Katie Luther, First Lady of the Reformation

The Unconventional Life of Katharina Von Bora

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Ruth A. Tucker
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Zondervan
    , June
     2017.
     208 pages.
     $17.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780310532156.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this slim and highly readable volume on Katharina von Bora, historian Ruth Tucker offers an accessible and imaginative picture of Martin Luther’s wife. Tucker’s analysis is structured around discussions of von Bora as wife, mother, and housekeeper. She also discusses issues that are important to evangelical Christians, such as male headship in marriage, the role of women as wives and mothers, widowhood, and female leadership in churches. She makes analogies between von Bora and biblical women, and draws on evangelical Christian literature to foster an imagination about who von Bora was as a Christian wife.

Tucker’s book gives a unique view of Martin Luther in that she asks what it was like to have been his wife and the mother of his children. The reader discovers that Luther suffered from depression and a myriad of physical ailments, which von Bora was able to help treat with her knowledge of herbs and healing. (She probably learned these skills during her years in a convent). Luther was also very bad with money such that von Bora had to find creative ways to make ends meet; in fact she was the main breadwinner in the Luther household. Von Bora ran quite a large boarding house for all kinds of people—travelers, widows, other runaway nuns, students, and so on. She also owned several properties—and became one of the best beer makers in Wittenberg. In short, she helped make Martin Luther a financially stable man. Tucker details the kind of self-confidence, organizational skills, and business acumen Katie would have needed to be so successful.

Tucker shows how the marriage was profoundly mutual and hence unusual for the time. Luther turned to Katie for advice and comfort. He allowed her to make decisions for the whole house and for him. He even had her deal with his publishers from time to time. She in turn, gained the unenviable reputation of being domineering, gregarious, and too aggressive in her quest for financial security; she generally saw herself as Luther’s equal. If Luther was the nation’s first Lutheran pastor, von Bora was decidedly not the first pastor’s wife. Tucker highlights how difficult it was to be a business-minded woman in the sixteenth century—and how deeply Martin Luther relied on her.

Tucker makes the intriguing argument that Luther’s marriage to Katie von Bora was the single most defining event of the Protestant Reformation next to Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses. She shows how Luther’s writings about his wife and about his marriage with its mutuality, comfort, and stability set the stage for what Protestant relationships between husbands and wives could be. His marriage to von Bora gave him a theological perspective on the lives of average people in Germany that formed his powerful theology of everyday sacredness. As Tucker notes, Luther’s teaching on marriage and family would have been little more than a “skeleton” without his connection to von Bora. One of Luther’s most well-known works, the Small Catechism, was written in the context of the nuclear family of wife, husband, and children.

Katie Luther, First Lady of the Reformation can be a great resource for small group study, and for readers, in particular women, who want a quick introduction to life in sixteenth-century Germany, and to Martin Luther the man. Tucker draws on other scholarly works on von Bora’s life and times, and brings that research into an accessible conversation. Her volume highlights Katharina von Bora’s neglected but central role in Reformation theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Marga is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ruth A. Tucker has taught mission studies and church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Calvin Theological Seminary. She is the author of dozens of articles and eighteen books, including the award-winning From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya.

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