Faith

Martin Luther's Wife: a 'Nominal Christian' Who Was Essential to the Reformation

Public domain. Portrait of Katharina von Bora

On October 31, 2017, Protestants (and some Roman Catholics) will commemorate Reformation Day, the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed the “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg church. According to a new book, however, this date would not have the same significance without Luther’s oft-forgotten wife, Katharina von Bora, who the new book claims wasn’t even a true believer, but a “nominal Christian.”

“I do not believe we’d be celebrating 500 years of Protestantism without Katie Luther,” Ruth Tucker, author of Katie Luther: First Lady of the Reformation, told PJ Media in an interview Thursday. While Luther accomplished a great deal before marrying his wife, Tucker argued that without his wife Katie, Luther would have died before cementing his Reformation.

“He did an awful lot in those 20 years to solidify the Reformation, even though it was being battered on every side,” Tucker explained. “Those 20 years were critical,” and “for those 20 years, Katie kept him alive: mentally, physically, and fiscally alive.”

The author argued that Luther “easily could have gone right into the tank, into the toilet in the mid-1520s,” without his wife’s help, because “he was having greater mental, emotional, and physical issues.”

How did Katharina von Bora keep Martin Luther afloat for 20 years? By being “a Proverbs 31 woman on steroids,” Tucker explained.

“She had her irons in the fire more than any other woman I’ve studied,” the author noted. Katie Luther ran the Black Cloister, which served as “Holiday Inn,” boarding house, and even medical hostel. Her son referred to her as “half a physician,” despite the fact she had no training. She worked first and foremost on her husband, whom Tucker described as “the sickest reformer that we know.”

It was far from easy for Katie Luther to run her business. Not only did she singlehandedly manage the Black Cloister — doing hundreds of chores herself, but also conscripting her children, employees, and friends to help out — but she took the initiative in finding new land to invest in.

“Other reformers and locals did not like her, they said she was too money-focused, too domineering,” Tucker explained. But the Luthers lived in turbulent times — roving militias would devastate towns, the wars of religion had begun to foment, and Germany was a decentralized and unstable nation.

Luther’s wife had to fight for her own, especially after the great Reformer died. But despite her reputation as money-grubbing, “Katie never lived high at all, you would see her doing manual labor all the time, but she wanted money so that she and her children could live in some security throughout their lives,” the author said.

Tucker described Katie Luther as the second most important figure in the German Reformation, second only to her husband. Even so, the author suggested that Luther’s wife was a rather tepid believer.

“She was a nominal Christian as John Stott would have defined it,” Tucker said. “There is no evidence that she ever converted to the Reformation,” or that she was a “born again” Christian. Indeed, Luther’s students kept copious notes of discussions around the Luther dinner table, and they never recorded anything about the wife’s religious views, or even her bashing the convent in which she had grown up.

“They wrote down that she interrupted more than she should and they didn’t like it, but nothing like that at all,” the author explained. Katie Luther certainly knew Latin (having grown up in a nunnery), but she never wrote any religious tracts.

One night, Martin Luther was discussing the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. His wife chimed in, “God wouldn’t do that!”

In fact, most of the evidence available suggests that Katie Luther was not a very active Christian at all. Tucker mentioned “the fact Martin tried to bribe her to read the Bible, but she said it’s more important to live it.” The wife also said that praying is for men, while doing the hard work of child-bearing and midwifing was for women.

While some have tried to explain Katie Luther’s spirituality from her supposed death bed letter, Tucker argued that the statements in that letter weren’t said until two centuries later, for another Katharina, and even that later woman “probably didn’t say it either.”

“Protestants are as guilty of hagiography as the Catholics who invented it,” the author quipped, referring to the practice of myth-making around the life of a historic Christian.

Tucker also mentioned that Katie Luther “was works-oriented if anything.” Martin Luther’s wife worked night and day to run the Black Cloister, which Martin originally did not even want to purchase. His headstrong wife won out on this practical argument, as she did in many other areas, however.

“Theirs was an egalitarian marriage, the ultimate egalitarian marriage,” the author explained. While Luther did badmouth his wife from time to time (the Reformer was a prolific insulter, after all), he held her in very high esteem, referring to her as his “master.” Their private correspondence revealed a marriage of mutuality.

This was extremely important, as “no other reformer has placed so much emphasis on the family, and that is Protestantism,” Tucker said.

“Luther was a monk and married a nun, challenging the whole system as evil,” the author noted. “He was fighting against wrong theology that there’s a higher spirituality for those who are celibate.”

While many passages in the New Testament suggest that single people may be better suited to serving God, Tucker argued with Luther that the Catholic monastic system twisted the meaning of scripture.

“I don’t think there’s any place in the Bible that calls at all for a monastic lifestyle,” Tucker explained. “Paul was talking about missionaries who were going out and serving God.” In that context, it is easier to preach the gospel in a foreign land without the encumbrances of family.

“But Luther is saying the best way to live out a Christian life is in the home,” the author explained. “Everyone has come out of a home with a marriage. Then you serve God, you shine your light for Jesus within a family.”

Tucker admitted that many Christian doctrines come from dealing with the key issues of the day. Struggles on sexuality may dominate the current spirit of the age, but Luther focused on countering the dominant culture of monasteries and celibacy.

In one final ironic twist, Ruth Tucker devoted many pages to Katie Luther’s famous beer-making, which her husband constantly praised. Tucker herself, however, admitted to PJ Media that “alcohol has been something I never enjoyed,” and she indeed has personal stories of lives damaged through excessive drinking.

Even so, Tucker’s book emphasized Katie Luther’s brewing, and the great reformer’s deep appreciation for it. Interestingly, the wife made “a very good light beer,” being concerned about her husband’s weight. While many Reformed Christians tend to love micro-brews, light beer has a strong tradition in Protestant Christianity, even in the household of Martin Luther.