Giving Credit to Katharina von Bora (Katie Luther, First Lady of the Reformation)
There are a thousand reasons to celebrate advances women have made as we contemplate Women’s History Month, but from another perspective, a picture is worth a thousand reasons. The recent setting was the White House, March 23, 2017 where Vice President Pence was leading a meeting related to health care. On the docket was the proposal to remove maternity care as a required aspect of the Republican health care bill. That no women were pictured among the thirty men at the table was telling.
In fact, to demonstrate how few women hold high positions of leadership, Elle Magazine, in their #MoreWomen campaign of 2015, photoshopped men out of significant groupings of leaders in various arenas, from politics to business. The results were startling. In a grouping of more than thirty world leaders, only three women were left.
What if we photoshopped men out of the Reformation? We could start on the grounds of the University of Geneva with the Reformation Wall and photoshop the ten men out and be left with no sculptures at all. We might move on to a curious woodcut depicting some two dozen Reformers on one side of a table, Luther in front, facing off against Catholic leaders. We’d have a blank slate if we photoshopped the men out.
There actually were women who played significant roles in the Protestant Reformation including Katherine Zell, Argule von Grumbach, Renée of Ferrara, and—most influential of all—Katharina von Bora, the wife of Martin Luther.
“I give more credit to Katherine,” Martin Luther boasted, “than to Christ, who has done so much more for me.” Sacrilegious? Perhaps. But a powerful indication of her place in his life. Indeed, she played the most significant role in the German Reformation, second only to Martin himself. Two decades after he married her, his earthly ministry culminated with the cry, “the charioteer of Israel has fallen.”
Biographers and historians have sought to mold Katie into a proper wife of this fallen God-intoxicated Elijah, but she resists at every turn. Despite all his faults, Luther was the greatest Religious Reformer the world has ever known. A proper Reformation wife would have been sweet, submissive, and above all spiritually inclined. Katharina was none of these. Indeed, among all of Martin’s friends and colleagues, she was likely the least spiritually oriented. Even more startling, there is no evidence that she embraced Reformed doctrines and biblical understandings. She was a Protestant to be sure by virtue of residing in old Wittenberg. But, having abandoned monastic life, she was a woman of the world and she never looked back. Her marriage to Luther was one of convenience, and almost immediately we see her as indispensable to his Reform movement. It is no secret that Luther was neither physically nor mentally stable much of his adult life. Katharina, though a worrywart, had amazing physical and mental stamina.
She was, however, far more than a sturdy pillar for her husband to lean on. She was a capable nurse, mother of six and a successful businesswoman with a reputation for being an unabashed fiscal conservative. As such, Martin had no money worries—except that Katie might catch him giving free lodging to friends or poor students at her tightly run boarding house, the Black Cloister. In fact, her business acumen allowed Martin to focus on writing and teaching without financial cares.
Thanks to Katie’s efforts, more than a successful financial venture, the Black Cloister became a learning center like none other. Here in the evenings at table, Luther held forth on a wide variety of topics as students hung on every word, took notes, ate Katie’s hearty meals and drank her heralded Wittenberg beer. During the lively discussions his own positions and arguments were sharpened. Without various editions of Table Talk (beginning in 1556), we would know far less about the real Martin Luther.
And we would know less about Katie as well. Much to the chagrin of those at table, she sometimes added her own opinions and told her husband to quit talking and eat. We know from complaints of colleagues that she ran the roost, that she was far too bossy, and that her husband failed to keep her in line. He insisted that she did not tell him how to preach or read theology. In other realms, by his own admission, she was “Lord Katie.”
Where would Luther have been without her? It is hard to imagine any other woman so capable of taking care of him physically, mentally, and financially. He was the God-intoxicated side of the marriage, the consummate God-talker (when he wasn’t a foul-mouthed buffoon, as his colleagues sometimes lamented). She was what would be considered today a nominal Christian.
Twenty years after Katie married Martin, Philip Melanchthon announced to his students, “the charioteer of Israel has fallen.” Luther had died—the greatest of all Reformers. More than any of his contemporaries, Katharina von Bora saved the now 500-year-old Protestant Reformation. Luther gave more credit to her than anyone else. She simply cannot be photoshopped out of the picture.