Every year on October 31, we celebrate the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The year 2015 is the 498th anniversary of the Reformation, so we’re going to take a look at this great movement in church history, but from a different perspective. Martin Luther gets a lot of attention, and rightly so, but we’re going to look at Mrs. Luther—Katharina von Bora.
Katie was born on January 29, 1499. We don’t know much about her early childhood. There’s even dispute over what town she was born in. When she was around 5 years old, she was sent to a cloister for her education. By the time she was 10 years old, she was at a monastery in the town of Nimbschen.
Sometime after Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, a friend of his named Leonard Kopp was delivering barrels of herring to the convent at Nimbschen and assisted in the escape of a dozen nuns. He arrived there late at night and unloaded his herring in the barrels, and then in the morning the nuns made their way into the back of his cart and hid behind the barrels. The tarp went over the barrels, and they drove off on his horse-drawn wagon. They ended up at Wittenberg, and Luther found husbands for many of these nuns among the students at Wittenberg. But there was this one in particular, and none of the other suitors were quite good enough for Katie. She had her eyes on Luther himself. On June 13, 1525, Luther married her. And so this monk married a nun. The historian William Lazareth said, “Luther’s marriage remains to this day the central evangelical symbol of the Reformation’s liberation and transformation of Christian daily life.”
Before the Reformation, to be married was to be seen as too concerned with temporal matters. Nuns, of course, were married to Christ, and priests were married to the church. And the Roman Catholic Church mandated clerical celibacy. But Luther, by marrying Katie, redeemed daily life and restored the intuition of marriage to the rightful place that God had intended for it and that Scripture teaches us.
Katie was an early riser; Luther called her the “morning star of Wittenberg.” She would be up at 4 a.m., and she had plenty of things to keep her busy. She ran the family farm. At one point, she ran a brewery. Martin and Katie had six children, one of whom died in infancy. And there were a few more orphaned relatives whom the Luthers took in and raised.
When Martin died in 1546, Katie’s life was difficult. War and the plague had wracked Wittenberg. This affected their lands and their home. At one point, she had to flee the city, and she came back only to find that their farm was in utter ruin. Without her husband’s income as a professor or pastor, she was in dire financial straits. She once wrote to a friend, “I find myself clinging to Christ like a burr to a dress.”
Perhaps there we learn a singular insight from the life and legacy of Luther. We see in Katie this emphasis on Christ, this clinging to Christ when all else is lost. We see there the essence of Luther’s theology and the essence of the Reformation.
In 1552, the Black Plague came to Wittenberg and Katie had to flee. She went to the town of Torgau and there on December 20, 1552, Katie died. That is the life of Katie von Bora, Mrs. Luther.