Martin Luther: Katherine von Bora
We all know Martin Luther. Correction – We all know something about Luther. Perhaps we know the story about the ninety-five thesis, or his great “here I stand” speech, or the perhaps apocryphal knife incident at the colloquy of Marburg. But there are some lesser known things about Luther’s life that are very interesting but, after all, what isn’t interesting about Luther? The story that follows is about Luther’s wife. It is not original research. It is a summary taken from Roland Bainton’s excellent book, Woman of the Reformation in Germany and Italy (there are two additional volumes which cover France, England, Spain, and Scandinavia). Enjoy!
By the age of ten, Katherine von Bora had become something of an outcast. Her father, newly remarried, placed her in a nunnery at Nimschen in Saxony. At the age of sixteen she took the standard vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. However, by the time she reached her early twenties the writings of Martin Luther began to infiltrate monastic houses. Many, the sisters of Nimschen not being the least of these, fell under conviction through the instrument of Luther’s quill. And so, disturbed in conscience, they secretly sought Luther’s counsel. As you may have guessed, he advised escape and made the necessary arrangements.
This was counsel easily received but not so easily fulfilled. Nimschen lay in the territory of Duke George, Luther’s foe. The Duke was no one with whom to trifle. He had executed a man for assisting the escape of nuns. So what were they to do? Luther arranged for his trusted friend Leonard Kopp to aid and abet in the plot to spring the sisters. On occasion, Kopp delivered barrels of smoked herring to the nuns and he would return with the empty kegs. The nuns never ate that last shipment of herring but they got a good whiff of it from inside the barrels as they were led out of their Egypt!
As the wagon loaded with “smoked” nuns rolled into Wittenberg (that part of Saxony ruled by Frederick the Wise, Luther’s friend) one student wrote of the occasion, “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town all the more eager for marriage than life. May God give them husbands lest worst befall.”
Luther felt responsible that worse should not befall them; he was successful in placing one in a teaching post, several in homes, and some in matrimony. Katie, who was very attractive, spent two years in a Wittenberg home receiving excellent instruction and being groomed for marriage. Indeed, she was almost married to a handsome young nobleman from Nurnberg. However, marrying an ex-nun did not set well with the nobleman’s mother and father so he never returned for Katie.
Further attempts were made to find another husband for her but they all seemed to fail until she made a proposal. She would consider Luther or a friend of his named Dr. Amsdorf. Prior to this Luther had never married after leaving the monastery believing that “a heretic’s death” was always just ahead. But his resolve never to marry was softening and so, Luther, sixteen years katie’s senior, decided to marry at age forty-two.
Luther and Love
Luther was honest. This may have been a match made in heaven but it was not love at first sight. The Reformation was unglamorous and difficult. Couples often married for conviction or convenience. For Luther, it was the former and for Katie the latter. For example, take a look at some of Luther’s reasons for entering into holy matrimony: his marriage would please his father, rile the pope (this was at the top of my list), make the angels laugh and the devils weep, and would seal his testimony. The last reason may need some explanation. You see some questioned Luther’s loyalty to the reformation because he didn’t marry after leaving the monastery! Now, after marrying Katie, how could they question him? No, there was no romantic pretense involved in the Luther’s courtship. However, they did fall in love afterwards.
Compare Luther’s references to his wife over the years. At the outset he confided to a friend, “I am not madly in love, but I cherish my wife.” A bit later he wrote, “Other women have worse faults. She has a few but her virtues outweigh them.” However, a year later you see a change, “My wife is compliant, accommodating, and affable beyond anything I dared to hope. I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus.” But in 1538 he could write, “If I should lose my Katie I would not take another wife though I were offered a queen.” About the same time he confessed, “In domestic affairs I defer to Katie. Otherwise I am led by the Holy Ghost.”
Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995. He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.