Next week, December 20, marks the anniversary of the death of Katharine von Bora, whose husband was Martin Luther. Her importance goes beyond simply managing the reformer’s household. Kate Luther’s life is the story of false vocations and true vocations. It’s the story of being claimed and being of some earthly good. It’s the story of a woman’s growing faith and her witness to the truth of the gospel.
The tale of Katie and Martin begins with a casual remark Luther made in a letter in 1523. At the beginning of April that year, Luther was dealing with the question of monks and nuns. If Christ truly bestows freedom in the gospel (and he does), then how valid are the coerced vows people made when they became monks or nuns?
These people, Luther included, made an oath before God and the whole monastic order. Children were often stuck in a monastery at a young age, with the parents’ promise that the child would become a monk or nun when they grew up. There was no choice on the part of these children. Luther especially thought this was a problem for girls. They were forced against their will to be single and childless their entire lives. This went against Luther’s view that we all have vocations in life, and one of the most important vocations for a woman was to bear children – to be the one whom God used to bring new life into the world.
It was widely regarded that such monastic vows were binding for life. You couldn’t turn your back on them, because you’d be breaking an oath to God and would risk everlasting damnation. But because of Luther’s teaching and preaching, monks and nuns were leaving the monasteries, and the princes didn’t know what to do with them. They had no education or training in a trade because their whole lives had been given over to the monastic order.
In a letter to Wenceslaus Link, in which he discussed these things, Luther threw in a little aside: He said, “Yesterday I received nine nuns from their captivity in the Nimbschen convent.” That’s the first time we ever hear anything about these runaway nuns. Apparently, Luther got a city councilman in Torgau named Leonhard Koppe to enter into some subterfuge and spirit some nuns out of the abbey. Koppe regularly delivered supplies to the Cistercian monastery in Nimbschen. A later story said that Koppe and a couple of other men concocted a fake delivery of herring barrels. That’s how the story got started that the nuns escaped hidden in the barrels. It’s more likely that the barrels were taken off the wagon, left behind, and then the nuns were spirited away in the night.
In his letter to Link, Luther mentioned the nine Nimbschen nuns by name, including Katharina von Bora (the future Katie Luther). Dealing with the runaway nuns presented Luther with a hefty project. He hoped to house these nuns with their relatives. But Luther also thought it would be good for some of the nuns to marry, so he attempted to marry off those who couldn’t return to their families.
The nun Luther himself wound up marrying, much to the surprise of both his friends and enemies, was Katharina von Bora. She was born in 1499 into a noble family that didn’t own a lot of land. Katharina’s mother had died at a young age, and she had been placed in a Cistercian abbey when she was six. Eventually, she was transferred to the abbey at Nimbschen. One of her fellow nuns at Nimbschen was her aunt, Magdalena von Bora. She took her vows in 1515 (that’s just two years before Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses that sparked the Reformation). Katharina was given some education in the cloister, and she gained some familiarity with elementary Latin.
Luther found positions for some of the Nimbschen nuns and husbands for others, but Katharina von Bora was a problem. She first found some work in the household of Lucas Cranach, the great Wittenberg artist, and printer. An early opportunity arose when a former student at the University of Wittenberg named Hieronymous Paumgartner came to town. Supposedly, they liked each other. Some scholars infer that this meant that Katie was attractive. Luther himself later teased her and called her Paumgartner’s ignis, his flame. But when the young nobleman went home to Nürnberg, the relationship ended – probably because his family didn’t approve of a runaway nun. So Luther still had a runaway, impoverished, and unmarried nun on his hands.
Then Luther tried hooking Katie up with a pastor in Orlamünde named Caspar Glatz. She didn’t want anything to do with him and asked for help from Luther’s colleague Nicolaus von Amsdorf. Amsdorf thought Glatz was an old skinflint, and he told Luther so: “What the devil are you intending to do, persuading the good Katie and forcing her?” So Luther abandoned that bit of match-making and said she could wait a while longer. Katie herself, though, told Amsdorf that, if it were God’s will, then she would prefer to marry either Amsdorf or Luther himself.
Luther never planned to get married. Because he had encouraged other priests to abandon celibacy and get married, many of his supporters encouraged him to do it. One scholar says that Luther “was not made of wood or stone, and he recognized his sexual needs.” But Luther had been branded a heretic in the Edict of Worms in 1521, and he was sure that he’d wind up being burned at the stake. He didn’t want to put any woman through that.
For Luther, marrying was a testimony to his cause.
In 1526, after Luther and Katie had married, though, he wrote that he’d had three possible marriage partners. He never says anything else about Ave Alemann, who allegedly was his fiancée at one point. Luther had also been thinking about marrying Ave von Schönfeld, who was one of the runaway nuns from Nimbschen, but she got married to the personal physician of the duke of Prussia. That left Katharina von Bora. Luther had no affection for her. Because of her strong personality, he thought she was uppity and arrogant. Luther’s friends said, “Not that one, someone else!” But Katie was the last nun left, so Luther took the rejected one. Luther married in large part as a theological and political act. He was making a statement about God’s intent in creating men and women. And he was forcing the issue about the required celibacy of priests. For Luther, marrying was a testimony to his cause.
Martin and Katie were engaged on June 13, 1525, a Tuesday, which was the customary day for weddings. Usually, the engagement happened first, and then the marriage itself would happen a few days later, but for Luther and his bride, it all happened at the same time. Just like today, a wedding was a big deal back then, with lots of people present at the church or the wedding house. But Luther’s wedding at the Augustinian monastery had just a few people present, and Johannes Bugenhagen, the pastor of the Wittenberg City Church, preached a sermon. Then the happy couple followed an interesting tradition. They were led into their bedroom in the monastery, where they lay down on the bed together before witnesses. We assume nothing else happened at that point. They had a small meal with their witnesses. Although there was usually a big celebration, Luther and Katie postponed the big wing-ding until the end of the month so out-of-town company could join in.
We don’t know much about the first weeks of the marriage. Luther did take a break from all his work. Later he said that the passion of a couple’s first weeks, what he called the “pillow weeks” when a couple slept on one pillow, was absolutely approved of by God. Luther confessed surprise that he’d landed in a marital state: “Suddenly, unexpectedly, and while my mind was on other matters, the Lord has snared me with the yoke of marriage.” If Luther was surprised, so were his colleagues, who had some doubts about whether the marriage would be a success. Some thought Katie wasn’t submissive enough and voiced her own opinions too openly. But Luther’s marriage turned out to be a great one. No longer did Luther eat alone, and when he was home, Katie would interrupt his thinking and writing by asking him all kinds of questions.
Some thought Katie wasn’t submissive enough and voiced her own opinions too openly. But Luther’s marriage turned out to be a great one.
Luther said that it would have been the height of hypocrisy if he’d preached about Christian freedom, letting people out of the religious vows, encouraging monks and nuns and priests to marry, and then was unwilling to do it himself. “I wanted to confirm what I have taught by practicing it, for I find so many timid people in spite of such great light form the gospel. God has willed and brought forth this action, for I am not ‘in love’ or burning with desire. But I do love my wife.” Luther talked about how strange it was now at the age of 42 to roll over in bed in the morning and see pigtails on the pillow next to him. Later in his life, Luther said that marriage and human reproduction were a great miracle. He said, “I shall die as one who loves and lauds marriage.”
Next week we’ll discover more about the life of Katie, so stay tuned.