11 June 2007
Katherine von Bora--The Woman who inspired Luther
Katherine von Bora--Wife of Luther
By J. H. Alexander
THE one thing most people know about Luther’s wife is that she was a nun. It was not by choice, however, that Katherine von Bora took the veil. At the age often she was put into a convent, probably on losing her parents. The convent was at Nimptch, a town of Saxony, and was ‘exclusively for young ladies of good family’. They led a secluded monotonous life, but were not, like some later orders, forbidden to speak together, nor was news of the outside world entirely withheld. In her early teens Katherine began to hear of Martin Luther, the Doctor of Divinity at Wittenberg’s new university, and his brave doings and astonishing doctrines. Actually he preached from the Bible to the common people in German, an unheard-of thing! Most services in those popish days were nothing but processions, choir-singing, and the Sacrament — seldom such a thing as a sermon. The priests hired out the part of sermon — making to the begging friars, who used to entertain the people with foolish legends.
When Katherine was seventeen, Dr. Luther had come as near to their convent as Grimma, six miles away, and reports of his sermons in that church seeped into the convent. One of the nuns was Magdalene von Staupitz, niece of the vicar-general of the Augustinians, the man who gave Luther his first Bible with the words, ‘Let the study of the Scriptures be your occupation’. From this had stemmed Luther’s conversion and devotion to the Bible. Magdalene had received some of Luther’s writings and had eagerly imbibed the Reformed doctrines. She gradually and secretly drew as many as eight other nuns to her way of thinking. Katherine was one of them. Over their endless embroidery, patient distilling of herbs, and so on, they contrived to whisper together, and were alert to every bit of ecclesiastical news from the outside world.
The Pope had sent a man, Tetzel, into Germany to sell ‘indulgences’, signed papers you could buy which said your sins were forgiven — even future ones, if you paid enough money. Was such a thing possible? Everyone was buying them. . . . A man came to Dr. Luther in the confessional and when the Doctor told him he could not pronounce an absolution unless he showed repentance and a desire to forsake his sin the man said he was already forgiven and showed him an indulgence he had bought. Dr. Luther said the paper was worthless in the sight of God and the man went away very angry. .. . There was to be a pilgrimage to the opening services in a fine new church the Elector had built in Wittenberg and everyone was going. Dr. Luther took the opportunity of nailing a paper on the new door giving ninety-five reasons why these indulgences were useless. In no time the paper was copied, then it was whisked away to the printing press and in less than a fortnight copies were all over Europe and everyone was talking about it. . . .
Katherine was eighteen at this time. How she listened to all these things. There were the debates the Doctor was called to with powerful cardinals, even before the Emperor; there was the famous Diet of Worms when he stood alone against ‘all the world’ saying of the Bible, ‘Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me’, and would not retract his faithful words against the Pope. That was a moment that thrilled all Germany — all Europe — to think that one man could defy the Pope and reason so well that he carried some of the German princes with him.. . . But now, suddenly, Dr. Luther vanished! Nothing was heard of him for ten months. Actually his friends had abducted him at a time of great danger and he was living in quietness at the Wartburg Castle. He was not idle there. By September 1522 his first translation of the New Testament in German came from the printers and could be bought for a form.
Although he was out of sight the liberty to which he had opened the door was bearing rapid fruits. The Elector of Saxony, his protector, of course saw the political advantage of shaking off the dominion of Rome and of the too-powerful Emperor, Charles V, but he also agreed with Luther’s writings and allowed Carlstad and the town council to establish fresh laws to abolish the Mass, to remove images, to annul the vow of celibacy, to clear some of the monasteries of their lazy inmates. One of these latter that was vacated was Grimmen itself, not so far from the convent. The news was all bewildering, almost staggering. . . . And then they heard that Dr. Luther had appeared again. The worst storm was over and he was back at his post at Wittenberg. There followed more conferences with high dignitaries — the ‘roaring’ theologian Dr. Eck among them — and finally news of his excommunication, and, more exciting even than that, the news that Dr. Luther had burned the Pope’s letter of excommunication!
The nuns went on with their embroidery, went on with their choir-singing, their devotions, but their heart was not in the business. A real unrest took hold of these nine: they longed to be free of the vows imposed on them, and to see something of this stirring world. They came to the decision to write in each case to their parents or guardians. We do not know to whom Katherine von Bora wrote — her origins lie in obscurity, though an aristocratic obscurity. In each case the answer was an alarmed No! And now Magdalene von Staupitz made a bold suggestion. She would write direct to Dr. Luther himself to help them! The eight girls agreed and the message reached Luther. Their appeal was not made in vain. Luther immediately put the case to one of the councillors of the city of Torgau, who undertook to rescue the nine nuns, while Luther pledged himself to provide for their maintenance. Koppe, with two equally bold friends, slipped a message to the nuns and, on the night of 14 April 1523, was waiting to lift them over their convent wall into a covered wagon. The rescue went off smoothly and though they had to travel six miles through Catholic country, the nuns, crouching behind barrels of herrings, were not discovered.
