A Tale of Three Kates: Authors, Wives, and the Precarity of Protestant Women

A Tale of Three Kates: Authors, Wives, and the Precarity of Protestant Women March 18, 2020

Today we welcome Katherine Goodwin to the Anxious Bench. Katherine is a PhD student in the History department at Baylor University. Her research focuses on religion and culture in Late Medieval and Early Modern England, especially through the lens of women’s writings.  

Standing in front of a crowd of hundreds of faithful devotees, the pastor’s wife told her story. A somber and attentive hush fell over the crowd as she spoke. Some had traveled for days just to witness this moment and pay their respects. Her husband, their pastor, was dead, and they came to remember him and mourn the loss of a leader. Deeply grieved by his death and worried for the well-being of their church and community, she encouraged those gathered to remember the work of her husband and the gospel of Christ. She declared her determination to persist in the work he left behind. He may have left her without a companion, but she would not abandon their shared calling to preach the gospel and serve her neighbor. But first, she mourned. With a parting blessing to friends and strangers, the young as well as the old, she concluded and went home to regain her strength, refresh her spirit, and return to her post as Church Mother.

Whether you’ve attended the funeral of a well-loved leader or have stood in front of a congregation of those who mourn, this is a scene we all know or at least can imagine. This specific story, however, may be less familiar. The grieving widow is not the wife of a modern-day church leader but of a sixteenth-century Swiss pastor. This story is of Katharina Schütz Zell, wife of Matthew Zell, “Church Mother,” and one of the first women to inaugurate the office of Pastor’s Wife. Hers is an exceptional life: she was the only pastor’s wife to write and publish, and she served her community semi-autonomously from her husband. However, her career also carried the tell-tale signs of insecurity and instability – or precarity – as evidenced after her husband’s death. Though she continued to do the work of caring for her neighbor and communicating the essentials of Protestant theology to those who listened to and read her instruction, she was on unstable ground. She, like other women of the Reformation, were caught in a balancing act between new positions of influence and freedom and consistent limitation and insecurity that has been a consistent theme in women’s experiences in history and Christianity.

On their wedding day, Matthew dubbed Katharina the “Church Mother,” responsible for the physical and spiritual needs of their parish and city. Together, they propelled the Protestant Reformation in Strasbourg, he by his preaching, she by her writing. One of her earliest publications, “A Treatise on Marriage” was primarily written in defense of her husband, “the preacher of the Word of God to the Christian community in Strasbourg” and their cooperative marriage. She took church authorities to task over religious corruption resulting from the evident failures of clerical celibacy. Referring directly to Scripture, she claimed her right and duty to marry the priest-turned-pastor so that she might preserve him from sin while remaining obedient to the call of God to love and serve her neighbor.

After Matthew’s death, Katarina had to rebuild her role as Church Mother of Strasbourg: how would she be able to minister to her community without the safety and provision his status granted her as a co-minister?

Quickly denounced by her adopted son and up-and-coming Lutheran minister, Ludwig Rabus, Katharina persisted in her dedication to the reform movement. She continued to care for the physical and spiritual well-being of her community through her publications and public ministry, even conducting a funeral for two women who had been left without a Christian burial as punishment for their accused heresy. Katharina’s own death shortly followed this service in September 1562. Her funeral did not draw the crowds that her husband’s had; only a few remaining friends were present at her grave. After husband’s death, her ministry went from a blessing to an annoyance, her publications from orthodox to questionable, and her platform from expansive to limited. Katarina Schütz Zell was an exceptional woman, and yet she was still subject to the reality of precarity that has shaped women’s experience in the church.

If you have read Kate Bowler’s The Preacher’s Wife , you might find this story more commonplace. It is a sixteenth-century demonstration of how women have consistently found their own ministry platforms expanded (or retracted) in relation to their husband’s work.

The Preacher’s Wife brings us to a new place of reflection on the “precarious power” of women who teach and inspire thousands while remained humble wives of Christian men.
While none of the women Bowler follows are widows, each of their platforms are still immediately shaped by their relationship to their husbands. Though today’s female Christian celebrities like Victoria Osteen and Beth Moore  seem to be unshakeable by various challenges, they are yet subject to a particular kind of instability given their status as Christian women leaders. Bowler shows how a diversity of factors render the platforms of even the most confident female leaders uncertain and vulnerable to change (precarious). Though these paths to influence vary, each are part of a longer historical pattern of women gaining – and losing – their own platforms of power. To return to our first story, Katharina Schütz Zell used her married position to create a public ministry of printing and service. However, after her husband’s death, she faced increased challenges and was considered to be a heretic for her charity towards the radical wings of the Reformation. Many of her writings were burned, and she was derided by her stepson, Rabus for her overbearing interest – read: influence – in the progress of the Reformation.

But she was not the only Katharina to experience the precarity of a Protestant woman’s position.

Rumor has it that Schütz Zell’s first publication (“In Defense of Marriage”) reached Martin Luther . Luther himself would (finally) marry four years after Zell. His wife was not an “honorable woman” like Katharina Schütz Zell had been – that is, she was not a daughter of the local merchant class free from the corrupted practices of celibacy. Rather, he married the escaped nun Katharina (Katie) von Bora.

Katie and the woman of Proverbs had to have been cut from the same cloth. Household manager extraordinaire, she transformed the old Augustinian friary  into a bustling center of homely industry, community service, and scholarly debate, all while expanding the family’s property holdings and brewing the best beer that side of the Elbe River. Though not the first to the altar, she quickly rose to wifely stardom as the best example of the supportive sidekick to the male figurehead. Katie was the exemplar of the new way of being a Christian woman, and the Luthers’ complementary celebrity established the Protestant family as the cornerstone of the new Christian culture. Their private life was a public display of the new Christian culture: holy men and women did not live in cloistered celibacy but were united and sanctified through the bonds of marriage. However, her position as exemplar for Protestant women was immediately dependent on her husband’s position and profession, both of which died with him in 1546.

After her husband died, Katie Luther was left without the resources to preserve her home that was as much a domestic refuge as it was a center of theological debate. Saxon laws restricted women from inheriting property foiled Luther’s will to leave everything to Katie. Though she was determined to hold onto the domestic legacy she built, this proved impossible in face of religious war and two waves of the Plague. Katie left Wittenberg in 1552, fleeing destruction and disease. Injured on her journey towards Turgau, Katie never recovered and died in poverty later that year. Left without a companion either for comfort or economic collaboration, Katie Luther faced her precarious times as best as she could, ultimately spending the last of her life away from the “home office” she created as the wife of the pastor of the Reformation.

If patriarchy is everywhere, but not everywhere the same (as Judith Bennett argues), can’t the same be true for precarity? While none of the women Kate Bowler followed have narrowly escaped the Plague or battled with the Pope over the legitimacy of their marriage, they have negotiated their place and performance in the church in ways that belie the changeable nature of both – Beth Moore is not likely to be cast out of respectable society if widowed like Katharina Schütz Zell (though both of their husbands will maintain the same level of notoriety. Compare the Google hits Matthew Zell and Keith Moore have in comparison to their wives). Uncertain if their work can persist apart from their husbands, or if their careers and lifestyles can endure dramatic economic downturns resulting from global pandemics and war (a frighteningly close reality today), Christian women, specifically wives of pastors, have negotiated the reality of precarity quite literally since day one.

These three Kates (Schütz Zell, Luther, and Bowler) show us what the past and present of women’s precarious power has looked like. Let us hope that the platforms of the “Kates” yet to come can rest on a more firm foundation.

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