Reformation Romance: Love and Marriage Luther and Katie’s Way

Douglas Bond
Friday, September 1st 2017
Sep/Oct 2017

“He’s merely a monk who wants a wife.” So the pope dismissed Martin Luther when first he heard of the Saxon monk’s decrying of the papacy. But then in 1521, during his compelled sequester in the Wartburg Castle, Luther began hearing of many former priests taking wives. “Good heavens!” he retorted. “They won’t give me a wife.” Even his colleagues Karlstadt and Melanchthon had married. But Luther was, at first, adamant; no one was going to give him a wife. Not that he was a sexless stone, but it made no sense for a man under the sentence of heresy, the stake looming, to marry—only to leave his bride a widow. Perhaps the matrimonial news prompted Luther to set aside his German translation of the New Testament (and dozens of other writing projects) and write his great treatise on Christian marriage. “This will empty the cloisters,” a prophetic friend observed. Overnight Luther’s treatise circulated widely—even into nunneries.

Luther received a letter, a passionate appeal for his counsel, from more than a dozen nuns who desperately wanted to flee a nunnery near Wittenberg. Though escaping from a monastic cloister in sixteenth-century Germany was a capital offense, Luther gave them a theological argument for why nonbiblical vows are not binding. These girls wanted out, but they needed help. As if in a romantic comedy, Luther and his merchant friend Leonard Kopp cooked up a scheme to smuggle the apostate nuns out of the nunnery—by some accounts, in pickled herring barrels. “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town,” said one of Luther’s students at the news, “all more eager for marriage than for life. God grant them husbands lest worse befall.”

The night before Easter in 1523, lest worse befall, Luther put on yet another hat: matchmaker. Luther became the roaring, German, beer-swilling, pugilist version of Jane Austen’s Emma. He felt duty bound. After all, he had started the barrel rolling by decrying false doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church, including the unbiblical teaching about clerical celibacy. He had to finish it.

Setting to work with his illimitable zeal, Luther soon had suitable circumstances arranged for all but one of the runaway nuns, spunky twenty-six-year-old Katharina von Bora. After several failed attempts—choosy Katharina turned down more than one offer of marriage—she laughed off an aged candidate with the quip that she would rather marry Luther than Dr. Glatz. All in jest.

A jest, however, that began its work on Luther. After a visit home wherein he shared his problem of finding a husband for an apostate nun, his father, with Teutonic bluntness, told Luther to marry the girl and give him offspring. Finally Luther was resolved. He would do it, “to please his father, to spite the pope and the Devil, and to seal his witness before martyrdom.”

Sacramental Corruption of Marriage

Pause with me in our narrative of Luther and Katie’s life together. How had marriage become so corrupted by the medieval church? In one of his influential pamphlets, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther made a frontal assault on the “foul contagion” of the entire sacramental system of Rome.

He decried making transubstantiation, indulgences, pilgrimage, baptism, marriage, monasticism, and penance into means of earning salvation. Rome had mangled and distorted even baptism and the Lord’s Supper until they bore no resemblance to the two sacraments Jesus had established. “What Rome has done with the sacraments,” declared Luther, “I compare to a lie, which like to a snowball, the longer it is rolled the greater it becomes.” Luther wanted to restore a biblical understanding of justification that comes not of works or sacraments, but by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Chief among the trumpery of Rome’s sacerdotal system was the garbling of marriage into a sacrament. According to canon law, monasticism and priestly celibacy were the higher order sacraments, but for the secular vocations marriage had been morphed into a sacrament—a means by which the lower order of society might have a better chance at achieving salvation. To Luther this was yet another instance of doctrinal bilge water spewing from Rome.