Luther had arranged for them to be received by an honourable citizen of Wittenberg, and eventually settled each one of them, some by suitable marriage and some into the homes of wealthy burghers. Katherine was taken into the family of Philip Reichenbach, burgomaster and town — clerk, where she was treated with the utmost kindness. She was there two years and became a valuable and happy member of the household. At least two suitors courted her but she was content to let them go as she gradually realized her affection for Dr. Luther himself. She had a natural dignity about her which Luther at first mistook for pride until he came to know her better and to admire her character. In letters to his friends he betrayed that he was toying with the idea of marriage and, after October 1524, when he discarded his monk’s robe for the coat of a Reformed preacher it seemed as though this gesture also cast aside the chains of celibacy. He wrote a boyish letter to his friend Spalatin urging him to marry and then saying that perhaps he, Luther, would get the start of him in this.
Rumours began to link his name with Katherine, especially as in a jocose way he often, when visiting at the house, would refer to her as ‘my Katy’.
His friends, and particularly his father, now began to urge him to practise what he preached. On getting to know what an enemy had said: ‘Should this monk marry, the whole world, and even the devil, would burst into shouts of laughter and he himself will destroy what he has built up’, Luther made a quick decision. Far from frightening him, these words determined him to help forward the cause of reform by encouraging others to break the vow of celibacy that had wrongfully held them in thrall. His mind once made up he acted immediately. Taking three friends with him he called upon Katherine, asked her hand in marriage, and at once formally betrothed the astonished girl to himself. The marriage followed in two weeks’ time, June 1525. Katherine was twenty-six, Luther forty-two.
The home he brought his bride to was part of the Augustine monastery he had entered as a young man. The monks had long deserted it and the prior had given it up to the Elector of Saxony, who converted it entirely for the use of the university. Hence Dr. Luther in his capacity as lecturer was granted a home there. He held a very happy wedding feast on the day he brought Katherine home, and had the joy of receiving his aged father and mother, whom friends had secretly brought to the celebration.
Luther's House at Wittenberg
All friends of the Reformation rejoiced at Luther’s marriage. The University of Wittenberg, which owed its fame and prosperity almost entirely to Luther, presented them with a fine gold cup, with engraved wording, and the city gave them a handsome ‘cellar’ of Rhenish wine, Burgundy, and beer. But of course Luther’s antagonists had plenty of malicious things to say. Even Erasmus, irritated at that juncture by something Luther had written, spread abroad some nasty scandal which he later had to withdraw and apologize for. The Peasants’ War had started around this time, and his enemies accused Luther of hard-heartedness in revelling in matrimony at a time of distress as if all marriage must cease when war was afoot!
If Luther had married primarily to demonstrate his Gospel preaching, it was soon found that his marriage brought nothing but blessing to this rugged warrior. It revealed an endearing tenderness in his tempestuous character that might never have emerged. In his Table Talk we read ‘The greatest blessing that God can confer on man is the possession of a good and pious wife with whom he may live in peace and tranquillity; to whom he can confide his whole possessions, even his life and welfare, and who bears him children. Katy, thou hast a pious man who loves thee for a husband; thou art a very empress, thanks be to God’!
He suffered much from ‘disorders’ arising partly from his earlier life of austerity and partly from his excessive labours. Katherine had learnt the use of herbal remedies in her convent and was able to give him relief from nervous pains. She also learnt how to humour him, and when he gave himself up to deep dejection she sometimes would send secretly for his friend, Justus Jonas, whose enlivening conversation would often restore Luther to cheerfulness and a little banter that showed the heavy cloud was passing over.
At the house of her former friends Katherine had learnt, as she had not in the convent, the art of housekeeping. She now proved herself an excellent housewife yet their purse was limited and she had to be very frugal while very hospitable. Luther liked to keep an open table for friends and students, but she found that he was also charitable even to excess, and it became her work to control some of this. Her admiration for him as a reformer had heightened as she saw his immense programme of writing, lecturing, preaching. His early hours of prayer and study she took care to leave to him undisturbed.
She was always anxious when he was called out of the town, and, in fact, when he was invited to his friend Spalatin’s wedding begged him not to go. So he wrote, ‘The tears of my Katy prevent me from coming. She thinks it would be perilous.’ Her premonitions proved correct. Luther had excited the resentment of four young nobles who had lost part of their inheritance through their parents receiving back their sisters rescued from the convent of Freiberg. It was discovered that these men had plotted to waylay and murder Luther on his way to the wedding. (Such were some of the side issues connected with the liberation of nuns!)
