Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Woman Behind Martin Luther

On a beautiful summer day in early July 2009, my parents, Kelly, and I walked the streets of the quaint German town of Wittenberg. We took a walking tour of the city that led us into churches and homes, and concluded our day there at a restaurant eating pizza. Oh, but to have walked that city in the 1520s! What would it have been like? Who would we have seen? What would the mood have been in that important little town?

In two days we celebrate the 500-year anniversary of Martin Luther’s bold statement to the Catholic church when he nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. These theses stated that salvation was by faith alone, not through the practice of indulgences (paying money to the church to attain salvation for oneself or another). Though Luther did not mean this to be a monumental event, it was, and it became the recognized start of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther continued to remain faithful to the Word of God in his teaching as he elevated the Word over the edicts of the pope and the corrupt church. In 1521 in the city of Worms, Luther took his stand before the Holy Roman Emperor and other notables and would not recant his teachings on salvation or on the false practices of the church. Labeled a heretic, he then had to hide away for ten months. During this time, he worked on the translation of the Bible into the German language, because of his belief that all should have access to a Bible in their own language and be allowed to read and study it for themselves. In 1522 he returned to the city of Wittenberg and took a large role in leading this reformation movement that had spread throughout the country and Europe. He was still single, but was not to remain so for much longer.

A group of 13 nuns escaped from a convent in 1523 in the darkness of night and made their way to Wittenberg, having received Luther’s help in escaping. They had read his writings and were convinced of the truth of them. One of these women was 24 year old Katharina von Bora. As a 6 year old child, she had been sent away from her family to a cloister school; at age 16, she’d taken her vows to become a nun. Having now escaped the convent and arrived safely at Wittenberg, she had  to figure out how to make a living for herself. Luther took a part in helping the nuns get settled and find husbands, and he actually tried to find one for Kate. She did not like his choice and told him so. However, in 1525 she ended up marrying Martin Luther himself.

Katharine Luther played a vital role in the reformation happenings in the town of Wittenberg. The Luther’s home, a former monastery, was a hub for scholars, university students, escaped priests and nuns, and others who had need. The Luthers would house them and feed them, thanks to Kate’s careful managing of the household as she gardened, bred cattle, and managed their resources and finances wisely. Their table at dinner was always full, and they usually had a waiting list of those wanting to stay with them. Yet Katherine didn’t simply stay in the background; she also took an active part in the conversations that were held in the Luther’s living room as relatives, friends, and house guests spoke about everything from current events to Scriptural matters. Many of these conversations were written down by guests and preserved, known now as “Table Talks.” Kate was an integral part here as well.

Although Martin Luther did not originally marry Katherine out of love, he learned to love her dearly and depended upon her as a faithful partner in life. In speaking of Kate and in his letters to her, he addressed her as “my dear Kate,” “Kate, my rib,” “my most beloved Lady of the House,” “my true love,” and “my sweetheart.” He depended on her as she supported him, challenged him when she felt him to be in the wrong, and encouraged and nursed him in his times of illness. The story is told that at one time Luther was depressed, and Kate’s counsel was not able to lift his spirit. She put on a black dress, and when Luther asked her if she were going to a funeral, she replied, “No, but since you are acting as though God is dead, I wanted to join you in your mourning.” Luther got the point and recovered.

On that day in 2009, we saw the rebuilt church where Martin Luther nailed the theses (the original one burned down), the church in which he preached, and the home of his well-known friends, the Cranachs, among other sites. But my favorite part of the day was visiting the “Lutherhaus,” that large former monastery that Katherine Luther had turned into a home in which many found a welcome place to stay and converse. There she had worked unceasingly as a manager of her household to put food on the table and provide beds for her guests. There she had born six children and sorrowed alongside her husband as two died young. There she supported her husband in the work he was doing for the progress of the gospel. She fulfilled her role as a "helpmeet," which allowed her husband to do what he did.

There is much more to say about Katherine Luther, but my hope here is simply that we may be encouraged and challenged by other women who have gone before us, women who faced great challenges yet walked with the Lord and served others sacrificially. Our daughter Katherine was named in part for Katherine Luther with the prayer that she, like Kate Luther, would be bold in her faith, a strong woman, a dedicated worker for the good of others, and a great support to her husband if God grants her one.

* Information taken from Katharina von Bora: A Reformation Life by Rudolf and Marilynn Markwald

--Amy O'Rear

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