If it is possible to binge on biographies, that is what a friend of mine spent the summer doing. Books on Luther, from The Barber Who Wanted to Pray to Bainton’s classic Here I Stand, she ploughed her way through volume after volume. There were also a couple books on Katharine Luther, Martin’s wife, that she read and passed along. Mother of the Reformation: The Amazing Life and Story of Katharine Luther is a keeper. If you are married to a pastor, professor, missionary, or extrovert, it would make an especially relevant read.
Originally published in German in 1906, Ernst Kroker’s work was republished this year (Concordia). Mark E. DeGarmeaux’s translation is easy to read but still retains an early 20th century flavour. Katharine is known because of her famous Reformer husband and she lives in his shadow in our minds. Kroker’s biography brings her into the light. There is a lot about Luther in the book—how can you write about only one spouse in a remarkable marriage?—but Katie is the emphasis.
Unearthing much about Katie’s childhood and adolescence, Kroker outlines what we know about her early years, doing a good job of giving a sense of what it must have been like, despite scant sources. Katharine’s early entrance into convent life and her faithful service there, her eventual conversion, escape, marriage, motherhood and widowhood are all there within a rich context. One of Kroker’s strengths is his ability to put this woman not on a pedestal for us to inspect and venerate but in her own world for us to watch and learn from.
While reading this book, three truths came out very clearly as Kroker spread out Katharine’s life in Germany half a millenium ago. The first is that the Protestant Reformation brought so much freedom. We take our freedom for granted, often abusing or misusing it. When the biblical truth of Protestantism swept through western Europe, it brought individual spiritual freedom, as men and women realized that salvation was free in Christ, not to merited by good works and indulgences, or borrowed from saints. But the Reformation also brought social freedom: the goodness of Christian marriage was recognized and lived out; communities no longer bore the burden of compulsive labour for monastery and convent farms; Lord’s Day worship became a corporate joy instead of an system of rank and spiritual privilege. The very home where the Luthers lived was testament to this freedom: instead of housing men who lived in seclusion while the community lived in their spiritual debt, the Black Cloister was home to a large family who practiced promiscuous hospitality and self-sacrificing generosity.
The second truth that is embedded in Katie Luther’s life is God’s good providence. Because we know her life and can look back on it, we can see God’s wisdom displayed in her story. Her mother’s death precipitated Katharine’s entrance to convent life at a very young age. In the cloisters where she grew up, Katharine learned the value of routine and the ability to sacrifice personal desires for the good of others. After her conversion and escape she worked as a domestic servant for a Protestant family which gave her valuable training in running a home well. While there, she fell in love with a godly student: his family objected to her past and he married another woman. Luther eventually married her “to spite the devil and the pope, please my father, and set an example”. Katharine could have let her difficult past crippled her emotionally and socially. Instead, God enabled her to use her experiences to become more fruitful than she would have been otherwise. He can do the same for each of us; He ordained every part of our lives and will use it to prepare us for glory.
Last, the third, overarching truth that was clear in this biography is that being an excellent wife matters. Kroker gives Katharine credit for her work behind the scenes that made her husband’s reforms possible: her knowledge of medicine preserved his health; her hospitality spawned his Table Talks; her gardening and beer brewing and animal husbandry allowed them to raise a large family; her frugality meant that they never went hungry; her quick wit and bold tongue balanced his excesses; her tireless work freed him to do his own; her godliness gave him a soul-mate to comfort and encourage him. Kroker admits that from paintings of Katharine, we can tell that she was not particularly pretty or beautiful. That was not what drew Luther to her and it was not what made her so vital to him. It was her faithfulness in doing her hard work cheerfully and well. If Luther had married a less domestically able wife, one who was not willing to work hard behind the scenes, the church would have suffered, then and now. Maybe your husband isn’t standing alone against the power of Renaissance Catholicism, but your faithfulness in your work will still affect his service to the church.
The Mother of the Reformation is an honest history of a 16th century woman: Kroker pieces together facts, outlines differing views where there are conflicting records, offers deductions where he can, debunks some urban Luther legends and admits a lack of reliable sources when he cannot tell his readers what he would like to.
The cover is a bonus: it is appropriate for a 16th century figure without looking antiquated and is feminine without having lace, pink, pastel flowers or loopy font on it. It also matches my living room and is a great conversation starter: I’m keeping it on the coffee table for looks as well as frequent reference and encouragement.