Love and Marriage: Luther Style
If you feel like you’re never going to get married, take heart! Learn a few things from Martin Luther’s singleness and then marriage.
A look of despair crossed her face as she delivered her melodramatic response: “Yes, but it takes so long to grow up! … I’m never going to get married!”
Many of us can identify! Some of us are born practically ready to get married. But not Martin Luther. He would have fit in better with the guys at my college who proudly proclaimed, “Bachelor to the Rapture!”
Luther definitely fit the Christian bachelor lifestyle. He once went a whole year without airing out his straw bed. (I don’t know exactly what sweaty straw smells like, but I suspect it was quite unpleasant!) Luther also used to boast, “If I break wind in Wittenberg, they smell it in Rome.” He would have fit right in with my college buddies — and was obviously not preparing himself to find a wife.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start back at the beginning to learn a little more about this unlikely candidate to change marriage as we know it.
Luther was born in 1483. His dad wanted him to be a lawyer, so he ended up in law school. On a trip home to see his parents, the 22-year-old Luther got caught in a frightening thunderstorm. He was so frightened that he said a prayer to a saint: If she saved him, he’d become a monk. He survived the storm — and much to his father’s displeasure, entered the monastery. He ended up getting his doctorate in theology and becoming a professor.
The Protestant Reformation eventually resulted from him nailing his 95 Theses against the Wittenberg Door in 1517. Four years later, the Emperor demanded that Luther recant his teachings. Luther asked for 24 hours to think it over. The next day, he delivered his famous speech: “Unless I am persuaded by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason, then I will not recant because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do nothing else. God help me. Amen.”
Most of us have at least heard about this side of Luther and the Reformation associated with his name. But few know about another reformation he brought about — in the way people thought about marriage.
Katherine von Bora
When Luther was 16, something happened about 120 miles away (unbeknownst to him) that would forever change his life: Katherine von Borra was born. Her mom died when she was only 5, her father remarried, and Katherine was sent off to a convent to be educated and to become a nun. She would stay in such cloisters for the next 20 years.
In the 1520s, Luther was about 40 years old and still single himself. For an unmarried man, he sure wrote a lot about marriage, arguing that it was not only helpful and honorable, but necessary (except for the very small minority of people gifted and called to singleness). He wrote, “As it is not within my power not to be a man, so it is not my prerogative to be without a woman. Again, as it is not in your power not to be a woman, so it is not your prerogative to be without a man.”
Being a nun at that time was not something voluntary. They were bound by their oaths to remain in the convents. But then the nuns — including Katherine — began to catch wind of Luther’s liberating writings. He was writing things like, “your vow is contrary to God and has no validity” — don’t delay but “get married.” Much to the chagrin of church leaders, his vision caught on. Nuns began to escape the nunneries (nuns on the run!), seeking husbands and getting married.
Now the guys who are reading this may have a slight smile on their face at this point. Here is Luther — a 40-year-old man who has never been married. He figures out a place where they are scores of young eligible bachelorettes, and he makes an impassioned plea for them to go and find husbands? How selfless! How noble! How … convenient!
If you’re thinking maybe Luther had a hidden motive here, you’re not the first to have thought that. The rumor mill was alive and well in the 1500s. A number of people thought Luther was creatively angling for a wife. But Luther honestly did not desire or plan on marriage. He didn’t pretend that he was free from sexual temptation — after all, he wrote, “I am neither wood nor stone.” But on the other hand, he wrote that his “mind is far removed from marriage.”
The reason was a sobering one — a situation most of us will never have to face. Luther was persuaded that he didn’t have much longer to live because he would be killed for his beliefs and for his faith. He recognized that being on the verge of martyrdom didn’t exactly make him courtship material.
Luther was seeking to free these nuns not so that he could find a wife, but because he truly believed it was wrong for women to make a vow of singleness, not based on gifting and personal conviction but rather due to external pressures and unbiblical teaching. Luther’s understanding of the Bible and of grace permeated through many aspects of his worldview, including marriage.
After Katherine and her fellow nuns became convinced by Luther’s writings, they were able to secretly contact him, requesting his help to escape. Luther set in motion an ingenious plan devised with the delivery man for the convent.
Early on Easter morning of 1523, Leonard Kopp stopped by the convent to make his weekly delivery of herring. After unloading the fish from his barrels, his covered wagon slowly pulled away — no one realizing that the just-emptied barrels now contained 12 fugitive nuns.
