Katharina Schütz Zell – Church Mother of the Reformation

Katharina Schütz Zell – Church Mother of the Reformation


Often described as “Church Mother,” Katharina Zell was one of the pillars of the Protestant Reformation and one of the most prolific women writers of her time. Unlike other well-known writers such as Katherine Parr, Marguerite of Navarre, Anne Locke, and Mary Sidney Herbert, she didn’t achieve a higher level of education, although her writings became widely respected and influential.

            Born around 1498 to a middle-class family and orphaned at a young age, she exhibited early on an eagerness to obey the Scriptures, attending the sacraments, praying, doing good works, and reading the Bible (in German, a habit the church at that time didn’t encourage). Like Martin Luther, she could never find assurance of salvation in her actions.

            She first found this assurance around 1521, under the preaching of Matthias Zell, a cathedral priest who had adhered to Luther’s teachings. Based on her understanding of the Lutheran doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, Katharina interpreted her calling as a “fisher of people” – bringing the good news of the gospel to others.

            At that time, Matthias Zell was the only preacher in Strasbourg to present the gospel as it was recovered by Luther. Martin Bucer, Wolfang Capito, and Kaspar Hedio joined him in 1523. Bucer was married, and might have encouraged Zell to leave the celibate life.


Defending Marriage

            On December 3, 1523, Matthias married Katharina, causing great scandal in the city and abroad. Soon, the couple became the object of slander and rumors. Katharina must have been aware of these consequences. Many Roman Catholics supposed that, if a priest married, it must be to fulfill uncontainable urges or to cover up a pregnancy. In Matthias’s case, some imagine a persistent lustful character that caused Katharina to catch him red-handed with their maid.

            Katharina didn’t take these slanders laying down, and wrote to the bishop of Strasbourg’s to defend not only her husband’s character and their union but clerical marriage in general. She based her defense on Scriptures, showing the depth of her knowledge of both Old and New Testaments. This letter - the first of her known writings – was included in a second publication meant for the public: an Apologia for Matthias Zell on Clerical Marriage, published in September 1524.

            Katharina praised marriage as a gift from God, emphasized the authority of Scripture over all others, and exposed the hypocrisy of the clerical law that allowed a priest to cohabit with a woman as long as a fee was paid to the church. She described her defense of her husband as a dutiful act of love toward a brother in Christ. And her love extended to her readers, who should be protected from falsehood.

To those who said that women should keep silent, she recalled Joel’s prophecy: “I will pour forth my spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters will prophecy” (Joel 2:28). This was a popular verse during the Reformation, when many believed the end of the world was at hand.

            “I do not seek to be heard as if I were Elizabeth, or John the Baptist, or Nathan the prophet who pointed out his sin to David, or as any of the prophets, but only as the donkey whom the false prophet Balaam heard. For I seek nothing other than that we may be saved together with each other. May God help us to do that, through Christ His beloved Son.”[1]


Bringing Comfort

            The Apology was not the first of Katharina’s publications. Earlier the same year, she published a Letter of Consolation to the Suffering Women of Kentzingen, a town near Strasbourg where Protestants were being persecuted. Many of the men of Kentzingen (150, including the pastor, Jacob Otter), had been forced to leave town, and the city secretary had been executed for possessing a German New Testament.

While the men found refuge in Strasbourg (80 in the Zell home), Katharina encouraged the women to stay strong and be witnesses to the gospel. Her letter is a long string of God’s promises, focusing on those addressed to barren women and widows in Isaiah 54.

“O you women, who are perfectly described in this chapter! Who would want a better description than this? Are you not now widows, called by God? All these things have happened to you for the sake of His word. Has He not hidden Himself from you for a little, so that you might think He had forgotten you? So that you could scarcely see Him through a window (that is, by faith), for He stands behind the wall, as also the lovesick soul wails in the Song of Songs in the second chapter. Are you not also insulted and left without comfort in the storm? Yes. Consider, however, what He says here: ‘Do not fear, you will not be shamed,’ and He says that His mercy and covenant of eternal peace will not be divorced from you in such a storm, for He will not divorce Himself from you as He does from the ungodly. ... Dear sisters, even though sometimes your faith may be discouraged, and the flesh may fight against the spirit, do not therefore be frightened away. It is a holy struggle; it must be thus: faith that is not tempted isnot faith.”[2]

Katharina concluded her letter reminding the women of Jesus’ command to his disciples to love their enemies so that they may “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (See Lk 6:27–28; Mt 5:45, 47, 48). But she added: “No one can do this, however, unless he has the Spirit whom He will send to you according to His promise; He Himself wants to be your Comforter, trusted Guardian, and Protector. Amen.”[3]


Showing Mercy

Just as Katharina’s Letter of Consolation was the first of her writings of encouragement and comfort, so the Zells’ assistance to the exiled men of Kentzingen was the first of their long ministry of hospitality to anyone in need. Although their only two children died in infancy, their house was always full of guests.

This was particularly so at the end of the Peasants Revolt of 1524-1525, when 3000 refugees poured into Strasbourg. Katharina also followed the Strasbourg ministers as they visited the encampments, bringing comfort and relief. Specifically, she flanked Lucas Hackfurt, administrator of the city’s relief efforts, and encouraged him to establish a separate fund for refugees.

