Together through the Doorway of Marriage

For Martin Luther’s fifty-seventh birthday, his wife designed, commissioned, and then presented to him a carved doorway for their home.  It’s elegance incorporated numerous features that demonstrated Katharina’s knowledge of and devotion to her husband; however, there is no way that she could have realized how completely appropriate her gift would be.  Michelle DeRusha’s biography demonstrates that the radical marriage of Katharina and Martin Luther was itself a threshold into a new way of understanding marriage, and it opened the way toward a more biblical expression of the life of two-shall-become-one.

By the time Martin and Katharina began their unlikely life together, Martin’s theological shot heard ’round the world had already set off the Reformation in Western Europe, and both the bride and the groom had already logged decades of life in cloistered communities.  For Martin, this had been by choice and against the wishes of his family, while Katharina had been placed in a convent by her father at the age of six.

Leaving the monastery was controversial for Martin, but there was no question that his gifts and background would pave his way into a well-defined role within his new freedom.  Things were not so simple for a 16th-century woman. In addition to the fact that single women were not even recognized as citizens in Germany, Katharina was, by birth, a member of the landed-gentry and, therefore, ineligible to pursue employment of any kind.  Her only option for survival was marriage — at the ripe old age of twenty six.

Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but Katie von Bora showed no signs of of caving to desperation, and she made it abundantly clear that she had no intention of marrying just anyone.  At one point she even boldly suggested that she would consider marrying Luther . . . if she were asked.  Why she considered a forty-two year old man (who, at any moment, could be found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake) to be a good catch is anyone’s guess.

From the groom’s perspective, Luther’s decision to tie the knot with Katharina was as reasoned and deeply theological as his basis for untying the knot with the Catholic church.  While he cited pleasing his father and antagonizing the pope as desirable outcomes of marriage, it seems that, primarily, he chose marriage out of love for Christ and a desire to model “the redeemed Christian’s relationship to God.”  With such an unusual beginning, it is not surprising that the Luther’s marriage paved new ground.

From Martin’s Perspective

Marriage ousted Martin from his ivory tower.  Michelle DeRusha records many of the idealistic or cavalier statements from his single days, and they were clearly made by a curmudgeonly man with no idea how to manage life on this planet. He waxed eloquent (and inaccurate) on topics ranging from the role of women in the home to something he called “bridal love,” but when married life began in earnest, there was no sign at all that he could actually live by his own tenets.

From the outset, Katharina dealt with all things practical including the management of and the procurement of supplies for the abandoned monastery the Luthers called home and which functioned more like a bed and breakfast than a family dwelling.  Martin trusted Katharina with the delivery of his manuscripts to the printer, and he left most of the business side of his work in her capable hands.

Marriage tested and clarified Martin’s theology, for this marriage of convenience actually grew into a relationship based on love and mutual respect, showing him “again and again that a love for others, as much as a love for God, was at the core of his beliefs.  The Protestant Reformation would have happened without the marriage of Luther and Katharina.  But Luther would not have been the same Reformer without Katharina.” 

From Katharina’s Perspective

Katharina’s escape at age twenty-four from the convent where she had lived since the age of six gives us a clue as to the mettle of this woman for whom,up to this point, every single life decision had been delivered to her as a fait accompli.  While marriage to Martin Luther handed Katharina the key to citizenship and an established role in society, it was her own determination by which she walked through the open door of their home and immediately set things in order.

The new Mrs. Luther took some getting used to in Martin’s circle of friends and colleagues, and, while she spoke with respect to her husband, she would not be bullied into becoming a shadow in her own home.  Her curious and lively mind found its way into participation in the theological discussions that were standard fare around her table — while she prepared and served what must have been huge quantities of food.

Martin and Katharina were a parenting team, and the death of their oldest daughter nearly undid them both.  Michelle DeRusha shares numerous clarifications about life in early modern times, but the most poignant is the harsh reality that 16th-century parents formed bonds with their children that were every bit as deep as those of 21st-century parents — even though their children died at an alarming rate.

