How did Martin Luther, the bull in the China shop, the…
“…fox [that had] arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard, [the] wild boar from the forest [that] seeks to destroy it…”
…how did he become the very model of a modern Christian Family Man?
My Lord Katie
It started by marrying Katharine von Bora. As I discussed in my previous article Luther came upon marriage rather unexpectedly:
“Suddenly, and while I was occupied with far other thoughts, the Lord has, plunged me into marriage.”
He called her “my Lord Katie.” A feisty redhead in her mid-20s, she took good care of Luther. Even on her wedding night, she attended to unexpected refugees who came to their house. Gifted to them by the Prince, the Luthers had moved into the nearly abandoned Black Cloister Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, named for the color of the monk’s habit. She remodeled the old monastery to eventually take in 30 students and guests, some paying boarders, some not.
She was fifteen years younger than Luther — poor, not remarkable for beauty or culture — but healthy, strong, frank, intelligent, and high-minded. The bachelor Luther hadn’t made his bed for a year… it was “foul from sweat.” He once remarked:
“There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage. One wakes up in the morning and finds a pair of pigtails on the pillow which were not there before.”
She was called the “Morning Star of Wittenberg” and rose at 4 am. Katie took over the household, particularly the household expenses; it is said that Dr. Luther did not have a clue how to run a household. She was locally famous as a massage therapist, herbalist, and brewer of beer — the latter useful in treating Luther’s insomnia. When I was there twenty-five years ago, before the Lutherhaus monastery was fully converted to a museum, you could visit a cafe in the basement and have a liter of “Luther Beer.”
She was a model housewife and accomplished business woman. She handled Luther’s finances since he was always giving away his money:
“God divided the hand into fingers so that money would slip through.”
There was a time that he sent a gift to a friend, confessing:
“I am sending you a vase as a wedding present. P.S. Katie’s hid it.”
He came to trust her in all areas of his business, having her edit his writings and work with a publisher.
“In domestic affairs I defer to Katie. Otherwise, I am led by the Holy Spirit.”
He called her “my sweetheart Kate,” “my dearly beloved Kate,” or “my true love.” He also called her “Mrs. Doctor” and “Doctora Lutherin.”
“Union of the flesh does nothing. There must also be union of manners and mind.”
She also planted the fields, cared for an orchard, harvested a fish pond, looked after the barnyard, bought and managed a farm, and slaughtered the livestock. He named her “my Lady of the Pig Market.”
He once chided himself for giving “more credit to Katherine than to Christ, who has done so much for me.” And he declared, “I would not give my Katie for France and Venice together.” They did not always agree:
“If I can survive the wrath of the Devil in my sinful conscience, I can withstand the anger of Katherine von Bora.”
The story is told of Luther’s deep depression. It could last for days. Katie decided to dress all in black mourning clothes. Luther finally noticed and asked, “Are you going to a funeral?” She replied:
“No, but since you act as though God is dead, I wanted to join you in the mourning.”
This remark would so undo him that he would come out of his funk. She assuaged his depression.
The Luthers had six children. His parents knew the superstition that if a monk and nun had a child together, it would be a two-headed monster. Their firstborn was a (normal) son. As Luther held him in his arms he said:
“Kick, little fellow. That’s what the Pope did to me, but I got loose.”
Luther sometimes had to wash diapers, but he declared defiantly that even if neighbors should snicker at such “unmanly” labor,
“Let them laugh. God and the angels are smiling in heaven.”
“These are the joys of marriage, of which the Pope is not worthy.”
In 1529 Luther wrote The Small Catechism, later known as Luther’s Little Instruction Book as a guide for fathers in teaching the main points of the gospel to their children. He considered it one of his most important works.
Luther loved Christmas. Legends persist that Luther, returning home at night one Christmas, saw the stars twinkling through a tree. As he endeavored unsuccessfully to describe it to his children, he went outside, returned with a tree, and lit candles upon its branches, giving us the lighted Christmas Tree.
He was disconsolate at the death of his daughter Elizabeth who died just short of 8 months. When his daughter Magdalene suddenly fell ill at 13 years, Luther fell on his knees before her bed and, weeping bitterly, prayed that God might would save her. Luther asked Magdalena as she lay upon her deathbed:
“Magdalena, my little girl, you would like to stay here with your father, but you are also willing to go to your Father in heaven?”
“Yes, dear Father, as God wills.”
Then she died in his arms. Luther said as she was buried:
“Beloved little Magdalena, you will rise and shine like the stars and sun. How strange it is to know that she is at peace and all is well, and yet to be so sorrowful!”
Four of his children reached adulthood. His oldest, Hans, named after Luther’s father, studied law; Martin Jr. studied theology; and Paul became a doctor. His surviving daughter Margarete married a Prussian nobleman.
After dinner, some of Luther’s students or guests would gather at the table, while his wife would sit nearby in the window seat. The Hungarian refugee, Conrad Cordatus, was the first to record Luther’s “Table Talks.” Other guests followed suit. This apparently disturbed Katie, who finally expressed her feelings with rather pointed remarks. The writers responded by commenting mockingly on what they assumed to be her attempts to remain in control of the house. In spite of their disputed authenticity, the table talks are an inexhaustible source of insights into Luther’s character, his life, and his work. They document, in a unique fashion, the personal and day to day life and words of this reformer.
Continued in Part 8
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian