Monday, January 24, 2005

Martin Luther's Reform of Marriage, Part 4

This is part 4 [parts 1, 2, and 3 are here] in a continuing series on Martin Luther and his marriage, exerpted from the forthcoming book Sex and the Supremacy of Christ.

The Wedding of Martin and Katie

On the evening of June 13, 1525, which was a Tuesday—the customary day for weddings—the couple became legally engaged in Luther’s home, which was the former Augustinian monastery. The witnesses included Justus Jonas (Luther’s best friend), Johann Bugenhagen (pastor of the Wittenberg city church), Lucas and Barbara Cranach (whose family Katherine was living with at the time), and Johann Apel (a professor of jurisprudence and an ex-Dean of the Cathedral of Bamberg, who had himself married a nun). Although it was not the customary practice of that time, the couple was immediately married by Bugenhagen after the engagement. After the ceremony, and in the presence of witness, the witnesses escorted the bride and groom to the nuptial bed. Then, in accordance with an ancient German custom, the couple consummated their marriage in the presence of Jonas, who served as a witness.

On the following morning Luther entertained his friends at breakfast. Jonas hired a special messenger to deliver a firsthand account of the marriage to Spalatin:

This letter will come to you, my dear Spalatin, as the bearer of great news. Our Luther has married Catharine von Bora. I was present and was a witness of the marriage yesterday (and saw the bride lying in the marriage chamber). Seeing that sight I had to give way to my feelings and could not refrain from tears. Now that it has happened and is the will of God, I wish this good and true man and beloved father in the Lord much happiness. God is wonderful in His work and ways.[1]

The Luthers decided to have a public ceremony two weeks later, on June 27, so that out-of-town guests (including his parents) could be notified and join in the celebration. Examining the personal wedding invitations written by Luther himself gives us interesting insight into Luther’s mindset at the time. We see a man obviously excited and enthusiastic—even surprised—about this new stage of his life. These invitations make it also clear that this wedding was more than just an act of love between two people. Luther clearly had one eye cocked to the watching world.

To Spalatin he writes:

I have stopped the mouths of my calumniators with Catharine von Bora. . . . I have made myself so cheap and despised by this marriage that I expect the angels laugh and the devils weep thereat.

The world and its wise men have not yet seen how pious and sacred is marriage, but they consider it impious and devilish in me. It pleases me, however, to have my marriage condemned by those who are ignorant of God.[2]

In some of the invitations Luther stresses what an unexpected turn of events this is—even for him. To Wenzel Link: “Despite the fact that I was otherwise minded, the Lord has suddenly and unexpectedly contracted a marriage for me with Catharine von Bora, the nun.”[3] As he would later write: “A good wife is not found accidentally and without divine guidance. On the contrary, she is a gift of God and does not come, as the heathen imagine, in answer to our planning and judging.”[4]

And to Leonard Koop, without whom Martin and Katie would not have met, Luther writes: “God has suddenly and unexpectantly caught me in the bond of holy matrimony.[5] I am going to get married. God likes to work miracles and to make a fool of the world.”[6]

And to von Amsdorf:

Indeed, the rumor is true that I was suddenly married to Catherine; [I did this] to silence the evil mouths which are so used to complaining about me. For I still hope to live for a little while. In addition, I also did not want to reject this unique [opportunity to obey] my father’s wish for progeny, which he so often expressed. At the same time, I also wanted to confirm what I have taught by practicing it; for I find so many timid people in spite of such great light from the gospel. God has willed and brought about this step. For I feel neither passionate love nor burning for my spouse, but I cherish her.[7]

We should pause here to examine this final line. Does it indicate that Luther didn’t truly love Katie? It’s difficult to determine the precise intent of Luther’s remark, but it is important to remember that at this point the length of their romance had been exceedingly short! It may have been the case that Luther saw in Katie not someone with whom he felt passionate love, but someone with whom he could foresee passionate love. William Lazareth comments:

Modern marriage counselors probably would have questioned the marriage itself. It was an open secret in Wittenberg that Martin and Katie did not get along very well because of their clashing temperaments and personalities. Certainly they were not romantically in love, and there is no evidence that any kind of courtship preceded their marriage. . . . We have no reason to doubt Luther’s contention that he married primarily as a testimony of faith.[8]

Luther’s comment about cherishing Katherine but not feeling passionate love for her must also be must set within the context of the day and the wagging tongues that were going on all around Luther. Even Luther’s friend Philipp Melanchton—invited neither to the engagement nor to the later public ceremony—suspected that Luther had been taken in by carnal lust:

. . . at this unfortunate time, when good and excellent men everywhere are in distress, he not only does not sympathize with them, but, as it seems, rather waxes wanton and diminishes his reputation, just when Germany has especial need of his judgment and authority. . . . The man is certainly pliable; and the nuns have used their arts against him most successfully; thus probably society with the nuns have softened or even inflamed this noble and high-spirited man.[9]

Erasmus helped spread the slanderous rumor that Katherine had borne Martin’s child two weeks before the ceremony. After their marriage, Duke George the Bearded wrote that Martin and Katherine were “now feasting in carnal lust.”[10] When Katie became pregnant a year later, it was predicted that the union of this monk and this nun would produce a two-headed baby, or the Anticrist. Set within this contentious context, it is perhaps not surprising that Luther wanted to clarify that though he “cherished” his spouse, he was not marrying because of “passionate love,” so as not to add fuel to the fire of this demagoguery.

At 10 am the Luthers and their wedding party traveled from the Black Cloister to the parish church, accompanied by the sounds of bells and pipers, to participate in the public ceremony. The recessional took them back to the Black Cloister, where they had a dinner and then a dance in the town hall. Another banquet followed in the evening, followed by the dismissal of the guests by the magistrates at 11 pm.

A couple of months after the wedding, Luther was still reveling in his marriage—and obviously delighting in the consternation of others toward it:

I have now testified to the gospel not only by word but also by deed: I have married a nun to spite the triumphant enemies who yell “Hurrah, hurrah!” [I have done this] so that it does not seem that I am yielding.[11]

The guests who had been invited to Luther’s wedding had no idea the impact of the event that they witnessed.

Little did the sixteenth-century world realize the tremendous significance—both religious and social—of this simple and reverent ceremony in the backwoods of rural Germany. The union of Martin and Katie was not cursed with the birth of the Antichrist. Instead, it was blessed with the birth of the Protestant parsonage and the rebirth of a genuinely Christian ethos in home and community. Luther’s marriage remains to this day the central evangelical symbol of the Reformation’s liberation and transformation of the Christian daily life.[12]

We now turn to look at their married life together.

[1] SJ 2:322. The parenthetical clause is from another version of this letter. See n. 3.

[2] SJ 2:323-324.

[3] SJ 2:328.

[4] WLS, 906.

[5] SJ 2:328.

[6] Cited in Bainton, Here I Stand, 226.

[7] LW 48:117.

[8] Lazareth, Luther on the Christian Home, 22-23.

[9] SJ 2:324-325, my emphasis.

[10] Cited in Markwald, Katharina von Bora, 78.

[11] LW 48:123.

[12] Lazareth, Luther on the Christian Home, vii.