Was Katie Luther Spiritual? The Piety of the Reformation’s First Lady
In Katie Luther, Ruth Tucker introduces us to Katharina von Bora, wife of Martin Luther and First Lady of the Reformation.
This is not the sweet and submissive, subdued and godly woman many assume the great Reformer married. Instead, we discover a strong, independent woman whose voice echoes among modern women, wives and mothers who have carved out a career of their own.
Last week we learned five notable things about Katie—including that she was a nun who escaped her convent and a businesswoman who ran a brewery and inn. But what about her faith? When we consider her husband Martin's profound spiritual nature imbued by a deep love for theology and the Bible, does Katie's piety come up short?
As one person put it, “Her piety is more a matter of inference than record” (157). But Tucker isn't content to leave it at that. She devotes an entire chapter to outlining her undervalued spirituality, calling forth women from the pages of Scripture, as well as Martin Luther himself to explain it.
First, Tucker wonders if Mary the Mother of Jesus might be a biblical match for Katie's spirituality. And yet, “How could a runaway nun stand spiritually alongside her? Such a companion requires us to recognize Mary for who she was—a down-to-earth first-century Palestinian woman” (158).
There are the familial similarities: Mary gave birth to more children after Jesus, Katie had at least six kids; Joseph was apparently much older than Mary, same for Martin with Katie; both women are focused on child rearing.
Then there are the spiritual similarities; “both women present fascinating accounts of spiritual uncertainties” (159). For instance, Mary fretted over Jesus’ sanity when the religious leaders accused him of being possessed by Beelzebub. Similarly, Katie fretted over the implication of the Reformation for her husband and his emotional imbalance.
Obviously, the two women played very different roles in salvation history...[In] the Gospels, [Mary] emerges as a very normal first-century woman. It seems unfortunate that we so easily imagine her as an untouchable saint…Katie is not seen as such a model, but she too is often airbrushed as a saintly hero. (160)
Type 'A' Personality Martha
Perhaps the observations of Preserved Smith describe Katie’s spirituality best: she “was a Martha busied with many different things rather than a Mary [Martha’s sister] sitting in devotion at her master’s feet.” Tucker explains, “Like the Proverbs 31 woman...Katie is not on record as being unusually devout” (160).
She rose before dawn to begin her workday. We might wonder if she had gotten all prayed out when she was in the convent. In fact, if we were to characterize Katie’s spirituality after 1525, we would see it most plainly realized in marriage, motherhood, and hard work. (160)
Apparently, Katie was so well-known for her medical skills that the community brought her those who were infirm. Although he highly approved of this ministry to the sick, Martin commented that she and other women seemed to believe that “intercession [to God] applies only to their husbands, not to them. Consequently, to the women’s disadvantage, they do not use [prayer and Scripture] when they need it.”
Tucker explains, “Katie would have no doubt responded that the women…were too focused on what had to be done” (167). Perhaps, like Martha, her spirituality could be described as a practical, earthy one.
Finally, as one might imagine, Katie’s spirituality was shaped directly by and in response to Martin himself.
For instance, as one story goes, her husband was reading in Genesis 22 about God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Katie responded adamantly that God would never tell someone to kill their own child. Of course, Martin corrected her and said God did exactly that. Tucker suggests this story “demonstrates how differently the two of them perceived God, and it also demonstrates Katie’s ease in challenging her husband’s claims on Scripture” (161).
Then there was Martin’s encouragement of her spiritual life. Consider what he wrote her in one instance:
Dear Katie, read St. John and the smaller catechism, of which you once said: Really everything in this book is applicable to me. (169)
“She went about her daily tasks guided by the axiom that ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ Martin, however, stressed prayer and God’s almightiness in every aspect of life” (169).
“It is difficult to imagine Katie being described as ‘very pious’ or leading a ‘spotless life…so anxious to cultivate a pious and honorable character’” (168) as Martin Luther was described by Joachim Camerarius.
Yet she still stands as a model for other women—whether she fits the Proverbs-31-woman mold or not. For her final words were: "I will cling to Jesus."
Read Tucker’s work to meet the largely unknown Katie Luther, the Reformation's First Lady.
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