Far from having a lower view of marriage, however, Luther wanted to restore marriage to its rightful place in God’s economy of grace. Just as there was no inherent grace in taking monastic vows of celibacy, so there was no salvific grace to be gained in marriage. Moreover, it was doubly scandalous when men who had taken vows of chastity shamelessly violated those vows. Alexander VI, the pope of Luther’s youth, kept several mistresses and fathered numerous illegitimate children; on his pilgrimage to Rome in 1510, Luther witnessed priests consorting with prostitutes at specially sanctioned brothels reserved exclusively for clerics.

Master of the invective insult, Luther declared of the pope: “You were born from the behind of the devil, are full of devils, lies, blasphemy, and idolatry; are the instigator of these things, God’s enemy, Antichrist, desolater of Christendom, and steward of Sodom.” Due to the stranglehold such abuses had on the common man, Luther felt justified in resorting to such vitriol. Later, however, upon more sober and gospel-centered reflection, Luther said, “I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, Self.” Nevertheless, he was called in violent times to decry unsupportable abuses. Rome itself he declared “the most licentious den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels.” If marriage was not a sacrament, then what was it?

Marriage is the God-appointed and legitimate union of man and woman in the hope of having children or at least for the purpose of avoiding fornication and sin, and living to the glory of God. The ultimate purpose of marriage is to obey God, to find aid and counsel against sin; to call upon God; to seek, love, and educate children for the glory of God. To live with one’s wife in the fear of God and to bear the cross; but if there are no children, nevertheless, to live with one’s wife in contentment; and to avoid all lewdness with others.

Though at first adamant in his refusal to marry, it was only when Luther moved from writing theoretically about marriage to entering into the covenant of marriage that he came to see it as a lovely school of character—an ordinary means, given by a gracious God, whereby a husband and wife might grow in grace together and in the knowledge and love of Christ.

Matrimonial Train Wreck

At last, romance-challenged Luther was resolved to marry Katharina von Bora, but (seemingly) without consulting her. What was she thinking of all this? Given up to the cloister when she was five, Katie had not been around men for the majority of her twenty-six years. Forty-two-year-old Luther had been a celibate priest for two decades and had heard the confession of only two women. Marriage between two people so utterly inexperienced with the opposite sex was a matrimonial train wreck waiting to happen.

If ever a couple needed extensive premarital counseling, it was Martin and Katie, but they didn’t even have one session with their pastor (Luther was their pastor). Neither did they go out on a date: no pizza, no movie, no concert together. Where was the romance? Frankly, there wasn’t one—not by our standards. Postmodernity, however, has relinquished the philosophical capital necessary to weigh in on anything to do with love, marriage, and sexual relations. Luther and Katie would have to do their falling in love in the years long after the last platter of bratwurst was eaten or beer stein emptied.

“First love is drunken,” said Luther, “but when the intoxication wears off, then comes real marriage love.” If the Reformation was a revolution in theology—the recovery of the gospel was, after all, a recovery of true marriage love, Christ’s love for his bride, the Church—Luther’s marriage was about to be, for him, a revolution in everything. Including hygiene.

“Before I was married,” recalled Luther, “the bed was not made for a whole year and became foul with sweat. But I worked so hard and was so weary I tumbled in without noticing it.” Imagine poor Katharina on their wedding night, with Luther’s greasy, hulking form outlined on the bedsheets. And their first home together? It was no chic apartment in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. Katie was stepping into yet another cloister, the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, given to Luther by his patron Elector Frederick. A massive, drafty, medieval structure, it was purpose-built for and entirely inhabited by males (in the opinion of refined Renaissance Europe, German barbarian males). What’s more, Luther’s colleague Karlstadt, fleeing a peasant uprising, came pounding on their door—on their wedding night!

It was little wonder that Luther called marriage “the school of character.” It was to be a lifetime tutorial that worked both ways. While Katie had her work cut out for her living with colossal Luther, marriage would require still more radical adjustments for Luther. “There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage,” he wrote. “One wakes up in the morning and finds a pair of pigtails on the pillow which were not there before.”