In all this, Matthias and Katharina worked as a team. They also traveled together to visit other Reformers in northern Germany. Her input, much appreciated by Matthias, was not always welcome by his colleagues, who thought it would be easier to convince Matthias of their opinions if Katharina were not pulling in a different direction (one example was when Matthias and Katharina both believed, unlike Bucer, that the tradition of having godparents should be abolished since it’s not in the Bible). Overall, however, Katharina’s opinions and works were valued and respected by this first generation of Reformers.



With the Reformation’s new emphasis on congregational singing, Katharina oversaw the revision, subdivision, and publication of a hymnbook of the Bohemian Brethren that had been translated into German. She also wrote the preface, drawing examples from both Old and New Testaments on the appropriateness of singing hymns both at church and at home. “I found such an understanding of the work of God in this songbook,” she said, “that I want all people to understand it. Indeed, I ought much rather to call it a teaching, prayer, and praise book than a songbook. However, the little word ‘song’ is well and properly spoken, for the greatest praise of God is expressed in song.”[4]

The preface includes a reminder of the priesthood of all believers, as Katharina encouraged Christians to teach godly songs to their children and relatives. “And teach them to know that they do not serve human beings but God, when they faithfully (in the faith[5]) keep house, obey, cook, wash dishes, wipe up and tend children, and such like work that serves human life and that (while doing this very work) they can also turn toward God with the voice of song. And teach them that in doing this, they please God much better than any priest, monk, or nun in their incomprehensible choir song, as they lifted up some foolish devotion of useless lullaby to the organ.”[6]


Late Controversies

            Another important work by Katharina was her exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, written for two women of Speyer. But what is often seen as controversial is the Lament she delivered at her husband’s burial in 1548, since it’s not clear whether she spoke in public or for a group of women women, as Daniel Specklin, a Strasbourg chronicler, wrote a generation later.

            In any case, Matthias’s death was the start of a painful season in Katharina’s life. In a later letter to Caspar Schwenckfeld, a common friend, she described her joyful relation with Matthias: “As you also well know, my husband denied me nothing. He did not rule over or compel my faith; he also neve put any obstacles in the way of my faith but rather much more he actively furthered and helped me. He granted and allowed me space and will to read, hear, pray, study, and be active in all good things, early and late, day and night: indeed, he took great joy in that—even when it meant less attention to or neglect in looking after his physical needs and running his household.”[7]

After her husband’s death, Katharina continued her works of charity, housing refugees and visiting prisoners and the sick, including a magistrate who had contracted leprosy. She also offered refuge to Bucer and Paul Fagius when they were banned from Strasbourg for their outspoken criticism of the Augsburg Interim – a compromise dictated by the emperor, demanding a hybrid of Roman Catholic and Protestant worship. To overcome her grief for the death of her husband and for the imposition of the Interim, she kept a journal of meditations on the Psalms, which she published in part in 1558.

Her last years were plagued by poor health and filled with struggles. In 1550, she was thrown out of her house to make room for a Roman Catholic priest who had been sent to the city under the provisions of the Interim. She was also criticized for providing help and hospitality to Anabaptists – a habit she had developed with Matthias, in the conviction that charity should be extended to all.

Leading the attacks on Katharine was Ludwig Rabus, a young minister who had been Matthias’s assistant (and, in some ways, a foster child) and had become his successor. Initially, Katharina and Rabus worked together well. In fact, she probably recommended him as Matthias’s successor.

With time, the two began to have disagreements, particularly when Rabus changed some of the liturgy and pastoral habits established by Matthias. Rabus also opposed some of the Zells’ friends, particularly Schwenckfeld, whom he called a heretic for his Anabaptist beliefs. Katharina explained her disagreement with this assessment and confessed that, as much as she loved Christ’s church, she had a hard time sitting under the preaching of a man [Rabus] who would “hatefully abuse those who love Him,”[8] including Reformers such as Heinrich Zwingli.

But this was not the main reason why Katharina skipped church from time to time. She was also caring for a nephew she had adopted, Lux Schütz, who lived with debilitating disabilities.

 In 1557, Rabus surprised the city of Strasbourg by leaving the church without the elders’ permission to take a more prestigious position in Ulm. When she called him out, he responded by calling her “an apostate, a heretic, a false witness, and one inspired by the devil, who had caused trouble for the church and her husband from the beginning.”[9] At this point, Katharina stopped his private correspondence with him and published a Letter to the Citizens of Strasbourg concerning Mr. Ludwig Rabus. Silence, she thought, would confirm his lies. For historians, this letter is a valuable account of Katharina’s life and of the early Reformation in Strasbourg.

While remaining faithful to the Reformation doctrines taught by her husband and other early Reformers, Katharina never understood the ostracization of Anabaptists, as demonstrated in her blessing and prayer at the burials of two Anabaptist women – a request by their family, who wanted to avoid being treated as heretics by the local church. The burial was done at dawn and in secret but the City council took notice. By this time, Katharina was so sick that she had to be taken to the cemetery in a carriage. The council decided to wait until she got better before calling her in for a reprimand. This never happened, as she died on September 5, 1562.


[1] Katharina Schütz Zell, quoted in Church Mother: The Writings of a Protestant Reformer in Sixteenth-Century Germany, translated by Elsie McKee, University of Chicago Press, 2006, 82.

[2] Ibid, 55.

[3] Ibid, 56

[4] Ibid, 93.

[5] Interesting addition, particularly in view of modern “faith vs. faithfulness” discussions.

[6] Ibid, 95

[7] Ibid, 188

[8] Ibid. 196

[9] Ibid. 210


Simonetta Carr