Katharina and Martin Luther
I have vague memories of watching a movie about Martin Luther forty years ago for a class at school. The lingering impressions consist of the doors to a church and the constant danger of bucking the Roman Catholic Church at its most powerful. And of course, the hymn. I knew Martin Luther wrote my favorite hymn—”A Mighty Fortress.”
From time spent in Europe, I knew that Martin Luther played a huge role in the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism. I didn’t know he started his theological career as a monk. Nor did I realize that he had married—much less that he had married a runaway nun.
When the opportunity to read an advance copy of Michelle DeRusha’s book Katharina & Martin Luther came up, I jumped at the chance for two reason. First, I like Michelle’s style of writing (you can check out her blog here). Second, I wanted to learn more about the monk-marries-nun story.
October 31, 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of Luther’s famous act of mailing his Ninety-five Theses to Archbishop Albrecht of Brandenburg explaining why the archbishop should cease and desist the sale of indulgences. Historians can’t agree on whether or not Luther actually nailed the document to the church doors.
Mailing (and possibly nailing) his theses wasn’t the most radical act of Martin Luther’s life, though. Sure, starting a reformation of religion ranks right up there with his namesake’s reforms in the area of Civil Rights. But the quiet reformation of marriage seems more radical to me.
The Reformation of Marriage
DeRusha’s meticulous historical research brings to light not only the plight of women in the early modern era/late Middle Ages, it gives a context for Luther’s most radical act—marrying a runaway nun.
Lest you think the story plays out like the Thornbirds, let me assure you that it doesn’t. Luther’s Ninety-five Theses and subsequent writings against the abuses of the Catholic Church had a surprising effect on the church in Germany.
Most monasteries and convents emptied of all but a few monks and nuns within a short period of time. Luther continued to live in the cloister where he lived as a monk, but his theses effectively excommunicated him from the Catholic Church and thus he no longer laid claim to the title ‘monk.’
Many women, including Katharina de Bora, entered convents at the economic convenience of their fathers. Most men viewed women as chattel or a source of evil. The older the woman, the more evil she harbored in her character—especially if she lost her husband.
Young persons could marry in secret (no priest required), and then the young man could marry again…and again. Wealthy parents spent untold amounts of money (which went into the Church’s coffers) buying their sons out of unwanted marriages.
Martin Luther wrote four powerful books condemning the willy-nilly ways the Catholic Church failed to protect marriages by making it an unsupervised sacrament. Luther also attacked the ideal of celibacy. He claimed that God ordained marriage and that he created within each of us a desire to find a partner. He also believed that sex was ‘unavoidable and necessary.’
At the advanced age of 42 (advanced because the average life-expectancy in Europe during the time hovered around 45 years), Luther chose to marry.
His radical act (you’ll need to read the book to find out why I consider it so radical) started as an act of Christian duty. Katharina and Luther’s first day of married life sounds excruciating—they scarcely knew each other—yet they had to consummate their marriage with a witness present.
And yet their marriage survived and eventually thrived. Modern brides and grooms would do well to study their marriage as a pattern for true love. DeRusha uses Luther’s letters, family portraits, and other sources to show that as they did life together, they came to love each other.
All too often we think of marriage as the logical next step to ‘falling in love’. Would we have fewer divorces if we entered the married state with a firm belief that by acting loving towards our spouse, we demonstrate love for God?Would we have fewer divorces if we realized that by loving our spouse, we demonstrate love for… Click To Tweet
If you enjoy reading quirky love stories, history, or how-to books, you’ll love Katharina & Martin Luther. DeRusha’s storytelling and thoughtful research ranks up there with Erik Larson’s and David McCullough’s.
When you finish the book, come back and let me know—which act was Luther’s most radical? His Ninety-five Theses or his marriage to Katharina?
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