My Visit to Germany

A Woman of Faith and Influence during the Reformation

Most of us would be aware that 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the European Protestant  Reformation. It was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther – monk, Doctor of Philosophy and University Professor of Theology – nailed his now famous 95 Doctrines against Indulgences onto the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s insight, gained from reading the Scriptures, that man cannot achieve the grace of God through good works but rather by faith alone, led to conflict with the practice of the Church granting indulgences which allowed donations of money to count as penance for sins and as a means to shorten or even avoid the fires of purgatory altogether. Nor could he find any reference to indulgences in the Bible. He protested against these Church practices, and although he was put on trial for heresy, he managed to escape execution, but was excommunicated and declared an outlaw.

Last year I had the privilege of joining a tour run by Ridley Theological College, in Melbourne, to visit the places in Germany and Switzerland where significant events happened with regard to the Reformation. There I learnt more about Luther and other early reformers. It was a most interesting, enlightening and enjoyable fortnight.  But for me it was also a time of serendipity, for I discovered that Martin Luther, monk and priest, had married, and the more I learnt about his wife Katharina, the more I liked her! I came to the conclusion that she was a lively, determined and courageous young lady – feisty, in fact!

As a teenage girl Katharina took vows to become a nun. In April 1523 she and several of her fellow nuns, dissatisfied with their life in the monastery and becoming interested in the growing reform movement, fled from their convent by hiding in a fish wagon which finally arrived in Wittenberg where Luther was once again living,  although by this time he had abandoned the monk’s habit for good. He and his friends managed to find families that the runaway nuns could live with, or husbands for them

to marry – all except Katharina. While Luther did not seriously consider marriage for himself at this point, Katharina declared that he was the only man she would marry, and finally he agreed. And so a 42-year-old former monk and a 26-year-old former nun were married on June 13, 1525.

Luther took her into his home, the former monastery where he had been living alone as a professor, writer and pastor, all the other monks having left.  Together Martin and his Kathe had six children, two of whom died before adulthood. Kathe ran the household, kept cows, pigs, goats and chickens, grew vegetables and brewed beer.  To boost their income, she established her own student boarding-house business in the extra rooms of the former monastery, offering room and board to up to 30 paying guests at a time. I think Kathe had lots of spunk!

It was a happy and affectionate marriage. Martin loved her, admired her intellect, trusted her to deal with his publishers, and made her his sole heir. She loved him deeply, and when he died in 1546 she wrote “...my sorrow is so deep that no words can express my heartbreak...” While fleeing the plague in Wittenberg in 1552, Katharina died in Torgau after a terrible accident with her wagon and horses. She was 53 years old. She is buried in The City Church of St Mary’s, Torgau, far from her husband’s grave in the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Katharina is often considered a seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation because her role in helping to define Protestant family life and setting the tone for clergy marriages was so important. It was inspiring for me to learn about her.

I look forward to meeting her one day!

Jeanette Johnstone