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Women of the Reformation: Katie Luther

Merchant Leonard Koppe regularly delivered goods and supplies to the Marienthron convent in Nimbschen, but the Easter of 1523, he came away with a larger, most unusual export in his wagon – 11 nuns escaping the convent. Koppe had earlier brought some of the writings of Martin Luther to the convent. As some of the nuns read the Luther’s work, they wanted to follow God’s Word and realized that monasticism was not based on the Scripture. When their families would not help them leave the convent, they secretly wrote Luther asking for his help. Luther sent his friend Leonard Koppe to rescue the ladies from the convent. Luther later wrote Koppe, “You have liberated these poor souls from the prison of human tyranny at just the right time – Easter, when Christ liberated the prison that held His own.” [1]

Within two years, all of the nuns were placed in homes to work, placed with relatives, or married to suitable husbands – all except twenty-four-year-old Katharina von Bora. Katharina was barely six when she had entered Marienthron nunnery, after her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage. Her aunt was in the nunnery, and this was a place of protection, education and prestige. At the convent, Katharina learned Latin, as well as domestic, medical and agricultural skills. At sixteen, Katharina was consecrated as a nun. However, after almost twenty years in the convent, Katharina was now out in the world. She almost became engaged to a former Wittenberg student from Nürnberg, but his parents disapproved of Katharina in favor of a rich wife for him. When another man with a doctor of theology sought to marry her, Katharina refused.  She said she would only marry Martin Luther, the one who had provided her liberty and whom she could trust.

Morning Star of Wittenberg

Luther, a former monk, had not contemplated marriage. He thought his life was too endangered to risk the commitment. Yet, Luther finally agreed to marry Katie – he was 42 and she was 26. Luther thought the marriage would “please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh and the devils to weep.”[2] Coming out of a monastic life, both Luther and Katie saw their wedding on June 13, 1525, as an act of confession and obedience to God’s act of creation. While Katie saw Luther as a liberator, Luther too found a freedom he had never known in his marriage with Katie. For this reason, Luther called Katie his Galatians. After one year of marriage, Luther wrote a friend, “My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me that I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus.” [3]

Luther had previously been given the Black Cloister in Wittenberg for a home. Katie cleaned and brought order to the large establishment. The Black Cloister became a kind of hotel and boarding house for students and visiting scholars, as well as the Luthers’ home. Katie oversaw the running of the household and capably managing the finances, freeing Luther’s time for his study, writing, and teaching. Katie was a cook, gardener, fruit grower, horse breeder, bee-keeper, vintner, fisher, and also made very good beer – all of this in addition to being a mother to six children, as well as taking in four orphans. Luther affectionately called Katie “The Morning Star of Wittenberg”, since she rose so early to begin her day’s activities.

Martin was Katie’s spiritual guide and encouraged her in her Biblical studies. He gave her 50 gulden if she would read the Bible in a year and encouraged her in the memorization of Scripture, especially the psalms. Katie in turn was an encourager to Luther and capably treated his numerous physical ailments, as well as comforted him in his times of depression. Often she would comfort him with the Scriptures. One time, when Luther was especially depressed, Katie dressed all in black. Luther noticed and asked if she were going to a funeral, Katie replied, “you were so despondent, I thought that God had died.” Katie’s actions helped Luther again focus on his God and Savior rather than his temporary problems.Katie’s actions helped Luther again focus on his God and Savior rather than his temporary problems. Click To Tweet

Whereas the medieval church had set the celibate life as the standard for the highest spiritual life, Katie and Luther demonstrated the spiritual richness which could be developed in a marriage and family. Luther, who had devoted his entire life to the authority of the Scriptures, wrote a friend, “Next to God’s Word, there is no more precious treasure than holy matrimony. God’s highest gift on earth is a pious, cheerful, God-fearing, home-keeping wife, with whom you may live peacefully, to whom you may entrust your goods and body and life.”[4] Katie and Martin Luther’s twenty years of marriage and family life became a model for pastoral and Christian marriage.

Comfort in Sorrow

Martin Luther died suddenly in 1546, when away from home. He had taken the unusual step in that day of leaving his entire estate and the care of the children to his wife. He stated the reasons:

…first, my Catherine, has always been a gentle, pious and faithful wife to me, has loved me dearly and by the grace of God has given me and brought up five children still living; second, she will have to settle my debts outstanding at the time of my death; third, and most important, it is my wish that the children be dependent on her, not she upon the children, that they honour her and be submissive to her as God has commanded.  I consider, moreover, that the mother will be the best guardian of her children and that she will not abuse this confidence I place in her but will always be a good mother to her children whom she loves tenderly, and will conscientiously share everything with them.

Katie’s grief was deep and sorrowful at the loss of her dear husband, but she found comfort in Psalm 31, which Martin had encouraged her to memorize years before.

The years following Luther’s death were difficult ones for Katie and her family. When Emperor Charles V waged the Schmalkaldic War against the Protestants and armies moved on Wittenberg, Katie and her children fled. On their return, they found property destroyed, gardens ruined and the cattle gone. New taxes were also imposed. Katie took on student boarders and began to rebuild. When the bubonic plague came to Wittenberg a few years later, Katie again fled. During her flight, the horses became frightened, and Katie fell into a ditch of water when she tried to stop them. She developed bronchial trouble from which she never recovered, dying in 1552.  In her last days, she wrote out the following prayer:

Lord, my Savior, Thou strandest at the door and wouldst enter in.  O come, Thou beloved guest for I desire to depart and be with Thee.  Let my children be committed to Thy mercy.  Lord, look down in mercy upon Thy Church.  May the pure doctrine which God has sent through my husband be handed down unadulterated to posterity.  Dear Lord, I thank Thee for all the trials, through which Thou didst lead me, and by which Thou didst prepare me to behold Thy Glory.  Thou has never forsaken me, when I called upon Thee.  Behold, now I grasp Thy hand and say, as Jacob of old: Lord I will not let Thee go, unless Thou bless me.  I will cling to Thee forevermore.[5]

On her deathbed, Katie proclaimed, “I will cling to Christ as a burr to a top coat.”[6]


[1] AS quoted in Rudolf and Marilynn Markwald, Katharina von Bora (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House), 2002, 50.

[2] Katharina von Bora, 70.

[3] As quoted in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. VII. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1910, 460.

[4] History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII, 461

[5] As quoted in Great Women of the Christian Faith, 98.

[6] Roland Bainton. Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy.  Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1971, 42.

Diana Severance

Diana Severance is Director of the Durham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University. She received her PhD in history from Rice University and is the author of several books, including Her-Story: Devotions from Twenty-One Centuries of the Christian Church; Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History; A Cord of Three Strands: Three Centuries of Christian Love Letters; The Story of Emily, a Proverbs 31 Woman; and, with her husband Gordon, Against the Gates of Hell: A Christian Missionary in a Moslem World.

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