The exciting days of the Protestant Reformation produced great changes in the lives of millions of Europeans. In the 1959 fictional biography Kitty, My Rib author E. Jane Mall tells about the changes that transformed a young nun named Katharina von Bora, who entered the Cistercian convent at Nimbschen, Germany at age six, shortly after her mother’s death. Katharina’s aunt was also a nun in the convent, so her father was certain that his daughter would be well-supervised.
It was 1522 and nearby, in the town of Wittenberg, Dr. Martin Luther preached a sermon about marriage called “The Estate of Marriage”, which was published as a small book. For centuries, the deceptive Roman Catholic myth regarding the spiritual superiority of celibacy had held sway in Europe. Rome taught that celibacy was more pleasing to God than marriage. Luther sought to preach the truth of God on the matter. Once that truth was widely known, monks and nuns began leaving the cloisters in great numbers. Nuns of the Nimbschen convent wrote to Dr. Luther asking for help to leave their cloister, yet he counseled them to examine their motives carefully. On April 6, 1523, Luther sent merchant Leonhard Köppe to help twelve of the nuns escape after he made his routine fish delivery. That night, Koppe’s large wagon covered with the usual heavy cloth was not empty as he secretly carried the nuns away to Wittenberg.
Subsequently, Luther helped the nuns to return to their families. Some became governesses and others married; however, one of the nuns, twenty-four-year-old Katharina von Bora, proved to be a problem. Disillusioned with the church, Katharina was becoming eager to learn of the growing reform movement. She also had fallen in love with a wealthy young man, and they would have been married, but his father refused to let him marry a runaway nun. So Luther tried to arrange marriage for her with Lutheran Pastor Caspar Glatz, but Katharina refused. Her actions caused Luther to consider her a proud and haughty young woman.
A whole year passed since Katharina was freed. She worked for many months in the home of Lucas and Barbara Cranach. One day in conversation with Luther’s friend, Pastor Nikolaus von Amsdorf, Katharina confessed tearfully that she would not marry Pastor Glatz because she did not love him. But she indicated that she was willing only to marry either Amsdorf or Luther. A few days later in conversation with Luther, Pastor Amsdorf revealed to him that Katharina would marry him. “Besides, Martin, you need a wife, your house is a wreck. She is a good cook and an intelligent woman.” Luther eventually came to the realization that “his marriage would please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.”
On June 13, 1525, Martin Luther went to the Cranach’s home to speak with Katharina. He proposed marriage to her. She accepted, and the next day the wedding took place in Luther’s house—the Augustinian Black Cloister. Immediately, things began to change in Martin Luther’s house with a complete cleaning and then a thorough renovation of the whole building. The yard outside became a garden for growing vegetables and fruits. Some of the theological students became boarders in their large house, with some of the wealthy ones paying for room and board.
Kitty was proving to be a Proverbs 31 wife. She looked well to the needs of those in the Black Cloister. She even enjoyed fishing in a nearby stream to offer fish on her dinner table. She also diligently cared for her husband’s health. Much time was spent in growing and distilling herbs for making medicines for him. Martin Luther lived until age 63, probably because Kitty earnestly attended to his health for 21 years.
During times of the plague in Wittenberg, the Luther house became a hospital. Amazingly, the Luthers and their six children survived the plague. But Katharina’s and Martin’s hearts were broken when they lost their baby daughter Elizabeth at seven months old. The next daughter Magdalene lived to be thirteen years old, and once more the family’s hearts were crushed at the loss of such a sweet sister and daughter. The Luthers also raised four orphan children, including Katharina’s nephew.
When God gave Luther a wife, He literally saved him from bankruptcy. Luther’s overly-generous spirit would give everything away to those in need. Katharina also was generous, but with a very wise discretion. She managed the family finances and was able to raise four children to adulthood and leave them with an inheritance. The change in Kitty’s life from nun to pastor’s wife and joyful mother of children showed so clearly the will of God for most women. The Biblical model for godly families was openly demonstrated in the Luther home. This helped to dismantle the Roman Catholic myth regarding the superiority of “the sacred vocation of celibate life” over marriage and family.
When Dr. Luther was needed in other cities due to political or church problems, Kitty was always reluctant to let him go. Once she refused to let him go, and he was thereby saved from an assassination plot. It was on one of those journeys to a distant city that Martin Luther died on a very cold February 18, 1546. Katharina lived for another six years, caring for her children and others. Just before Christmas in 1552, at the age of 53, and surrounded by her children, Katharina Luther went into the presence of her Lord.
Rev. Myron Mooney is minister of Trinity FPC in Decatur, Alabama and presently serves as Moderator of the FPCNA.