Martin and Katherine
Each of the nuns was quite poor and in terrible shape. Luther diligently worked to return them to relatives for support or to find them husbands. But Katherine’s family didn’t want her back, so Luther arranged for her to live with some friends of his. Katherine and Luther became friends — though he thought she was quite prideful.
Luther was determined to help Katherine find a husband. He tried setting her up with one of his professor-colleagues in his 60s. But feisty Katherine, in her 20s, made it abundantly clear she wasn’t interested.
We don’t know exactly how it happened. In 1525 we have a letter from Luther to his friend Spalatin, saying, “I urge matrimony on others with so many arguments that I am myself almost moved to marry….” A week later Luther took a trip to visit his parents. Perhaps in a joking manner he mentioned to them the idea of getting married. His dad became very excited at the idea of passing on the family name and enthusiastically encouraged Luther to get going on it! A few weeks later Luther wrote, “If I can manage it, before I die I will still marry my Katie to spite the devil.” Perhaps not the most romantic line in history, but Luther was well on his way to turning in his membership card to the “Bachelor to the Rapture” Club!
Luther didn’t believe in long engagements. In fact, he had one of the shortest engagements in history — he proposed to Katherine and they were married that very same day (June 13, 1523). Their marriage not only shocked their friends, but eventually led to the transformation of church and culture. One scholar writes, “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…. Luther’s marriage remains to this day the central evangelical symbol of the Reformation’s liberation and transformation of the Christian daily life.”
Katie bore six children (three boys and three girls), and she and Martin were married for just over two decades. He died at the age of 62. Katie would live another seven difficult years, till she went to be with the Lord at the age of 53. Among her final recorded words reveal the Gospel-shaped desire of her heart, which was to “cling to Christ like a burr to a dress.”
The Luthers’ Legacy of Love and Marriage
I wish I could recount here the many details of their fascinating life together, but space permits me only to draw a few lessons that we can learn from their union:
- Martin and Katie didn’t put their hope in marriage; they put their hope in God. Martin was in his 40s, convinced he would never be married and would soon suffer a martyr’s death. Katie had lived in a convent since the age of 5, convinced she would never be married and would remain a nun until she died. Their difference in age and circumstance, along with their feisty personalities, meant that on paper, they were probably not a good match. But God had other plans; they were faithful; and God made them into an example for many to emulate.
- Martin and Katie didn’t marry each other because they were infatuated with each other; instead they grew to love each other because they were married. In a handwritten invitation to the public ceremony for their wedding, Luther wrote to a friend, “I feel neither passionate love nor burning for my spouse, but I cherish her.” Now it’s important to keep in mind here that Luther is coming off a world-record short engagement (marriage happened on the same day!). There wasn’t a lot of time for a full-fledged, deeply rooted romance to ensue. Luther was well aware that very often “In the beginning of a relationship love is glowing hot, it intoxicates and blinds us, and we rush forth and embrace one another. But once married, we tend to grow tired of one another….” His experience was the opposite; he cherished her, but they did not start off in passionate love — though that quickly grew as they were married. Luther wrote, “The first love is drunken. When the intoxication wears off, then comes the real marriage love.”
- Martin and Katie viewed marriage as a school for growing in godliness. Both of them took God seriously; and both knew how to correct the other when one of them was ignoring God and taking life too seriously. One day Luther was depressed and despairing. So Katie decided to put on a black dress for the day. Luther asked, “Are you going to a funeral?” “No,” she responded, “but since you act as though God is dead, I wanted to join you in the mourning!” Exactly what Luther needed to hear.
- Martin and Katie enjoyed the God-given gifts of life and marriage unto the glory of God. Scripture teaches that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5). One Luther scholar explains how this was lived out in his life: “Luther’s faith was simple enough to trust that after a conscientious day’s labor, a Christian father could come home and eat his sausage, drink his beer, play his flute, sing with his children, and make love to his wife — all to the glory of God!”
Whether you’re single, engaged or married, there is no shortage of books to read regarding the state you are currently in. But few of us think to look outside of our own century to peer into the Christian-centered marriage of a couple from hundreds of years ago. They have many more lessons to teach us.
So the next time my daughter complains that life is just taking too long before she’s married — or the next time I run into one of those “Bachelor to the Rapture” guys — I might just recommend that they learn a little bit about Luther.
Copyright 2008 Justin Taylor. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Justin Taylor is an associate publisher at Crossway Books in Wheaton, Ill. He was the managing editor of the ESV Study Bible and the co-editor (with John Piper) of the book, The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World. He and his wife have three children.