich conversations took place around that table, and Katie was often engaged. This time around the table was often a time of ongoing discipleship of the students that Luther was pouring himself into—Katie was able to engage in the theology discussions in Latin.
Their marriage put on display the gospel of Jesus Christ as the light of the gospel was preached, taught, and practiced in the home. The tireless labor of Martin Luther pushed the Reformation forward, but we must never overlook the importance of Mrs. Luther—the woman who worked long hours to support her husband.
Katie Luther has been idolized, criticized, and redefined from era to era throughout history. Early on, Erasmus stated that the marriage of ex-nun and the ex-monk would result in the birth of the Antichrist. Some have celebrated her as an ex-nun in an attempt to magnify some edgy rebellious spirit in her. Others have attempted to redefine her as an egalitarian who refused to submit to biblical headship—one who exemplifies the working woman of modernity. In all reality, such redaction attempts of Katie Luther fall woefully short. Katie Luther was no rogue woman who found pleasure in pressing the boundaries of the Bible regarding women in society. She serves as a wonderful example of a biblically submissive, talented, hard-working, and Christ exalting woman of the Reformation.
Katie Luther died after suffering an injury after falling from a wagon. She died in December of 1552. In her final moments of life, she said, “I will stick to Christ as a burr to a topcoat.” When we tell the story of the Reformation and the impact of Martin Luther, let’s never forget the impact of Katie Luther.
*Portrait of Katharina von Bora by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526, accessed on October 26th 2021: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katharina_von_Bora