Katherine von Bora was born in January of 1499 in a small village near Leipzig. Unlike most girls of her time, she received an education; she was sent to a Benedictine convent at age five. When she was nine, she was moved to a Cistercian monastery where she became a nun. However, as a teenager she became interested in the growing reform movement, and eventually she contacted one Martin Luther, asking for his assistance in helping her and several other nuns flee in secrecy from the cloister. A friend of Luther’s snuck them out of the monastery to Wittenberg in a wagon of fish barrels.
Most of the young women were eager to be married, and Luther found suitable husbands for them quickly. But after a couple of years, although she had a number of suitors, Katherina was still not married. Finally she told a friend of Luther’s, Nikolaus Von Amsdorf, who was also a leader of the reformation, that she would only be willing to marry one of the two of them.
Martin Luther had been a monk, and he had decided that he should not marry because of the scandal it would cause and the potential harm to the reformation movement. But eventually he was convinced, by Katherina or God or some combination of the two, that his marriage would “please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.” They were married on June 13, 1525, when she was 26 and he was 42, and they took up residence in a former Augustinian school called the “Black Cloister.”
Katie Luther immediately took on the task of administering and managing the vast holdings of the monastery, breeding and selling cattle, and running a brewery to provide for their six children and the four they adopted and the steady stream of visitors and students who stayed with them in the 40 rooms of the estate. In times of widespread illness, she operated a hospital on site. While her more famous husband wrote and taught and argued and drank, she ministered to what she called his “diseases, depressions, and eccentricities,” apparently as well as everyone else’s.
It was a marriage mostly of convenience, and of two people who seemingly believed they would be intolerable to and intolerant of anyone else, but they grew to an amazing level of love and affection that comes out in Martin Luther’s writings even when they are not directly about her. He called her “my dear wife Katherine von Bora, preacher, brewer, gardener, and whatsoever else she may be.” On other occasions he referred to her as “my kind and dear lord and master, Katy, Lutheress, doctoress, and priestess of Wittenberg,” or simply “My lord Katie.” When she learned he loved pork, she began raising pigs, earning her yet another nickname: “Mistress of the Pigsty.”
Martin Luther was prone to bouts of melancholy, and after one that lasted many months, his wife appeared at the door wearing her funeral black. “Who died?” he asked.
“God,” she replied.
“You foolish thing! What is this?” he demanded.
“It is true. For God must be dead to make Dr. Luther so sorrowful.”
They say he snapped out of his funk.
It was not a great time to be a woman, and most women were shuffled between fathers and husbands, with no education or property rights, and the vast majority of men never questioned that system. It had always been the way it was. But it seems that Martin Luther was open to other possibilities, in marriage as well as in church, thanks to his strong-willed wife. He once wrote to her, “You convince me of whatever you please. You have complete control. I concede to you control of the household, provided my rights are preserved. Government of females has never done any good.” Her intelligence and force of will came out in support of him as well, and his Table Talks also disclose that at times she prodded him to respond forcefully to attacks and doctrinal errors.
Unfortunately, although her husband saw her value and treated her as an equal and a partner, the world did not. After his death, she was left nearly destitute and struggled for the rest of her life to support herself before dying at the age of 51. The final words Katie spoke depict a faith as vigorous and stubborn as Martin’s: “I will stick to Christ as a burr to a top coat.”
I suppose that given that it is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I should tell one of the stories of the more famous figures: Martin Luther himself, or John Calvin, or John Knox, the forebear of Presbyterians, but Luther and Calvin get plenty of press, and frankly I don’t care much for John Knox. And anyway, I think that Katherina von Bora’s /Katie Luther’s story is just as interesting and just as important. Martin Luther reminds us of the wide, sweeping changes that are sometimes necessary to the church and to other institutions. Katie Luther reminds us that in order for reform to be systemic, it must also be personal.
The unconditional grace that swept over the church and led Martin Luther to nail his famous theses to the Wittenburg door didn’t just transform the structures. At a time when the church said that grace came through an institution, mediated by priests, this grace was personal, intimate, direct. Unlike the indulgences being sold by the church at the time, this grace didn’t cost a thing, but it did propel Katie Luther into a new life.
Grace dogged at the beliefs that had been instilled in her since she was five years old and compelled her to seek something more. Grace dragged her out of bed in the middle of the night and hid her in a fish barrel. Grace gave her courage to risk leaving her old commitments behind and making unexpected new ones, and persistence to be the backbone of the movement that rocked the church forever. Grace got her up every morning at 4am to be the manager, brewer, mother, doctor, and wife – and keep up her own lively study of Scripture. While Martin wrote and taught and argued doctrines and interpretations, Katie lived them. And by grace, together, as partners, in the systematic and the personal, in the revolutionary ideas and the day to day logistics of making life work, they helped make it possible for that grace to go far beyond them….
…to us. Our celebration of the Reformation is a celebration of that same grace – grace that comes to us unearned and undeserved, but grace that propels us to new life. Grace that drags us out of bed, puts us in positions we’ve never imagined, fills us with the courage to move forward despite the risk. Grace that changes the systemic and the personal, that transforms our most abstract ideas and the most mundane details of our daily lives. So happy 500th anniversary, to all of us who have received God’s grace, who have been reformed, and who are still and always reforming