Katherine Von Bora – Mrs Luther
Katherine was an obvious blessing to her husband. This proactive, resourceful, independent woman lifted domestic and financial burdens from Luther’s shoulders.
Wedding bells rang out in Wittenberg. The excitement was building. Citizens lined the streets to congratulate their own Dr Luther on his marriage. Martin led his Katie through the crowds to the parish church. There, before the great gate, the wedding ceremony took place. Then the procession made its way to the Augustinian cloister, where a sumptuous banquet was spread. It was a happy day, a day to be remembered.
Katherine von Bora, Martin Luther’s wife, was a remarkable woman. She grew up entrenched in Roman Catholic teaching. She was born on 29th January 1499. It is thought that Katherine’s mother died when she was a baby. When her father remarried, Katherine was placed in a convent, where she acquired a basic education, a privilege denied many girls in the sixteenth century. In 1515, aged 16, Katherine became a nun, solemnly vowing chastity and total obedience and relinquishing all worldly possessions.
In time, Katherine began to hear of Martin Luther. Tracts by the Reformer mysteriously found their way into the nunnery. In 1516, Luther visited the monastery at nearby Grimma and news reached the nuns of his sermons. Then came 1517 and Luther’s ninety-five theses. One of the nuns, Magdalene von Staupitz – niece of Johannes von Staupitz, responsible for encouraging Luther to read the Bible – received some of the Reformer’s writings. The ‘new’ doctrines were eagerly discussed and imbibed by Katherine and her friends. They couldn’t believe that this man Luther preached to the ordinary people in German! He said that God was merciful and full of love. He asserted that sinners need not approach God through saints but through Christ alone.
These world-shaking events caused Katherine to question her life in the cloister. She became disenchanted and longed to be free from her vows. She and many fellow nuns believed the principles Luther taught. They could no longer live a life dedicated to false teaching. At Magdalene’s suggestion, they appealed to Luther himself for help. To their surprise he responded immediately, asking Leonhard Koppe to rescue the twelve nuns.
Koppe, a merchant, often delivered herring to the convent. On 4th April 1523, he smuggled the nuns out of the convent, in empty fish barrels, to the town of Wittenberg. There they became Luther’s responsibility. What was he to do with them?
Luther eventually managed to find husbands for all the girls, except one: Katherine von Bora. A year later she was still on his hands! Luther attempted to marry her off twice, but both courtships proved unsuccessful. She was a strong willed woman who was determined to marry the man of her choice. When Luther’s friend, Nicolaus von Amsdorf, visited Wittenberg, she asked him to tell Luther that she would on no account marry her suitor; in fact she added, ”I’d rather have Dr Luther himself, or you!”
This message reached Luther as he was visiting his parents. His father, who had never wanted his son to become a monk, urged Martin to marry, have a family and carry on the family name. At the same time, many of his friends encouraged him to follow the advice he often gave to former monks – defy the pope and marry! Why did he not practice what he preached?
After much thought, Luther’s mind was made up – marriage it would be. He reasoned that “my marriage would please my father, rile the pope, and cause the angels to laugh and the devils to weep.” He asked Katherine for her hand in marriage. Katherine, contemplating marriage, said, “Now I shall no longer be Katherine, runaway nun; I shall be the wife of the great Dr Luther, and everything I do or say will reflect upon him.” She realised the privilege, but was not oblivious to the responsibility she would carry as Luther’s wife. She was 26, he was 42.
Katherine went to live with Martin in the old Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, gifted to Luther by his patron, Duke Frederick of Saxony. For both Martin and Katherine the first year of marriage meant many adjustments. Martin was not a good house keeper. Before marrying Katherine, he confessed he had not made his bed for a whole year! He had no idea how to maintain the monastic building or how to use the accommodation profitably. Katherine had her work cut out to turn the buildings into a viable source of income for them. But she responded with characteristic spirit. She used the land for growing fruit and vegetables. She also stocked a fish pond and bought a small farm to raise cattle and chickens. She proved herself to be a resourceful housewife despite limited finances.