Celebrity Preacher

After their marriage in June 1525, it would be more than “pigtails on the pillow” that would change for Luther. Theirs was no modern-day, grindingly protracted engagement; it was happening on the fly. “While I was thinking of other things,” wrote Luther, inviting a friend to the wedding, “God has suddenly brought me to marriage with Katharina”—after a two-week betrothal. To his cohort in the nuns’ escape, he wrote, “I am going to get married. God likes to work miracles and to make a fool of the world. You must come to the wedding.”

When wedding festivities had ended, steins and platters were empty and the guests had gone home, Luther, now a husband, was confronted with the real business of being married to a real woman. The school of character would immediately expose many of his relational weaknesses. Brilliant scholar that he was, he had to start at the bottom of the class in this school. For starters, he had become, almost overnight, the celebrity preacher and writer of his day. With his popularity came mounds of fan mail and legions of responsibilities. Luther wrote to a friend:

I could use two secretaries. I do almost nothing during the day but write letters. I am reader at meals, parochial preacher, director of studies, overseer of eleven monasteries, superintendent of the fish pond at Litzkau, referee of the squabble at Torgau, lecturer on Paul, writer of a commentary on the Psalms, and then, I am overwhelmed with letters. I rarely have full time for . . . my own temptations with the world, the flesh, and the Devil. You see how lazy I am.

And he was now husband to Katie and soon to be father of her children. His new bride came to the marriage as an adoring admirer of the man who had been the instrument of her spiritual emancipation. She had even contributed a letter to the pile of fan mail. Imagine her chagrin as she realized that the theological giant from afar was an intensely earthy man up close and personal. Along with hygiene challenges, Luther was given to depression, insomnia, and had rumbling bowel disorders, and he worked best when in a full howling rage. “I find nothing that promotes work better than angry fervor. For when I wish to compose, write, pray and preach well, I must be angry. It refreshes my entire system, my mind is sharpened, and all unpleasant thoughts and depression fade away.”

We have clinical names for this. Imagine living with a husband who had such anger issues. Meanwhile, Katie had the household to look after—without rotisserie chickens from Costco. Their cloister home would eventually be filled with six of their own children, an aunt and several nieces, four adopted children, and dozens of student boarders; and “my lord Katie,” as Luther affectionately called her, had to feed them all. With wonder in his tone, he extolled his wife: “She plants our fields, pastures and sells cows.” He described her slaughtering their pigs, chickens, and cows; making sausages and cheese; and even brewing her own special beer—custom crafted to be gentle on her husband’s kidney and bowel disorders. Their son Paul grew up to be a physician and praised his mother’s mastery of natural cures for every ailment, especially her skill with massage.

When did the woman sleep? On top of all, Luther had given her a challenge to read through the whole Bible. “I have promised her fifty gulden if she finishes by Easter. She is hard at it and is at the end of the fifth book of Moses.” Not only was he hygiene challenged, he was also economically stunted; where penniless Luther would get the money was a mystery. But Katie was the master of home economics. (Her Bible, when she first took it up, must have fallen open on Proverbs 31; she obviously took the passage deeply to heart.)

Mistress of the Pig Market

The demands on Luther, and thus on Katie, make our busiest days seem leisurely. But here’s where some accounts of heroes in church history become fantasy. Luther and Katie were not angels. These two intensely busy people were fallen and in need of daily grace. With the pressures of life came irritation and impatience. “All my life is patience,” roared Luther. “I have to have patience with the pope, the heretics, my family, and my dearest Kette.” He enjoyed calling her “Kette” (German for “chain”) at moments like these.

One of the pressures on Katie was extending hospitality to the legion of student admirers that descended on their kitchen at meal times. At these unscripted table talks, bombastic Luther was in his element. Once when her husband was expatiating with gusto in response to a student’s question, Katie broke in, “Herr Doctor, why don’t you stop talking and eat?” Luther retorted, “I wish that women would repeat the Lord’s Prayer before opening their mouths”—an admonition Luther himself would have done well to heed.

