Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Martin Luther's Reform of Marriage, Part 2

Part 2 in a series [click here for Part 1] drawn from my forthcoming chapter in the book Sex and the Supremacy of Christ.

Katherine von Bora and Martin Luther

Katherine von Bora

When Martin was a 16-year-old high-school student, studying in Eisenach, an event happened 120 miles to the east of him that would eventually change his life. Katherine von Bora was born on January 29, 1499 in Hirschfeld, south of Leipzig, to Hans von Bora and Anna von Haugwitz. Katherine had three brothers, and possibly a sister. Her father, Hans von Bora, had once been a wealthy nobleman, but had fallen into financial hardship. When Katherine was only six years old her mother died. That same year Hans was remarried to the widow Margarete von Seidewtiz, who had children of her own. Young Katherine was subsequently placed in the Benedictine cloister at Brehna, near Bitterfeld, in order to be educated. The year was 1505—the same year that Martin Luther entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, 95 miles away.

At the age of ten, her father had her transferred to the less expensive Marienthron Convent, the Nimbschen nunnery near Grimma. Her paternal aunt Magadalene von Bora was a nun there, and her maternal aunt Margarete von Haubitz was her superior. On October 8, 1515, at the age of sixteen, Katherine took her vows and prepared to live the rest of her days as a nun. Providence, however, had different plans.

By the early 1520s, Katherine and the other nuns were beginning to catch wind of Luther’s teaching on the goodness and necessity of marriage, as well as the inadvisability of monastic vows. In secret they read passages like these from Luther’s sermons:

Priests, monks, and nuns are duty-bound to forsake their vows whenever they find that God’s ordinance to produce seed and to multiply is powerful and strong within them. They have no power by any authority, law, command, or vow to hinder this which God has created within them. [1]

Marriage is not only an honorable but a necessary state. It is earnestly commanded by God that in every condition and station in life men and women, who were created for it, should be found in this estate.[2]

Renew your natural companionships without delay and get married, for your vow is contrary to God and has no validity, and say, “I have promised that which I do not have and which is not mine.”[3]

It is certain that all convents and monasteries, where supposedly devout people live and where their spiritual estate is to make them devout and blessed, are worse than common brothels, taverns, or dens of thieves. . . . It is obvious that such human commandments, such as forbidding marriages of priests, are nothing but dictates of mere humans and the devil. . . . So, if you have a daughter or a friend who has fallen into such an estate and you are sincere and faithful, you should help her to get out, even if you have to risk your goods, body, and life for it.[4]

But it was not as if they could voluntarily leave the monasteries. Leaving—or assisting others to leave—was an offense punishable by death. Some of the nuns began to write letters to their families, asking for their assistance in withdrawing from Marienthron. But few families could afford to do so. The nuns therefore decided to send a secret letter to Luther in which they poured out their hearts to him. They had Leonhard Koppe (1464-1552)—a fifty-nine-year-old merchant and leading citizen from Torgau who regularly delivered herring to the convent—to deliver the letter to Luther. Luther struggled deeply with what to do, but he finally seized upon a plan. He would enlist the aid of Koppe to help him carry it out. Although aiding and abetting the escape of the nuns was an act punishable by death, Koppe believed in the cause and decided to risk everything—his reputation, his career, even his life—on it.

In the early morning hours of Easter 1523, Koppe’s team of horses pulled a covered wagon filled with fish barrels through the gate of the convent. But as his covered wagon pulled away from the convent, no one knew that the apparently empty fish barrels were carrying twelve runaway nuns!

Three of the nuns immediately returned to their families. After a long, cold journey through the night, the remaining nine nuns arrived at the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg—often called “The Black Cloister” due to the black robes worn by the members of the Augustinian order—which was where Luther lived. One student reported to a friend: “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town, all more eager for marriage than for life. God grant them husbands lest worse befall.”[5] Luther greeted the nuns and their liberators:

You have done a new work that will be remembered by the country and the people. Some will scream and consider it a great detriment, but others, who are on God’s side, will praise it as being of great benefit. You have liberated these poor souls from the prison of human tyranny at just the right time: Easter, when Christ liberated the prison that held his own.[6]

A few days later George Spalatin, Luther’s friend and frequent correspondent, [7] wanted to know what Luther planned to do with these women. Luther responded:

You ask what I shall do with them? First I shall inform their relatives and ask them to support the girls; if they will not I shall have the girls otherwise provided for. Some of the family have already promised me to take them; for some I shall get husbands if I can. . . . Here are they, who serve Christ, in need of true pity. They have escaped from the cloister in miserable condition. I pray you also to do the work of charity and beg some money for me from your rich courtiers, by which I can support the girls a week or two until their kinsmen or other provide for them.[8]

