Called to serve: Katharina von Bora Luther
God provided Luther’s wife with many different opportunities to serve.
In this anniversary year of the Reformation it is fitting that we should remember Martin Luther. The number of books written about him and his work is second only to those written about Christ himself.
But an often forgotten figure in Reformation history is Martin’s industrious wife, Katharina. Because primary sources on her life are scarce, most accounts are fictionalized works that attempt to fill the many gaps in her history. But it is possible to piece together the little that does exist to compile a fairly complete picture. What we have shows her to be an industrious woman who served in many different roles.
Katharina was born Jan. 20, 1499, to Hans and Katharina von Bora, members of the lower nobility who were little more than poor famers. When Katharina was only five years old, her mother died. Her father soon remarried, but Katharina never had the chance to become close to her new mother. Perhaps because of financial challenges for the family, Katharina’s father soon put her into a convent to ensure that she received a good education. Five years later, she was moved to another convent at Nimbschen near Grimma, where two of her aunts were nuns. She would have learned much from them and the other nuns in the convent.
In the convent, Katharina was a student, then a novice, and finally a nun. All of these roles or vocations required obedience to her teachers and superiors. At that time, becoming a nun meant that she chose the vocation that would assure her of the best chance to please God. The Fourth Commandment was a part of her life. It was also the only life she knew, a factor that would affect some of her decisions as she grew.
But then things changed. Martin Luther’s writings found their way into the convent. She and her fellow nuns soon realized that their vows had been made under false pretenses and were not valid. Luther taught that all vocations were equal before God. When the nuns at Nimbschen realized that God did not need their vows and works, they decided to leave the convent. Under cover of darkness on Easter Eve, April 4, 1523, they left in an empty wagon used to deliver herring to the convent.
The wife and household manager
Once they came to Wittenberg, life changed dramatically for Katharina and her friends. Some were able to return to their families; some quickly found husbands. Some lived and worked in influential homes in Wittenberg, as Katharina did, first with Mayor Reichenbach and later with the artist and entrepreneur Lucas Cranach.
Perhaps while living in the Cranach home, she met the young nobleman Jerome Baumgartner. Their relationship blossomed. But although many in Wittenberg presumed that the two would marry, Jerome went home to his family and never came back. It seemed likely that Katharina would remain unmarried, a life that was not easy in the 16th century.
Kathrina’s life did change. Katharina married Martin Luther on June 13, 1525, and she became a wife and mother. But there was more. The Black Cloister, where the Luthers lived, was a large building where she served as cook, housekeeper, head groundskeeper, and manager of her household staff. She oversaw the improvement and expansion of the building, while also running a boarding house for an ever-changing mix of university students, relatives, and friends. Since Martin turned the family finances over to her, she was the family accountant. She was also a farmer who bought and improved several plots of land where she raised a significant portion of the food for her family, renters, and guests. She embraced every opportunity to serve God in each role.
The mother and nurse
Motherhood brought both great joy and great sorrow to Katharina. She and Martin were blessed with six children, three boys and three girls. Two of the girls died young. Elisabeth was only eight months old, and Magdalena was twelve years old. Katharina also suffered a miscarriage, which left her ill for several months.
Both Martin and Katharina loved and cherished their children and understood the importance of being parents. In fact, Martin made the unprecedented move of naming Katharina as the children’s guardian in his will. The Luthers’ remaining four children, Hans, Martin, Paul, and Margaretha, all married but not until after both of their parents had died. All but Martin had children of their own, and descendants of Paul and Margaretha survive to this day.
While in the convent Katharina learned what it meant to be a nurse. Her Aunt Magdelena had been in charge of the convent dispensary and later moved in with the Luthers. Katharina used her nursing knowledge when Martin suffered from numerous digestive problems as well as when the Luther home was used as an infirmary when the plague came through Wittenberg.
Probably the hardest role of Katharina’s life was that of widow. After Martin died on Feb. 18, 1546, she found herself oppressed by both friends and foes. Martin’s will, leaving everything to her and naming her as guardian for the children, was challenged as unlawful. Yet with the help of a few friends and through her strong-willed determination, Katharina hung on to that which was hers. When war and plague came through Wittenberg, she repeatedly left the city for the safety of her children but also returned to rebuild and press on.
In the fall of 1552, the plague forced Katharina to flee Wittenberg one last time. Katharina’s destination wasn’t clear, but she, Paul, and Margaretha headed toward Torgau. Shortly before they got there, the horses pulling their wagon shied. Katharina jumped from the wagon to steady them but ended up falling into a water-filled ditch. Her children got her to Torgau, where she found herself paralyzed from a combination of the fall and getting drenched. Three months later, on Dec. 20, 1552, she died from her injuries. It is said that at the end she confessed, “I will stick to Christ like a burr on cloth.”
Because the plague was still raging in Wittenberg, most thought it unsafe to take Katharina’s body back for burial. She was buried at St. Mary’s church in Torgau, just a few blocks from the house where she lived her last few months. Her grave and marker are still there today.
Throughout her life, Katharina Luther was a student of the Bible. She rose at 4 a.m. every morning to begin her day with devotion and prayer, earning her the nickname “Morning Star of Wittenberg.” She learned that it was not necessary to hide away in a convent to live a God-pleasing life and that her daily duties of wife, mother, housekeeper, landlady, farmer, and many others were godly vocations.
May this be her legacy among us today.
Rebecca DeGarmeaux, director of the ELS Ottesen Museum, is a member at the Evangelical Lutheran Synod congregation Mount Olive, Mankato, Minnesota.
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Author: Rebecca DeGarmeaux
Volume 104, Number 10
Issue: October 2017
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