Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Martin Luther's Holy Matrimony

In honor of Reformation Day, I am posting this little piece I wrote a few years ago on Martin Luther's marriage. I will link this with Tim Challies' blog, who is hosting a Reformation Day Symposium.


As the sun declined on April 4, 1523, Leonhard Koppe glanced nervously over his shoulder while he loaded twelve barrels into his merchant’s wagon and headed down the road for Torgau. He began to breathe a little easier as he got farther away from the Marienthron Convent, for his load that evening was not the usual herring, but nuns. These nuns had been influenced by the ideas of a reformer from Wittenberg, one Martin Luther, and now, with his advice and aid, they had acted on their newfound convictions and were escaping from the convent. (Such at least is one of the stories that have come down to our time.) Nine of the twelve nuns proceeded on from Torgau to Wittenberg to find help from the great reformer, and Luther welcomed them into his care, although he wrote in a letter to his friend Spalatin that when they arrived they were a “wretched crowd.” One of these ex-nuns was a young lady, 24 years old, of noble descent, named Katharina von Bora. It was she who would later become Luther’s wife, although at the time neither of them would have thought it.

Luther’s pilgrimage toward marriage actually began several years earlier, and it was closely intertwined with his theological pilgrimage that led to the open schism with Rome. He became an Augustinian monk in 1505, which involved taking a vow of celibacy, and at that point he fully believed the Roman Catholic thought that the celibate state was the way to be more holy. Yet as controversy grew over his attacks on aspects of the Roman Catholic system (1517-1521), he began to question the Catholic view of marriage. In 1519 he published “A Sermon on the Estate of Marriage”[1] in which he extolled marriage as a gracious gift of God. However, at this point he clearly still considered marriage to be a sacrament, as the Roman Catholic Church taught.

But by the next year, Luther discarded the sacramental view of marriage. In June through October of 1520 he launched three cruise missiles at the Roman Catholic religio-political edifice: “Address to the German Nobility” (attacking RC political ideas), “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” (attacking the RC sacramental system), and “On the Freedom of the Christian Man” (attacking RC legalism). It was the second of these treatises that specifically dealt with the issue of marriage.[2] Here Luther says, “Not only is marriage regarded as a sacrament without the least warrant of Scripture, but the very ordinances which extol it as a sacrament have turned it into a farce.”[3] In his “Address to the German Nobility” Luther stated that he wanted to “leave every man free to marry or not to marry.”[4] He recognized what a radical step this was, for he goes on to say, “There would have to be a very different kind of government and administration of church property; the whole canon law would have to be demolished.”[5] Thus we can see that reforming marriage had definite social and political ramifications. But as we shall see, on a personal level, Luther’s program of reform, without his knowing or intending it, was moving him constantly closer to committing matrimony.

Marriage continued to be on Luther’s mind, even after the Diet of Worms where he was declared an outlaw. In 1522 he published his first full treatise on the subject, “The Estate of Marriage,”[6] dealing with who can marry, who can divorce and for what reasons, and how to live a godly life in the state of marriage. Here we see that Luther had come to the point in his thinking where he believed that it is commanded by God that people should marry and have children, unless God has specifically made one unfit for marriage or given the gift of celibacy.[7] Thus we might think that Martin would take more than passing interest in the eligible former nuns that he took charge of in 1523.

But wedding bells were not ringing in Luther’s head at this time. The pressures and turmoil of his very public life were too great. On November 30, 1524 he wrote to his friend Spalatin:

The way I feel now, and have felt thus far, I will not marry. It is not that I do not feel my flesh or sex, since I am neither wood nor stone, but my mind is far removed from marriage, since I daily expect death and the punishment due to a heretic. Therefore I shall not limit God’s work in me, nor shall I rely on my own heart. Yet I hope God does not let me live long.[8]