Around the same time Nicholas von Amsdorf was composing a similar request to Spalatin, emphasizing their extreme poverty and their patient spirit:

They are fair, fine, all of noble birth, and none of them is fifty years old. . . . If you want to give anything to the poor, give it to them, for they are poor, wretched and deserted by their kinsfolk. I pity the poor things; they have neither shoes nor clothes. I beg of you, my dear brother, to see if you cannot get something for them from the people of the court, so that they may be provided with food and clothing. Please do all you can, for in their great poverty and anxiety they are very patient. Indeed I am astonished that in such great tribulation and poverty they are so patient and happy.[9]

Luther felt responsible to help these sisters, and he went right to work. He soon helped six of them find a home, a husband, or a job. Three, however, remained—one of whom was Katherine von Bora. Her family didn’t want her back. So Luther arranged for her to be housed with the family of Philipp Reichenbach, the city clerk of Wittenberg.

The Reichenbachs were friends with the Baumgärtner family of Nuremberg. In May/June of 1523, their son, Jerome (Hieronymus) Baumgärtner (1498-1565), an alumnus of the University of Wittenberg, made a return visit to the city, where he became acquainted with Katherine. A romance ensued, and talk of marriage quickly followed. He had to return home, but he promised to return before the month was over. In the next few months, Katherine repeatedly wrote to him, but her letters went unanswered. His patrician family was apparently less than happy at the prospect of their privileged son marrying a runaway nun with no money.

Luther continued to feel responsible for Katherine, and eventually suggested to her that Dr. Kasper Glatz, a pastor in his sixties who lived at nearby Orlamünde, might make a suitable husband. But Katherine rejected the suggestion in no uncertain terms—a response Luther considered prideful and snobbish! Katherine approached von Amsdorf to talk about this. Von Amsdorf asked her if she thought she was too good for Glatz—after all, he was a doctor, a professor, and a pastor. Katherine said that she’d have no objection to marrying von Amsdorf or Luther—both doctors, professors, and pastors—but that Glatz was out of the question. Shortly after this conversation, Luther dropped by the von Amsdorf estate. Good naturedly, von Amsdorf asked Luther: “What the devil are you doing, trying to coax and force the good Kate to marry that old cheapskate whom she neither desires nor considers with all her heart as husband?” Luther—perhaps half-joking himself—responded: “What devil would want to have her, then? If she does not like him, she may have to wait a good while for another one!”[10] Years later Luther looks back on this season of his life: “Had I desired to marry fourteen years ago, I would have chosen Eva von Schoenfeld,[11] now Basilius’ wife. At that time I did not love my Catherine at all. I always suspected her of pride.”[12]

Luther then decided to write a note to Baumgärtner to see if he would change his mind about marrying Katherine. On October 12, 1524 Luther wrote:

If you want your Katie von Bora, you had best act quickly, before she is given away to someone else who wants her.[13] She has not yet conquered her love for you. I would gladly see you married to each other.[14]

But again, there was no reply. In the Spring of 1525 Baumgärtner announced his engagement to Sibylle Dichtel von Tutzing—a beautiful 14-year-old girl from a wealthy family. Katherine was no doubt devastated. The Reichenbachs never intervened on Katherine’s behalf, and perhaps because of this, Katherine soon moved in with the family of Lucas and Barbara Cranach, friends of Luther. The Schönfeld sisters, who had escaped the nunnery with Katherine, stayed there as well.

[1] Luther’s Works, American Edition [hereafter LW], ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, 55 vols. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955-1973), 45:19.

[2] What Luther Says: An Anthology [hereafter WLS], ed. Ewald M. Plass, 3 volumes in 1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), #2768.

[3] LW 45:27.

[4] Cited in Markwald, Katharina von Bora, 40.

[5] Bainton, Here I Stand, 223.

[6] Cited in Markwald, Katharina von Bora, 50.

[7] George Burkhardt (1484-1545)—from Spalt near Nuremberg, hence the name Spalatian—worked for Frederick the Wise and was a frequent correspondent of Luther’s. None of the letters from Spalatian to Luther have survived, but thankfully, over 400 letters from Luther to Spalatian still exist.

[8] Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letter [hereafter SJ], transl. and ed. Preserved Smith and Charles M. Jacobs, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1918), 2:179-180.

[9] SJ 2:181-182.

[10] Cited in Markwald, Katharian von Bora, 61.

[11] One of Katherine’s friends who escaped the nunnery with her.

[12] WLS, 887.

[13] Most likely a reference to Glatz.

[14] WABr 3:357-258.