Two years after their marriage Luther was dangerously ill and in spite of night and day nursing by Katherine he felt he would die. He desired his two best friends to receive his confession of faith in case his enemies should announce to the world that he had recanted. Then he said ‘Where is my dearest Katy? Where is my little heart, my dear little John?’ She came to the bedside and he embraced mother and baby. ‘O my dear child,’ he said with tears, ‘I commend you to God, you and your good mother, my dear Katy. You have nothing, but God will take care of you. He is the Father of orphans and widows. . . . Katy,’ he added later, ‘you know I have nothing to leave you but the silver cups.’ She encouraged him, we read, with passages from the Scriptures, and as to herself she said, ‘My dearest doctor, if it is God’s will then I would rather that you should be with our beloved Lord God than with me. But it is not so much I and my child that need you as many pious Christians. Afflict not yourself about me. I commend you to His divine will but I trust in God that He will mercifully preserve you.’ Her hope of his recovery was not disappointed. On that very evening he began to feel better.
In 1530 the famous Diet of Augsburg was convened, when the Emperor Charles V and Campeggio the Pope’s Legate were to meet the Protestant princes and force them, as they hoped, into submission to the Roman Catholic faith. Luther and Melancthon had drawn up a declaration of doctrine, but the good Elector of Saxony did not wish Luther to be exposed to possible assassination and arranged for Melancthon to read the paper at Augsburg and Luther to remain at Coburg Castle, within distance for advising but outside the sphere of possible strife. Days and even weeks dragged on before everyone was assembled for such conferences, and Luther could not bear the inactivity in the silent castle with only one friend, Dietrich, with him. He sent home for his books and Katherine sent them out to him so that he was soon engrossed in continuing his Commentaries. This work, and constant prayer and anxiety about the momentous conference, told on his health again.
When news was received that his father had died Katherine knew he would be overwhelmed. To comfort him she had a portrait painted of his third child, Magdalene, then one year old, and sent it to him. He was delighted with this and ‘placed it on the wall over against the dining-table in the prince’s hall’. That Diet ended in a notable victory for the Protestants. The papists could not produce any arguments from ‘the Fathers’ to answer the Scripture doctrines so ably set out. Thirteen years before it had been one voice (Luther’s) against the Pope; now on a grander scale it was a phalanx of princes and free cities, won over to the Reformation, that triumphed against both the Emperor and the Papacy.
In 1540 Luther bought a small estate at Zolsdorf and gave it to Katherine, the Elector offering to supply her freely with timber for building. This little farm became a great interest to Katherine who made it thrive for the benefit of her household. She loved to have Luther and the children staying there whenever possible, and ‘he shared her child-like joy in the products of her farm’. ‘My lord Katy’, he wrote once to a friend, ‘has just set out for her new kingdom, and will take with her a load of timber and attend to some other matters. Katy is living bodily at Wittenberg but in spirit at Zolsdorf.’
The place was a haven of rest for Luther, but its joys were soon overshadowed by the death, two years later, of the favourite daughter, Magdalene, at fourteen years of age. Luther and Katherine had six children altogether, their first little girl having died in infancy. They had experienced a lot of sickness with the children and domestics and perhaps did not think Magdalene’s sudden illness was to be fatal. But so it was. The night before her death Katherine dreamed that two beautiful youths in elegant attire asked her daughter in marriage. She told this dream to Luther and to Melancthon who had come to visit them. Melancthon was deeply moved and said, ‘The two youths are angels who are come to lead the maiden to the true wedlock of the celestial kingdom.’ These words soothed Katherine. She and Luther spent the day in prayer and supplication on her behalf. As the end drew near Luther fell on his knees at her bedside in an agony resigning her to God. Then, bending over her bed, he said with touching sweetness, ‘Magdalene, my dear daughter, 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 said in a faint but calm voice, ‘just as God pleases.’
‘Unable to express his emotion at these words’ says the chronicler ‘which came to his heart with a thrilling tenderness, he turned aside to conceal the tears in his eyes, and looking upward exclaimed, "If the flesh is so strong how will it be with the spirit? Well, whether we live or die we are the Lord’s." She expired in his arms.’
Katherine was in the room, but bowed with sorrow. She knew it was her duty to be resigned but nature would have its way and she wept bitterly. Luther said to her ‘Dear Katherine, think where she has gone. She has certainly made a happy journey. With children everything is simple. They die without anguish, without disputes, without the temptations of death and without bodily grief, more as if they were falling asleep.’