Nevertheless, as we read on in his letters we detect a noticeable change of tone in next few months. Luther often encouraged his friends to marry, and he had worked hard to see to it that all the former nuns under his care were married. Yet one still remained. Spalatin apparently returned Martin’s urging toward matrimony, and on April 16, 1525, Luther replied:

I do not want you to wonder that a famous lover like me does not marry. It is rather strange that I, who so often write about matrimony and get mixed up with women, have not yet turned into a woman, to say nothing of not having married one. Yet if you want me to set an example, look, here you have the most powerful one, for I have had three wives simultaneously, and loved them so much that I have lost two who are taking other husbands; the third I can hardly keep with my left arm, and she, too, will probably soon be snatched away from me. But you are a sluggish lover who does not dare to become the husband of even one woman. Watch out that I, who have no thought of marriage at all, do not some day over-take you too eager suitors – just as God usually does those things which are least expected.[9]

God was doing unexpected things in Katharina’s life as well. After coming to Wittenberg, Katie actually fell in love with Hieronymus Baumgartner, an aristocratic student of Melanchthon. However, when he left for his home town of Nuremberg, Katie did not hear from him. Luther, as her guardian, wrote to Baumgartner in October of 1524 stating that he would gladly see them married. No reply came until January of 1525, when it was announced that Baumgartner was engaged to another woman. Katie rejected another potential suitor, but her social situation was beginning to become perilous if she ever hoped to marry. Apparently she conveyed to Luther’s friend Nicholas von Amsdorf that she would accept a proposal from either Amsdorf himself or the famous Doctor.[10]

By May of that year, the wedding bells in Luther’s mind were loud and clear – he had determined to marry Katie.[11] And in characteristic fashion, he wasted no time in doing so. On June 13 Martin and Katie were wed in a small private ceremony, followed by a public celebration on the 27th. This was not a union of romantic infatuation. In a letter to von Amsdorf inviting him to the celebration, Luther spelled out clearly his thinking behind the marriage.

Indeed, the rumor is true that I was suddenly married to Catherine; [I did this] to silence the evil mouths which are so used to complaining about me. For I still hope to live for a little while. In addition, I also did not want to reject this unique [opportunity] to obey my father’s wish for progeny, which he so often expressed. At the same time, I also wanted to confirm what I have taught by practicing it; for I find so many timid people in spite of such great light from the gospel. God has willed and brought about this step. For I feel neither passionate love nor burning for my spouse, but I cherish her.[12]

Thus we can see that for Luther, marriage was much more than a merely personal issue. For one thing, it was a political statement. From his letters we can read that he viewed his marriage as a statement of opposition to the peasants, who were then in revolt, and as a statement of support to the nobility.[13] It was also a theological statement. It was the ultimate defiance of the Roman Catholic elevation of celibacy and a celebration of the Reformation agenda. Furthermore, Luther’s marriage was a social statement, for he intended to set an example of what godly citizens should do. For him, marriage was a part of fulfilling God’s mandate to mankind, not merely a sentimentally gratifying arrangement.

We should not conclude, however, that Martin and Katie had a loveless marriage. Quite the opposite is true. For nearly 21 years Martin enjoyed life with the woman he affectionately called “my rib.” The Luthers took up residence in the Black Cloister (the former Augustinian monastery), where they led a rather poor, hardworking, yet social life. Marriage brought many changes to Luther, who mused that “there is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage.” Luther’s frank transparency in his “table talk” and his letters gives us the picture of a home that had all the usual joys, blessings, frustrations, and irritations of family life. For example, he once complained of how Katie would interrupt his studies with small talk.[14] On one occasion he is said to have locked himself in his study until Katie took the door off its hinges.[15] On the other side of the coin, Katie had the burden of managing the large household for a husband who was not careful about financial matters.