Katherine managed to be hospitable yet frugal. At times the Luther household was full to capacity. Besides the Luther children and six nephews and nieces, the doors were opened to orphans, tutors, student boarders and frequent visitors. Their home became a centre of open-hearted hospitality. Katherine was the perfect hostess, filling the table with poultry, fruit, nuts, raisins, honey, fish and meat, all procured from her lands and gardens. The students had the privilege of questioning Dr Luther at mealtimes and many debates ensued. Katherine did not shrink from joining in and giving her opinion. With Katherine as business advisor, Luther was forced to manage his money more efficiently. He had unbounded liberality; at times he was charitable to excess and Katherine often had to hide money and valuables from him!
Katherine was an obvious blessing to her husband. This proactive, resourceful, independent woman lifted domestic and financial burdens from Luther’s shoulders. This enabled him to concentrate on his teaching and writing. He once wrote, “The greatest blessing is to have a wife to whom you may entrust your affairs.” She understood the importance of what her husband was doing and willingly supported him. His contented married life and his deep admiration for Katherine’s abilities reminded him that his work for God would have been impossible without her support.
Martin and Katherine often teased each other in good humour. Her quick tongue, humour and stubbornness matched Martin’s. Around the table at mealtimes, Martin, revelling as the centre of attention, often waxed eloquent and became verbose. Katherine would tell him firmly to stop talking and eat! He affectionately called her “my lord Katie” or “my dear rib”, alluding to Genesis 2:21 or “my chain”, a pun on the German of her name, Kethe.
Katherine, of course, was a mother as well as a wife and a business woman. Their first child, Hans, was born on 8th June 1526 and Luther was delighted. He wrote, “My dear Katie brought into the world yesterday, by God’s grace, at two o’clock, a little son.” They lost their second child Elisabeth at eight months. Katherine was inconsolable. The birth of their third child, Magdalena, helped to heal their grief somewhat. She was a sweet natured child, gentle, obedient and loving. After Magdalena, there were three more children, Martin, Paul and Margaretha.
When she was fourteen, Magdalena fell seriously ill. On her death bed, Katherine and Martin spent hours in prayer for her. As the end drew near, Luther fell on his knees by her bedside saying to her, “Magdalena, my dear, you would be glad to remain here with your father, but are you willing to depart and go to that other Father?” “Yes, dear father”, she replied weakly, “just as God pleases.” She died in his arms. Katherine was consumed with sorrow. She sobbed uncontrollably. Luther, comforting her, said, “Dear Katherine, think where she has gone. She has certainly made a happy journey. We, dear Katherine, should not lament as though we had no hope”. Neither Martin nor Katie fully recovered from this terrible grief.
Katherine was an encourager to her husband in his depression and melancholy – though not always traditional in her methods! Once she dressed in black mourning clothes when Luther was depressed. When her husband enquired who had passed away, she replied, “Don’t you know, God is dead?” Luther immediately was pricked in his conscience. Often Martin shut himself away in his study for long periods of time. But Katherine didn’t allow this seclusion. Once he retreated to the study for three days and wouldn’t even come out for meals; Katherine had the door of the study removed!
Katherine was also a nurse to her husband. She patiently nursed him back to health on many occasions, with home grown foods, herbal remedies, poultices and massages.
There is no doubt that a deep love existed between them. He called the book of Galatians, “my Katherina von Bora”, as it was closest to his heart; he had been converted through the words of Galatians 3:11.
In 1546, Luther insisted on travelling to Eisleben on business, even though his strength was failing. Katherine was not happy with this decision. She made medicines for him and wrote him many anxious letters. However, Martin became gravely ill and died before she could be brought to his side. She was overwhelmed with grief. Writing to her sister-in-law she said, “Who would not be grieved and full of sorrow over such a precious man as was my dear husband? I can neither eat nor drink nor can I sleep.”
Katherine died four years later, after complications from a fall from her wagon. As her strength was failing, she said, “I will cleave to the Lord Christ as the burr to the cloth.” She remained faithful to her Lord to the end.
Katherine von Bora was the perfect wife for Luther. He was a genius, preoccupied with writing and studying, over generous, neglectful of his health and totally impractical. She was an astute business woman, diligent, pragmatic and frugal; she was a nurse, an encourager, and at times her feisty character was just what Luther needed to keep him on course! Without his Katie, humanly speaking, Martin Luther could not have achieved all he did for God. He described her in his will as his “pious, faithful and devoted wife, always loving, worthy and beautiful“.