Meet Katie Luther, One of the Protestant Reformation’s Leading Ladies
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, the young renegade monk, nailed his 95 Theses to an imposing, wooden, church door in Wittenberg, effectively launching the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Religious revolution soon spread all over Europe. As Christians celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation this year, one can’t help but notice the proliferation of articles, books, and blogs on the life of Martin Luther, his theology, and his continuing impact on the face of Christianity today.
However, much less is being said about Martin Luther’s wife, Katharina Luther. This former nun with a tenacious spirit, bantering wit, and tireless work ethic left an indelible mark on the man who left an indelible mark on Christianity. As Michelle DeRusha has noted in her excellent work on the Luthers, “The Protestant Reformation would have happened without the marriage of Luther and Katharina. But Luther would not have been the same Reformer without Katharina.”
So, as it is only right to pause and remember the courageous life of Martin Luther this year, let’s also take a moment to remember the woman who embodied the wisdom of Proverbs 31 in Luther’s life. Here are eight things you may not know about one of the Reformation’s remarkable leading ladies:
- Scant Primary Sources: Katie Luther was born Katharina Van Bora on January 29, 1499. While she became a well-known figure after her marriage, very little is known about her formative years. In fact, only eight letters from her own pen are still in existence today.
- “Get Thee to a Nunnery”: Katie’s father sent her away from home to a Benedictine convent school at the tender age of 6 for education shortly after the death of her mother. Often the only opportunity for girls to receive an education at this time was in convent schools. Little did she know she would spend the next 18 years of her life in a convent, because in 1509 her father made arrangements for her to become a nun without her knowledge. At the age of 10 she was sent to a Cistercian cloister, became a novitiate in 1514, and was consecrated on October 8, 1515, at age of 16, taking vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty.
- A Mind of Her Own: As word spread of Luther’s teachings, nuns in the Cistercian cloister began to study his teachings in secret. As Katie became convinced of the truth of the teachings as based on the Word of God, she and several of her fellow nuns escaped the convent under the cloud of darkness in 1523. Her decision to leave the familiarity of the convent to face an uncertain future points to a woman who was willing to follow her convictions, no matter the personal cost. After she was married, Katie often took part in theological discussions with Luther and his students over their dinner table, demonstrating a keen intellect.
- Former Nun Marries Former Monk, Oh My! When a wagon load of escaped nuns arrived on Luther’s doorstep in Wittenberg in 1523, he felt a responsibility for their safekeeping and future. While he was able to arrange marriages for many of the women, Katie proved to be a challenge. One suitor led her on before marrying a woman with a substantial dowry. Then Katie refused to marry one man suggested to her by Luther. After a couple of years passed, Luther himself decided to marry Katie, more out of a sense of responsibility and duty than from affection or desire.
- A Night to Remember: On June 13, 1525, Luther and Katie wed in a simple ceremony. He was 42, and she was 26. Luther brought her back to his room in the former monastery known as the Black Cloister, and oh, what a sight that unkempt room must have been! Their marriage bed that night was a simple bed of dirty straw that hadn’t been changed for over a year. Yuck! Clearly, Luther was in desperate need of some feminine influence in his life, whether he realized it or not.
- Turning the Black Cloister into a Home: Shortly after their wedding day, Katie set about taming the Black Cloister. This monstrosity of a monastery had become dingy and dirty from lack of use, and Katie soon whipped the property into shape. She and Luther lived in four rooms and the 40 cells became like a hotel. “Students, professors, theologians, political and religious refugees, and nuns and monks who had escaped the cloistered life were all fed, entertained, boarded, and welcomed with gracious hospitality by Katharina.” Katie often rose at 4 am to complete work by 9 pm; she looked after the household, children, orchard, vast garden, fish pond, brewery, and barnyard. She was also known for her medical skill, preparing medical remedies from the plants and herbs from her garden. One of her sons, Paul, who became a medical doctor, praised his mother for her skill. In fact, when plague broke out in Wittenberg on three separate occasions (1527, 1535, & 1539), she cared for plague victims in their home.
- Children Are a Blessing of the Lord: The marriage of Luther and Katie caused quite a stir for many reasons, one of which stemmed from a popular legend at the time which claimed the Antichrist would be born to a nun and monk. People were just waiting to see what would happen when they started having kiddos! They had six biological children, one daughter died in infancy and another as a young teenager. Three sons and one daughter reached adulthood. The Luthers also fostered 11 children of relatives that either passed away or could not care for their children. Katie had quite a large brood of children under her roof.
- A True Love Story: Though Luther initially married Katie out of a sense of duty, they both clearly grew to love each other over their 21 years of marriage. They faced a lot of slander and public gossip in the early years of their marriage (one ridiculous rumor suggested that Katie was sex-crazed and jumped into bed with Luther’s students!). However, they faced hardships and trials together. They enjoyed a playful banter as evidenced in the many letters still in existence of Luther to Katie. He had many pet names for his wife in his letters: Catherine, Katie, Doctor, my rib, lady of the pig market of Wittenberg, my Kette, Kathe, dearly loved one, and the Morning Star of Wittenberg (because she rose early), just to name a few. Their marriage ended up showcasing the power of Reformation ideals and did more to counteract Catholic antipathy toward marriage at the time than any sermon or book. As Michelle DeRusha has noted, “True, Martin and Katharine Luther were radical revolutionaries, but they were also simply two people who shared twenty-one years together, until death did them part.”
As you reflect on the courageous life of Martin Luther the Reformer, don’t forget to give thanks for his excellent and noble wife, Katie Luther!
 Michelle DeRusha, Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017), 272.
 Ibid., 179.
 Ibid., 30.