Katie bore six children, who were dear to Luther’s heart. We have one very tender and fanciful letter that he wrote to his son Hans to encourage him to be good, study hard, and pray.[16] We also hear from his own mouth the soul-anguish he experienced when his daughter Magdalena died in his arms at age 13.[17] But his affection for Katie seems to have gone beyond even what he felt for his children. He once said, “I would not give up my Katy for France or for Venice . . . because God gave her to me and gave me to her.”[18] One testimony to how much he prized her was the fact that he called his favorite book of the Bible – Galatians – “my Katie von Bora.”[19] Katie also felt the same way toward Martin. One of her few surviving letters is one she wrote to her sister-in-law after Martin’s death. She chronicles there how her husband’s death left her unable to eat, drink, or sleep. “I cannot express my great heartache to any person,” she wrote. “If I had owned a principality or empire I would not have felt as bad had I lost it, as I did when our dear Lord God took from me - and not from me but from the whole world - this dear and worthy man.”[20]

Luther has been accused of being patriarchal in his views of women, marriage, and child rearing. And indeed he was. He firmly believed that the woman’s place was in the home. As usual, he was bluntly eloquent in stating his points. “Men have broad shoulders and narrow hips, and accordingly they possess intelligence. Women have narrow shoulders and broad hips. Women ought to stay at home; the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a wide fundament to sit upon.”[21] Modern sensibilities are highly offended at such speech. Yet it must be remembered that Luther became violently angry at those who degraded women.[22] He also held that men only should rule the home. Yet in everyday life he allowed that Katie had tremendous influence over him.[23] In addition, he believed that the bearing and rearing of children was a fundamental duty of marriage. Regarding childbearing he said, “The purpose of marriage is not pleasure and ease but the procreation and education of children and the support of a family. . . . People who do not like children are swine, dunces, and blockheads, not worthy to be called men and women, because they despise the blessings of God, the Creator and Author of marriage.”[24] While Luther may offend modern sensibilities, it may be that he was more honest about the biblical picture of marriage than moderns would want to admit.

Luther’s beliefs and practices regarding marriage and family give us perhaps the most personal look into a great man who was just that – a man. With all his faults, he loved his wife, and she loved him. Together they sought to put into practice what Reformation theology taught – that marriage is a good gift of God, a holy estate, to be used for his service. In this, Martin and Katie were eminently successful. Marriage was no peripheral issue to Martin, who believed that God had effected a threefold reformation of the ministry of the Word, the magistracy, and marriage.[25] Historian Steven Ozment writes that there was no other “point in the Protestant program where theology and practice corresponded more successfully.”[26] Luther’s stouthearted resolve for marriage accomplished everything he hoped it would, and gave him many years of loving companionship with his equally stouthearted Katie.




[1] Luther’s Works, American Edition, 55 vols., ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann (St. Louis/Philadelphia: Concordia/Fortress, 1958ff), 44: 5-14 (Hereafter cited as LW).

[2] LW 36: 92-106.

[3] Ibid.: 92.

[4] LW 44:176

[5] Ibid.

[6] LW 45: 11-49.

[7] Ibid.: 18.

[8] LW 49: 93.

[9] LW 49:104-5.

[10] Smith, “Katharina von Bora through Five Centuries,” Sixteenth Century Journal XXX/3 (1999): 748.

[11] LW 49: 111. See Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950), 288. [This edition incorrectly states that Luther was 33. Later editions read 42.]

[12] LW 49: 117. See Bainton, 288. Hendrix, “Luther on Marriage,” Lutheran Quarterly XIV (2000): 343.

[13] Bainton, 288.

[14] LW 54: 191.

[15] Steven Ozment, “Re-inventing Family Life,” Christian History 39: 24.

[16] LW 49: 321-4.

[17] LW 54: 432.

[18] LW 54: 7-8.

[19] LW 54:20.

[20] Smith, “Katharina von Bora,” 771.

[21] LW 54: 8. A textual variant here reads “keep house and bear and raise children” in place of “sit upon.”

[22] LW 54:171, 221.

[23] LW 54:174-5.

[24] Ozment, “Re-inventing Family Life,” Christian History 39: 24. Cf. LW 1:118.

[25] LW 54: 177.

[26] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 381.

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