It is revealing of attitudes of that day that only eight of Katharina’s letters were saved — none of which were addressed to Martin, but which, sadly, document the hard path of her widowhood as she wrote to friends and acquaintances to “call in favors” or to remind people of their responsibility for her and her children after Martin’s death in 1546.  Katharina’s final years must have been haunted by a sinking sensation of deja vu, for the very same traditions and expectations that had made her life as a young single woman so perilous were still in place to make her life as a widow untenable.  The era’s idealized model of a meek and silent widow assumes that someone would have already made practical provision for her.  Unfortunately, Martin failed to do that, so it was up to Katharina to make her own way, and she did — but it wasn’t easy, and the stress and privation likely led to her demise at the age of fifty-three.

It is timely to consider this biography of a marriage in the year that marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, for the truth from Romans 1:17 that fueled the up-ending of Martin Luther’s theology continues to leave its mark on the way we view marriage within the context of the Gospel to this very day.  When Martin and Katharina, “his rib,” walked together through the doorway of marriage, Martin wrote that they had embarked upon “a chancy thing” for “marriage does not always run smoothly.”  Five hundred years later, that’s still true.  And it is also true that there is grace for this — and that the righteousness which is “of God, by faith” is available in Christ for those who commit their lives (and their marriages) to Him — by grace alone.

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This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Intrigued by the author?

This is Michelle DeRusha’s third book, and came about as a result of a chapter devoted to Katharina Luther in 50 Women Every Christian Should Know.  I’ve reviewed the book here, and you can get further information about Michelle’s faith journey and writing life through listening in to this podcast episode of Living a Redeemed Life in which my friend, Holly Barrett, interviews Michelle.

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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for over 25 years, and their four children are growing up at an alarming rate. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

71 thoughts on “Together through the Doorway of Marriage”

  1. I love Katherina Von Bora… she’s far too underestimated. I read an old book when I was a young Christian called Martin Luther had a wife… and it was awesome. I wish I still had it.

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  2. Michele, you do find interesting reads to review! This has been like a history lesson today. (And I love history.) So interesting. I don’t know anything at all about Katherina von Bora!

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  3. I was just listening to Holly Barrett’s podcast with Michelle DeRusha last week and heard about this book. I love history especially about leaders of the faith. Looking forward to reading

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  4. Michele, I didn’t know any of this! I love history and I’d like to read this with my husband, who is even geekier than I am. And isn’t this so true for all marriages?: “Marriage ousted Martin from his ivory tower.”

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  5. This sounds like a great book. I’ll have to put it one my list to read when I finish some of the others I have started. 🙂 Thanks for the review! I’m your neighbor this week at #TeaAndWord.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Michele,
    I wish I had been able to read this book back when I was in confirmation class to join the Presbyterian church – talk about dry material. What a life Martin and Katharina lived behind the scenes of the Reformation that he is most known for. So true that behind every great man is a great woman. I love the gift she gave of a doorway – how symbolic. Thanks for sharing this glimpse of history that I would have never known about. Another book I need to get my hands on and perhaps introduce to the Protestant churches 😉
    Blessings,
    Bev xx

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  7. This sounds like an interesting book! We are reading an old Victorian novel about the life of Martin Luther in our homeschool right now and so this went along nicely with that. I found this link through Coffee and Conversation today. Have a wonderful week!

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  8. This is so interesting, Michele. I knew nothing about their marriage. Losing a child is something that causes many marriages to crumble, even those seemingly very strong. This book looks great. You always have wonderful recommendations :).

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  9. I so enjoy reading your book reviews. You are thorough and clear in your summary. This was particularly interesting and makes me want to learn more. Thanks Michele.

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    1. Thank you, Debby! My goal is always to share the essence of the book’s teaching so that if someone never gets around to reading the book, they still can profit from it’s good words. And if someone is interested in more depth, they can just get their hands on the book!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This is so interesting! I never knew about Luther’s wife. My oldest is studying the Middle Ages right now, moving toward the Reformation. We will definitely take some time to learn more about Katharina! Thank you so much for linking up at Encouraging Word Wednesday this week!

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  11. I knew of some of this unlikely couple’s joining and marriage, but not to the extent that you, through Michelle’s book, unfold for us, Michele. So very poignant and so very tragic. But thankfully both of these spiritual leaders had the Lord to bolster them in those harsh times and were an amazing example of the mystery of marriage. Inspiring to us all so many years later. Thanks for sharing this, my friend!

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    1. Yes, the Luther’s were engaged in one very “messy marriage,” but God worked through it, and I believe that we are richer in our understanding of God’s intention for marriage because of their impact.

