By Ruth Tucker, based on her Katie Luther: The First Lady of the Reformation.
“A mighty fortress is my wife”
Last week I had a scheduled interview on Katie Luther with Época, Brazil’s most widely circulated news magazine. The questions Ruan Sousa asked were insightful, and as we were concluding he remarked that Luther might have used the title of his famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” for Katie. I laughed with delight, and said, “Now why didn’t I think of that”? Of course, Mr. Sousa is a skilled professional journalist with an eye for catchy lines to summarize a topic.
Truly Katharina von Bora, wife of the great Reformer, was a mighty fortress. She was the fierce protector that Martin so desperately needed. When she married him, he was a mentally (and physically) unstable man; her strength of character was critical to his continued reform. As such, she was the most important individual of the German Reformation, second only to Luther himself.
At the time of their marriage in the mid 1520s the Reformation was being battered and challenged on every side. Without Katie it might have faltered as had other reform efforts in previous generations. It is true that many critical events in Luther’s life had already occurred—events that church historians would certainly acknowledge today. But would we be celebrating 500 years of Protestantism with its focus on the family were it not for the twenty years that followed their marriage? Would we be marking this anniversary were it not for his two decades of critical accomplishments made while he was propped up mentally, physically and fiscally by that bulwark Katie von Bora? I don’t think so.
There had been no romance between Katie and Martin. Indeed, the only romance she had known had been her short love affair with Jerome Baumgärtner. He was one of Martin’s students, who, rather than standing up to his parents’ objections to the proposed union, unceremoniously jilted her. As for Martin, his condescension for his bride was not disguised: “I never loved Katie then for I suspected her of being proud (as she is), but God willed me to take pity on the poor abandoned girl.”
At age five when she was dropped off at a Benedictine convent, Katie would be correctly described as a “poor abandoned girl.” Not at twenty-five. True, she was the last of the escaped nuns to either return to her family or find a husband, but she was, as Luther well knew, fully his equal in maturity. And he likewise knew before he married her that she could not be tamed. She was strong-minded, determined, energetic—and proud. She was the woman he would come to adore.
Theirs was an egalitarian marriage. Quote Luther all you want in support of wifely submission, you still have a union of true equality. God, he argued, ordained headship and submission with Adam and Eve, and God never rescinded the order. Luther was, however, far more vocal on the topic in his earlier writing than his later. But in the practical realities of life the marriage from beginning to end was egalitarian. Or, it could be argued I suppose, that Katie was the head of the home. When certain friends hinted that she was ruling the roost, Martin insisted that she did not tell him how to interpret Scripture or write sermons. Case closed.
There were of course many other strong Reformation women , but the wife of the great Reformer, many believed, should have been a proper role model. She should have been sweet, subdued and submissive—everything Katie was not. As such she was not well liked in Wittenberg. Colleagues of Luther judged her haughty and domineering. Students and other visitors at table—as well as Luther himself—thought she should remain silent rather than interjecting her opinions.
Dr. Bill Taylor, a missionary, missions executive and professor, years ago told a story about his father who headed a mission agency in Latin America. Missionaries sometimes took his father aside and voiced their objections to his strong-minded and vocal wife (Bill’s mother). His father didn’t defend or agree. He simply shook his head and shrugged, “that’s Stella.” What more could he say: “That’s Stella.” We would like to think that Martin responded to detractors with the same kind of shrug, “that’s Katie.”
Whatever colleagues, neighbors and students deemed objectionable about Katie’s character and personality, no one could have denied her competency and energy. She was the Proverbs 31 woman on steroids. In fact, in all my historical studies on women, I have never encountered a woman who had so many irons in the fire as she did. Besides her large household comprised of six biological children and many orphans and hangers-on, she ran a boarding house the size of a Holiday Inn.
Up at dawn, her day was consumed with managerial decision-making as well as menial tasks. Along with servants, she planted and harvested large gardens that provided meals for her extended family and paying guests. She raised cattle, sheep, goats and poultry. She drove horse wagons in the fields and on the rough roads. She purchased farms, some a long distance away where she often remained for days on end hard at work—while her husband changed dirty diapers at home. She sewed clothing, preserved food for winter, nursed the sick in her own household and in the neighborhood, and on top of that was known as one of Wittenberg’s best brewers, providing beer for the household—a most valuable commodity considering the contaminated water supply.