Yet is there far more recorded of Luther’s affection and high esteem for his beloved wife. “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 extolled her with the highest praise, calling the Epistle to the Galatians “my Katharina von Bora.” Troubled that his devotion to his wife had become too excessive, Luther admitted, “I give more credit to Katharina than to Christ, who has done so much more for me.” How much happier would many marriages be if more men were slave to such a vice, and how similar it sounds to Paul, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25).

From giddy first love, Luther and Katie were growing into true marriage love, seen in the adoring titles with which Luther referred to his wife. “To my beloved wife, Katharina, Mrs. Doctor Luther, mistress of the pig market, lady of Zulsdorf, and whatsoever other titles may befit thy Grace.”

While Luther was rediscovering and proclaiming the doctrine of grace, he was also rediscovering the sanctity of all walks of life. Perhaps it was Katie’s wholehearted and cheerful application of herself to married life that helped Luther see that pig farmer or preacher, dung man or duchess, husband or wife were, in God’s economy, sacred vocations to be done by his grace and for his glory alone.

Let Them Laugh

Giant that Luther was, without Katie he would have had far less practical scope in his understanding and application of how the gospel affects every dimension of life, especially marriage and children. Proud men who marry to further their careers might wonder how much more Luther could have accomplished if he had not needed to stop what he was writing or teaching and tend to his pregnant wife when she suffered from morning sickness, or when she needed his assistance hanging out the diapers (much to the amusement of his neighbors and students). “Let them laugh,” mumbled Luther through the clothespins. “God and the angels smile in heaven.”

Luther, a man of books and scholarship, discovered that writing a biblical treatise on marriage and raising children was not enough. Most things worth knowing and doing cannot be learned in theory, much less taught to others. Chief among these is managing married life, howling babies, and squabbling children.

Band of Little Heathens

In Luther’s day, students “tweeted” with goose quills their devotion to the great man, giving us beautiful vignettes into Luther’s home life. “Child, what have you done that I should love you so? You have disturbed the whole household with your bawling.” While watching his infant son Paul smacking and mulling at Katie’s breast, Luther said, “Child, your enemies are the pope, the bishops, Duke George, the emperor, and the devil, and there you are sucking unconcernedly.” Little Paul threw his head back and let out a howl. “Herein lies a lesson, dearest Katie,” said Luther with a laugh. “We no more earn heaven by good works than little Paul earns his food and drink by crying and howling.”

As the household swelled to ten children, Luther, at a particularly chaotic moment, shouted above the din, “Christ tells us we must become as little children. Surely God does not expect us to become such idiots!”

Charged with the solemn duty of nurturing his children in the gospel of Jesus Christ, Luther still sometimes called them “a band of little heathens.” Several years before having children of his own, he wrote a children’s catechism. Next to the German Bible and his book Bondage of the Will, Luther considered it his crowning achievement. Imagine hearing his own children—Hans, Magdalena, or one of the others—responding to their father as he catechized them in family worship:

I believe in Jesus Christ, who when I was lost and damned saved me from all sin and death and the power of the devil, not with gold and silver but with his own precious, holy blood and his sinless suffering and death, that I might belong to him and live in his kingdom and serve him forever in goodness, sinlessness, and happiness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and reigns forever. That is really so.

Words Are Like Children

His theology of family now practiced in daily tutorials in the school of character, Luther began to mine the illustrative family material surrounding him daily in his home. For example, determined to get his translation of the Bible exact (in “the German the mother chortles to her infant”), Luther spent much of the remainder of his life rewriting and revising. “Words are like children,” he said. “The more attention you lavish on them the more they demand.” Fulminating about the ignorance of a Roman Catholic critic, Luther blustered, “A seven-year-old child, indeed, a silly fool, can figure it out on his fingers—although you, stupid ass, cannot understand anything.” On another occasion (perhaps after a time of dryness in his own marriage) he declared,

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.”