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  12. Michele, I was not very familiar with Katharina. When we see how women were treated we understand some of the emotion behind the women’s movement. Too bad it has swung so far in the other direction. I am encouraged to hear about her own walk with God.

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  13. So interesting! Although I’ve learned much about Martin Luther, I have never really heard much about or studied his wife! I love this perspective and I love learning more about those in the Christian history!

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  14. Michele,
    I love reading your book reviews! They make me want to rush out and read every one that you have recommended; ah if only I could squeeze them all in somehow! But this one will definitely go on the wish list. This: “Marriage tested and clarified Martin’s theology,” is so good! In fact, I think any Godly marriage is going to do just that, as God moves us out of ourselves, and into His more perfect view of love. Thank you for all that you offer to us here, Michele, and all of your efforts to open new doorways of learning. May you be blessed!

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  15. Fascinating read! I grew up in the Lutheran church so know a lot about Martin, but know virtually nothing about Katherina nor their marriage. Thanks for sharing this insight into the daily life and love of a man God used to radically change the church.

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    1. So many have shared the same thing, and it’s sad that Katherina’s contribution was not valued in her own day. Since her letters were not saved, Michelle DeRusha had to do some pretty incredible reconstruction of what might have been Katharina’s lot in life based on other sources. This book is a great resource, and a reminder of how fortunate we are in our time — for many reasons, electricity and indoor plumbing chief among them from my perspective!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. “When married life began in earnest, there was no sign at all that he could actually live by his own tenets.” For that statement alone, I have got to read that book!

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  17. Connecting via the Faith ‘n Friiends Linkup. Living the faith is not often easy as demonstrated in the lives of Luther and his wife recounted here but we shouldn’t give up because of the surpassing glory ahead. Thanks for sharing your review of this inspirational book with us.

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  18. I love history and biographies, especially of those who have gone before us in the faith. This will be my next bedtime read. We take the privileges and opportunities we have as women today for granted, don’t we? Thanks for sharing, Michele!

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  19. The insights into Martin and Katarina’s marriage sounds like they both were fueled by spirits of reformation, in faith and in marriage. We’really always stronger in whatever we do if we link arms, hearts, and minds. Thanks for sharing, and blessings from your neighbor at Anita’s.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Alice. It’s true that Katharina will not go down in history with her name among the important reformers, but, as Michelle DeRusha said in her book, Martin was a different reformer because of Katharina’s impact on his life.

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  20. i love the sounds of this book. Sharing the personal side of Luther. I’m reading another history book of Christian women right now and I’m shocked at how amazing these women were and what key roles they played in Kingdom advancement. I’m so glad they’re starting to be recognized. Thanks for sharing! Praying your reach continues to grow.
    Be Blessed & Refreshed,
    ~Sherry Stahl
    xoxo

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    1. Thanks, Sherry, for the prayers and for the input to this business of Luther’s personal side. We do have a tendency to turn historical figures into plaster saints. Michelle DeRusha did a good job humanizing Martin and giving credit where credit is due in Katharina’s case. Blessings to you!

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  21. Hi Michele,
    I read your review after seeing it on the LMM link-up. It was very interesting learning about their marriage. I saw an awesome movie more than ten years ago called “Luther.” I watched it at least twice, because it was so good.
    Did you know that Catherine Booth played a key role in the founding of the Salvation Army? It’s sad that women in ministry are often not celebrated in Christian circles. Working together (by the leadership of the Holy Spirit), men and women can accomplish so much more!
    God bless,
    Tina – Amanda’s Books and More

    Liked by 1 person

  22. This sounds like another book I need to read! I read Frau Luther, by Y. Davies, and it’s a great glimpse into their married life – but yours sounds much more in-depth. I love history brought-to-life!

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    1. Your books sounds good, too! I just ordered another Martin Luther book based on his own words that’s coming out with Baker Books. This is the big year to celebrate the Reformation and read all things Luther!

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  23. I’ve come across some disturbing things about Luther lately, so this was a good reminder of some good things. Thanks so much for sharing this at Booknificent Thursday on Mommynificent.com this week!
    Tina

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  24. An interesting read. I will check this out for sure. Thank you so much for linking at #overthemoon! I look forward to seeing what you share every week. Please come back for #WonderfulWednesday or #ThursdayFavoriteThings. Enjoy your week ahead.

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