For Martin Luther’s fifty-seventh birthday, his wife designed, commissioned, and then presented to him a carved doorway for their home. It’s elegance incorporated numerous features that demonstrated Katharina’s knowledge of and devotion to her husband; however, there is no way that she could have realized how completely appropriate her gift would be. Michelle DeRusha’s biography demonstrates that the radical marriage of Katharina and Martin Luther was itself a threshold into a new way of understanding marriage, and it opened the way toward a more biblical expression of the life of two-shall-become-one.
By the time Martin and Katharina began their unlikely life together, Martin’s theological shot heard ’round the world had already set off the Reformation in Western Europe, and both the bride and the groom had already logged decades of life in cloistered communities. For Martin, this had been by choice and against the wishes of his family, while Katharina had been placed in a convent by her father at the age of six.
Leaving the monastery was controversial for Martin, but there was no question that his gifts and background would pave his way into a well-defined role within his new freedom. Things were not so simple for a 16th-century woman. In addition to the fact that single women were not even recognized as citizens in Germany, Katharina was, by birth, a member of the landed-gentry and, therefore, ineligible to pursue employment of any kind. Her only option for survival was marriage — at the ripe old age of twenty six.
Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but Katie von Bora showed no signs of of caving to desperation, and she made it abundantly clear that she had no intention of marrying just anyone. At one point she even boldly suggested that she would consider marrying Luther . . . if she were asked. Why she considered a forty-two year old man (who, at any moment, could be found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake) to be a good catch is anyone’s guess.
From the groom’s perspective, Luther’s decision to tie the knot with Katharina was as reasoned and deeply theological as his basis for untying the knot with the Catholic church. While he cited pleasing his father and antagonizing the pope as desirable outcomes of marriage, it seems that, primarily, he chose marriage out of love for Christ and a desire to model “the redeemed Christian’s relationship to God.” With such an unusual beginning, it is not surprising that the Luther’s marriage paved new ground.
From Martin’s Perspective
Marriage ousted Martin from his ivory tower. Michelle DeRusha records many of the idealistic or cavalier statements from his single days, and they were clearly made by a curmudgeonly man with no idea how to manage life on this planet. He waxed eloquent (and inaccurate) on topics ranging from the role of women in the home to something he called “bridal love,” but when married life began in earnest, there was no sign at all that he could actually live by his own tenets.
From the outset, Katharina dealt with all things practical including the management of and the procurement of supplies for the abandoned monastery the Luthers called home and which functioned more like a bed and breakfast than a family dwelling. Martin trusted Katharina with the delivery of his manuscripts to the printer, and he left most of the business side of his work in her capable hands.
Marriage tested and clarified Martin’s theology, for this marriage of convenience actually grew into a relationship based on love and mutual respect, showing him “again and again that a love for others, as much as a love for God, was at the core of his beliefs. The Protestant Reformation would have happened without the marriage of Luther and Katharina. But Luther would not have been the same Reformer without Katharina.”
From Katharina’s Perspective
Katharina’s escape at age twenty-four from the convent where she had lived since the age of six gives us a clue as to the mettle of this woman for whom,up to this point, every single life decision had been delivered to her as a fait accompli. While marriage to Martin Luther handed Katharina the key to citizenship and an established role in society, it was her own determination by which she walked through the open door of their home and immediately set things in order.
The new Mrs. Luther took some getting used to in Martin’s circle of friends and colleagues, and, while she spoke with respect to her husband, she would not be bullied into becoming a shadow in her own home. Her curious and lively mind found its way into participation in the theological discussions that were standard fare around her table — while she prepared and served what must have been huge quantities of food.
Martin and Katharina were a parenting team, and the death of their oldest daughter nearly undid them both. Michelle DeRusha shares numerous clarifications about life in early modern times, but the most poignant is the harsh reality that 16th-century parents formed bonds with their children that were every bit as deep as those of 21st-century parents — even though their children died at an alarming rate.
It is revealing of attitudes of that day that only eight of Katharina’s letters were saved — none of which were addressed to Martin, but which, sadly, document the hard path of her widowhood as she wrote to friends and acquaintances to “call in favors” or to remind people of their responsibility for her and her children after Martin’s death in 1546. Katharina’s final years must have been haunted by a sinking sensation of deja vu, for the very same traditions and expectations that had made her life as a young single woman so perilous were still in place to make her life as a widow untenable. The era’s idealized model of a meek and silent widow assumes that someone would have already made practical provision for her. Unfortunately, Martin failed to do that, so it was up to Katharina to make her own way, and she did — but it wasn’t easy, and the stress and privation likely led to her demise at the age of fifty-three.
It is timely to consider this biography of a marriage in the year that marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, for the truth from Romans 1:17 that fueled the up-ending of Martin Luther’s theology continues to leave its mark on the way we view marriage within the context of the Gospel to this very day. When Martin and Katharina, “his rib,” walked together through the doorway of marriage, Martin wrote that they had embarked upon “a chancy thing” for “marriage does not always run smoothly.” Five hundred years later, that’s still true. And it is also true that there is grace for this — and that the righteousness which is “of God, by faith” is available in Christ for those who commit their lives (and their marriages) to Him — by grace alone.
This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Intrigued by the author?
This is Michelle DeRusha’s third book, and came about as a result of a chapter devoted to Katharina Luther in 50 Women Every Christian Should Know. I’ve reviewed the book here, and you can get further information about Michelle’s faith journey and writing life through listening in to this podcast episode of Living a Redeemed Life in which my friend, Holly Barrett, interviews Michelle.
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