Soren Kiekegaard reflected harshly of Katharina, snorting that she amounted to nothing, commenting that “Luther might just as well have married a plank.” How clueless was this un-married philosopher who is regarded by many modern scholars as a first-class misogynist.
As for Katie, she went about her work simply assuming she was fully the equal of her husband—and any man for that matter. Word on the street was that she was bossy, domineering, given to henpecking her husband. She wore the trousers, they said, and she made the final family decisions. They might even have called her a daughter of Eve or a Jezebel as men had always called assertive women.
Luther himself used demeaning language for women, particularly in his younger years. But his words for Katie were flattering. Indeed, his endearing expressions of devotion are colorful though sometimes qualified: “I would not give my Katie for France and Venice together.” He should have stopped there, but he added, “because God has given her to me and other women have worse faults.” France and Venice, yes. But he went further than that. His profound regard for Paul’s letter to the Galatians was expressed by his reference to it as “my Katharina von Bora.” That comment was exceeded only by his confession: “I give more credit to Katherine than to Christ, who has done so much more for me.”
Luther had at one time demeaned Eve in her interaction with the serpent as “talkative and superstitious” as well as “simple” and “weak.” But in his later years, no doubt influenced by his relationship with Katie, he regarded her as a “heroic woman” who was a “partner in the rule” with Adam, and “in no part . . . inferior to her husband Adam.” Other Old Testament figures were brought to the fore as well. Of Katie, he remarked: “I am an inferior lord, she the superior; I am Aaron, she is my Moses.” An egalitarian marriage.
Martin’s deep love and respect for Katie, however, did not signal that theirs was necessarily a tranquil union. “I must have patience with . . . [my] Katie von Bora,” which means “my whole life is nothing else but mere patience.” On another occasion, he remarked, “If I ever have to find myself a wife again, I will hew myself an obedient wife out of stone.”
Yet mutuality shined though. When Katie was away on one occasion, Martin wrote her about land they owned, proposing that she sell and purchase certain parcels, and he adds that she should send him instructions on how to proceed with decisions he was making at home. He certainly was not averse to giving her assignments when he was away, on one occasion to carry out a truly manly task. He wrote in a letter that he wanted her, “a wise woman and doctora,” to be part of a committee for a pastoral appointment. He had remarkable confidence in her on every level, and as he explained, she was not only “prudent” but also one who would “make a better choice” than others he could call upon. In other ways Martin demonstrated his egalitarian mindset. Although contrary to Saxon legal code, he named Katie his sole heir.
Katharina von Bora is a fascinating woman in many ways that other biographers have failed to note. One particular episode is sometimes glossed over. Her escape from the convent with eleven other nuns is sometimes viewed as little more than a midnight caper—nuns disguised as herring barrels in a wagon underneath a tarp bumping along on a joyride. It was, in fact, one of the great conspiracies in history: twelve nuns who had taken a vow of silence connecting with each other and Luther and others in order to flee the convent. It was a scheme fraught with danger and a capital crime in Saxony to “kidnap” nuns.
Another issue relates to Katie’s religious life. As a nun, she was a religious. After her escape there is no evidence that she was religious at all—that she held to her Catholic beliefs or that she converted to Reformed beliefs. She was, as John Stott used the term, a “nominal Christian.” It is a stunning reality that no other biographer has really dealt with. Perhaps there will be another time to touch on those topics. Here the focus is on Katie’s and Martin’s equal partnership.
Just because the Luthers had an egalitarian marriage, however, does not settle today’s debate between those who call for equality in marriage and those who insist on male headship and wifely submission. After all, Luther was anti-Semitic and we surely don’t see him as a role model in that realm. But for the Great Reformer who placed more emphasis on the family than any reformer before or after, it is noteworthy that his marriage was egalitarian, and as such an incredible model for today.