“I’ve read enough. I’ve heard enough. I know enough. Would to God I lived it.” -- Katherine Von Bora, in reference to the Bible
Katherine Von Bora (1499-1522) was a Benedictine nun who became Martin Luther’s wife. She was born to a poor but noble family on January 29, 1499, in Lippendorf, Germany. Her Mother died when she was only five years old, so her father sent her to live at the Benedictine cloister in Brehna since he could not afford to raise her. Later, she moved to the Marienthron cloister at Nimbschen to be close to her aunt, the Abess, who was the head of the Abbey. In this Cisterne cloister, the nuns lived sparse lives, without any luxuries, doing manual labor, often in the fields. Katherine lived there as a postulant (candidate for the order) until 1515, when she took her vows and became a Nun. Like Luther, she embraced her vows seriously, living a life of poverty and manual labor, as the order dictated.
As a young woman, she became disenchanted with monastic life and intrigued by the church reform movement in Germany; some of Luther’s writings on church reform had breached the monastery walls. Katherine and some of the other nuns were deeply affected by his words, in opposition to what they had believed: “grace came from faith alone, not through prayer or works”. In 1523, she and some of her friends contacted Martin Luther to help them escape the monastery. This was very dangerous in the 16th century - a nun forsaking her monastic vows could face torture and imprisonment for life.
Luther asked a trusted friend who delivered supplies to the monastery to help. Twelve nuns were smuggled out of the convent behind barrels of herring. They joined the Reformation in Wittenberg. Since Luther’s writings influenced the nun’s rejection of their vows and their escape from the monastery, he felt obligated to find them a home or a husband. Luther tried to return them to their families, but the families would not accept them back because aiding a runaway nun was a serious crime and a breach of Roman Catholic law. The Catholic Church was not just a religious leader but a political force also. Catholic princes governed the non-Lutheran areas.
In Wittenberg, monks renounced their vows of celibacy and married nuns leaving their cloisters. Three nuns returned to the convent, but nine remained, including Katherine von Bora. She was not interested in marrying anyone unless it was Dr. Nicholas Amsdorf, who had come to lecture in Wittenberg, or Luther himself. But, she believed them to be ineligible for matrimony.
A Monk Marries a Nun
Luther was compelled by his heavenly Father and his teaching to marry. “Luther had been teaching that the institution of marriage was divinely established and should be elevated above celibacy, and slowly the idea began to grow on him” (E.W. Lutzer). Luther believed that even if he died a martyr’s death, marriage would give his wife status and he could practice what he was teaching. In addition, he could spite the Pope and the devil while pleasing God and sealing his witness. Luther and Katherine (Katie) were betrothed (a binding agreement) June 13, 1525, and married in a public ceremony on June 27th. An invitation to a friend read, “You must come to my wedding. I have made the angels laugh and the devils weep.” Katherine was 25 and Luther 41, when they were joined in holy wedlock.
After the wedding, they moved to the Black Cloister where Luther had lived as a friar. They did not marry for love but developed a strong love and mutual respect that lasted 21 years. They were good for each other. Luther said, “Next to God’s Word, there is no more precious treasure than holy matrimony. God’s highest gift on earth is a pious, cheerful, God-fearing, home-keeping wife with whom you may live peacefully, to whom you may entrust...your goods, your body, and life.” He called her, “Dear Kate” and said, "There is no more lovely, friendly, and charming relationship, communion, or company than a good marriage." She was more than a match for the strong-minded Luther, “My lord Kate drives a team, farms, pastures, and sells cows . . . and between times reads the Bible” He called her, “My kind and dear lord and master, Katie, Lutheress, doctoress, and priestess of Wittenberg.”
Katherine was strong, capable, God-fearing and able to handle Luther. Luther said, “I would not exchange Katie for France or for Venice because God has given her to me and other women have worse faults.” He referred to her as “my rib” and “my lord”. She managed the large holding of pigs, chickens, a garden, a brewery, and an orchard. She tended his many ailments, ran the household, and managed the finances. She rented out the extra rooms in the house to 30 students or visitors at a time.
Luther was so generous he gave everything away; she had to hide money to meet their basic needs. When his language was inappropriate she would say, “Oh come now, that’s too raw.” When he was discouraged, she reminded him who was in control, and it wasn’t Luther, but Luther’s great God.
Katie and Luther had six children. Two of their daughters died young. They raised four orphaned children after the parents died in the plague, and many others came to live with them. Though many fled Wittenberg to avoid the Black Plague, Luther and Katie stayed to help the sick.
Separated by Death
Katie loved Martin deeply. After his death in 1546, she wrote:
“He gave so much of himself in service not only to one town or to one country, but to the whole world. Yes, my sorrow is so deep that no words can express my heartbreak, and it is humanly impossible to understand what state of mind and spirit I am in . . . I can neither eat nor drink, not even sleep . . . God knows that when I think of having lost him, I can neither talk nor write in all my suffering.”
Katharine died in an accident, with her wagon and horses, on December 20, 1552. She was 53 years old. Her final words illustrate her entire life: “I will stick to Christ as a burr to a top coat.”
Martin Luther and Katherine Von Bora, a former monk and nun in the Catholic Church, were happily married for 21 years. They modeled Protestant marriage and replaced the long-held belief that celibacy was the ideal state. “Martin and Katie taught future generations that marriage involves mutual love, joyful sex, and genuine companionship ---and the approval of God” (Lutzer). Katie was a woman of courage and loyalty. She was dedicated to her husband and God.