Their grief revived when they saw the dear child in her coffin. To comfort Katherine and himself, Luther said, ‘You, dear Lene [Magdalene], you will rise again and shine like a star, yea as the sun. I am joyful in spirit though sorrowful in the flesh. We, dear Katherine, should not lament as though we had no hope. We have dismissed a saint, yea, a living saint for heaven. O that we could so die. Such a death I would willingly accept this very hour.’
The vigour of Luther’s life was really beginning to ebb and the death of this dear girl aged him prematurely. Things politically were in a great state of upheaval and he hardly felt equal to his work. He mourned over the wicked state of the city and began to plan to retire permanently to the farm. His friends were alarmed to think of losing their adviser, but he was actually in the act of packing up when a deputation from the university and even from the Elector himself came to implore him not to leave them. Almost sorrowfully he re-settled himself.
Soon afterwards he was asked to go to Eisleben to settle a dispute between the Counts of Mansfeld about the mines. Here he had been born, here baptized, and here it was he was to die. He was unsuccessful in his arbitration, and was invited again some weeks later. This was January 1546. He was this time accompanied by his three sons (the eldest would be about twenty) and his friend, Dr. Jonas, on what was considered a very delicate mission. He had come away feeling unwell and Katherine, very anxious, had packed him some remedies which generally helped him. Following this up with tender letters she received this reply:
‘To the gracious Dame Katherine Luther, my dear spouse, who is tormenting herself quite unnecessarily, grace, peace in our Lord Jesus Christ. Dear Katherine you should read St. John and what the catechism says respecting the confidence we ought to have in God. You afflict yourself just as if God were not all powerful and able to raise up new Dr. Martins by dozens should the old Dr. Martin be drowned in the Salle or perish in any other way. There is One who takes care of me in His own manner better than you and all the angels could ever do. He sits by the side of the Almighty Father. Tranquillize yourself, then. Amen.’
On 14 February when he wrote another letter to her he was so well that he anticipated returning home within that week, but he suddenly fell sick, and sank so rapidly that in the early morning of the 18th he died before she could be brought to his side.
She was overwhelmed, but was consoled to hear an account of his deathbed. His prevailing language had been prayer, adoration, and trust in God. Among his last words were these: ‘O my Heavenly Father, eternal and merciful God, Thou hast revealed to me Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Him I have preached, Him I have confessed. Him I love and worship as my dearest Saviour and deliverer whom the ungodly persecute and blaspheme. Receive my poor soul. O Heavenly Father, although I must quit this body and am hurried away from this life, yet I certainly know that I shall abide eternally with Thee and that none can pluck me out of Thy hand.’
The body was brought back to Wittenberg and given an honourable funeral, thousands attending at the Castle church.
‘Thus was Katherine bereaved of him who, by delivering her from a convent, had, as it were, rescued her from a living grave; who had been first her kindest friend and then her loving faithful husband.’ Luther’s will reflects a deep love for Katherine and care for his children in the guardians he chose for them. Many were the condolences she received from princes and ministers, but her widowhood of seven years was almost unmitigated tribulation. All might have gone well with her through the kind promises of patrons but for the outbreak of a long-anticipated war between the Emperor and the Protestant princes. Katherine’s beloved little farm lay directly in the path of the war, heavy war-taxes impoverished her and many others, and the whole disastrous upheaval diverted the attention of her benefactors, sincere as their promises had been. The Elector of Saxony, Luther’s best friend, was captured, and the Emperor’s army advanced on Wittenberg. Katherine and her children fled to Brunswick. After some weeks a proclamation inviting citizens to return was issued from Wittenberg, and she was able to come home. She was now nearly penniless and let some of her apartments and tried to board some students. Not until four imploring letters had gone to the King of Denmark (once a staunch supporter of Luther) did she receive a reply and a small gift. ‘I often think of that man of God, Dr. Martin Luther,’ wrote a friend, ‘how he made his wife commit to memory Psalm 31 when she was young, vigorous, and cheerful and could not then know how this psalm would afterwards be so sweet and consolatory to her in her sorrows’, which he seemed to anticipate.
In 1552 the plague broke out in Wittenberg and as the university had removed to Torgau Katherine thought she would go there too. On the way she was thrown from the wagon on the edge of a lake and was lifted out of the water severely bruised. She did not recover from this accident but died three months later at the age of fifty-three. ‘I will cleave to my Lord Christ’, she said, ‘as the burr to the cloth.’
In spite of the continued poverty poor Katherine had suffered from, her children were not forgotten of God. She had brought them through their teens, and at the time of her death the eldest, John, was a councillor of state to Elector John Frederick II; Martin, a delicate lad, studied theology. Paul was the most gifted and he studied medicine and took his degree and was for a short time Professor of Medicine at the University of Jena and later a court physician. Margaret married a nobleman, a great admirer of her father, and had nine children.