Melissa and I have really come to enjoy the story of Martin Luther’s marriage to Katherine Von Bora. We recently re-read Roland Bainton’s biography of Luther, Here I Stand, and easily our favourite chapter is the one marriage and family, “The School for Character.” The following quotes and stories are from that chapter.
In contrast to the teaching of the church at the time, Luther wrote tracts and books about the goodness of marriage and family. Before Luther, it was believed that the celibate life of a monk or nun was the surest way to righteousness and heaven. As Luther’s writings hit the printing press and spread across Germany and much of Europe, it also reached a nearby convent. In 1523, the nuns secretly wrote to Luther seeking his help, wanting to leave the cloister, which was a serious offense. So Luther hatched a plot to sneak these 12 women out of the cloister, hiding in barrels for fish. This was an offense that carried a penalty of capital punishment.
When the nuns arrived in Wittenberg, Luther felt responsible to find them homes or husbands. Three of them were able to return to their families. And one-by-one Luther found suitable husbands for each until only one remained.
Katherine was a little wild and stubborn and at 26 years old, she was on upper limits of eligibility for marriage in that era. Luther tried to arrange a marriage for her, but it didn’t work out. And then Katherine set her sights on Luther himself.
Luther was 42 at the time and not interested in marriage. By this point Luther had been condemned by the pope and his life was always at risk. His health was poor and marriage was simply not on the agenda. But then suddenly he changed his mind for the most unromantic reasons: “to please his father, to spite the pope and the devil, and to seal his witness before martyrdom.” And so he married Katherine.
But what is interesting is the ways that Luther’s views on marriage changed after he got married. Before marriage Luther sounded much like Paul in I Corinthians 7, that a man should get married if he can’t control himself. But after getting married himself he began to portray marriage differently. He began to portray marriage as a school for character. In this way it replaced the monastery as the training ground of virtue. It’s in your marriage that God shapes, teaches and sanctifies you. Yes Marriage is hard, as two sinners enter covenant there will be rough edges, but it is also the context for God changing us more into the image of Christ.
He also found in Katie a true friend. And he came to adore her. After a year of marriage he wrote to a friend: “My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me that I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus.” He paid her the highest tribute when he called Galatians, “my Katherine von Bora.”
Katie was a master of herbs, poultices, and massage. Her son Paul, who became a doctor, said his mother was half one. She kept watch over Luther’s health. She brewed beer for the family in the cellar and when Luther was away, he wrote to Katie and expressed how much he missed her beer.
Yet married life can be hard. Luther wrote, “what a lot of trouble there is in marriage! Adam has made a mess of our nature. Think of all the squabbles Adam and Eve must have had in the course of their nine hundred years. Eve would say, ‘You ate the apple,’ and Adam would retort, ‘You gave it to me.’”
Luther believed strongly in cultivating love in marriage. He taught that a Christian should love his wife. He is bound to love his neighbour as himself and his wife is his nearest neighbour. Therefore she should be his dearest friend. The greatest grace of God is when love persists in marriage. Luther wrote, “The first love is drunken. When the intoxication wears off, then comes the real married love.” And elsewhere, “the dearest life is to live with a godly, willing, obedient wife in peace and unity.” And again, “Union of the flesh does nothing. There must also be union of manners and mind.”
Luther’s advice to a bride was: “My dear, make your husband glad to cross his threshold at night.” And to the groom: “Make your wife sorry to have you leave.”
Martin and Katie were a little quirky, to be sure. But they are also a great picture of friendship and love in covenant marriage.
Happy Valentine’s Day!