One wonders what Katie might have contributed in a post-sermon discussion of this remark.

Perhaps it was being surrounded by the sights, sounds, and sometimes earthy smells of a house filled with infants and children that made Luther able to write tender poetry about mothers and children:

Once did the skies before thee bow;
A virgin’s arms contain thee now,
While angels, who in thee rejoice,
Now listen for thine infant voice.

Luther believed that in the Bible God speaks to his children and that those children needed German hymns to respond to their heavenly Father. As with everything, he felt strongly about this, declaring that anyone who did not appreciate music and poetry as great gifts of God “was truly a clod and not worthy to be called a man.” As in the carol above, Luther displayed a tangible, experiential knowledge of the themes about which he wrote in his hymns. Only a father who had held his teen daughter as she breathed her last could have penned:

Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still.

Let Goods and Kindred Go

Beneath all the bombast, Luther was a man of deep feeling. When he and Katie lost their daughter, Magdalenchen, he said, “I am blessed more than all the bishops of Rome. Why then cannot I give thanks to our Heavenly Father?” As they laid her body in the ground, he said, “You are so loved, Lenchen. You will rise, you will shine like the stars and the sun.” Perhaps turning to Katie and comforting her in his arms, he said, “How strange it is to know that she is at peace and all is well, and yet we here below—and so full of sorrow.”

At last, it would be Katie who would have to “let kindred go” on February 18, 1546, when her beloved Herr Doctor died. He had been summoned by the magistrate of Eisleben, his birthplace, to arbitrate a local dispute. Though he had fallen ill on the journey from Wittenberg, he managed to preach four times. Luther responded to the illness that would take his life with characteristic wit: “If I make it home to Wittenberg, I will lay myself in my coffin to let maggots feast on the stout Doctor.”

Katie had begged him not to go, not in midwinter with snow still on the ground. “Should I die on this journey, God will care for you,” he had told his wife. “It is his promise. Hold to God’s Word.” When she explained that she was thinking not only of herself and their children but the many people who needed him, Luther replied, “I have long said, when this book is in the hands of all, then Luther must retire, and the Bible advance; this poor man must disappear, and God in Christ appear!”

At news of her husband’s death, Katie was devastated. “God knows that when I think of having lost him, in all my suffering, I can neither talk nor can I find the words to write.” Life was hard in the sixteenth century, and after her husband’s death, Katie’s life was no exception. War and plague ravaged Wittenberg, and three times she and her youngest children were forced to flee, their cloister home plundered, their livestock stolen. In 1552, while fleeing for her life, Katie’s cart overturned, and she was mortally injured. Well nurtured by her husband, on her deathbed in Torgau she said, “I cling to Christ like a burr to cloth.”

Lovely, Friendly, Charming

What would Luther and Katie say about modern-day marriage if they were transported into our world today? “There is no more lovely, friendly and charming relationship, communion or company, than a good marriage.” Marriage is the school of character; it is not the school of self-improvement. Marriage is the school of grace, made into a charming relationship by Christ the bridegroom who alone justifies his bride, and who loves and keeps loving her, regardless of her failings and unfaithfulness. To honest readers who know their marriage is far less than it ought to be, what would Luther say to you? It would not be earth-shattering; there would be no thunderbolt. He would give us ordinary means of grace and tell us what made his marriage lovely. “I must listen to the gospel. It tells me not what I must do, but what Jesus Christ the Son of God has done for me.”

The ancient foe schemes to work woe in our marriages and families, but his doom is sure. By keeping our eyes on Jesus, we are enabled to work out marriage disappointments and troubles, sometimes with fear and trembling, but also with confidence, because it is God himself who is at work in our marriages to accomplish his good pleasure. Christ is our mighty fortress, and his kingdom is forever.

Douglas Bond is the author of many books, including Luther in Love (Inkblots Press, January 2017). He also speaks at churches and conferences, and he leads church history tours (

Friday, September 1st 2017

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology