May 11, 2017

Katie Luther clings to Christ

“I will cling to my Lord Christ as a burr on a coat.”—Last reported words of Katie Luther in 1552

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Reflections by Dan Graves

Sometimes it seems almost unbelievable to me that Katie Luther fit as much work into a day as she did. But when I think of my own mom, I find it easier to accept the testimony of history. Both were extraordinarily hardworking women. Both had to make much out of little. And both endured great privations. As a missionary wife in a primitive country, Mom kept a bush house clean, cooked on wood stoves (often turning unpalatable-to-us local foods into creditable meals), trained house workers, tended a medical clinic, trekked long distances, visited village women, transferred her piano skills to the accordion and played in church services, sewed her own dresses on a treadle sewing machine, washed clothes by hand (we all helped with that), wrote a steady stream of letters to supporters, typed literacy and Bible material, and educated us children in her spare moments.

Graves in Kaupena
My family at Kaupena one month after arriving in Papua, New Guinea, in 1960. Some local people are at right. Sorry for the poor quality of the old image.


Despite fearful moments (she was once informed incorrectly that dad was washed down a raging river) and bitter sorrows, including a miscarriage that required her to be carried eight miles in a litter just to reach the nearest airstrip, faith kept her going.

Faith inspired Katie, too.  When Reformation debates spread across Germany, some nuns  inside a convent at Nimbschen believed the teaching of justification by faith, or at least accepted Luther’s argument that a monastic life was not a special path to God. They secretly contacted Luther. Could he help them escape? Luther made arrangements with Leonhard Köppe, a merchant who regularly sold herring to the monastery. Köppe hid the nuns among empty fish barrels in his covered wagon and delivered them safely to Luther in Wittenberg.

One of those who dismounted from the wagon was twenty-four-year-old Katharine von Bora. Eventually she wed Luther. Katie proved to be a practical, hard-working wife. Considering how many students she housed and fed (not to mention orphans and her own children), she certainly made her own contribution to the Reformation. And she imbibed its doctrine.

After Martin’s death, Katie faced even tougher challenges. She reared her younger children alone for six years, managing a small farm that Elector John Frederick had helped her purchase. During the Schmalkaldic War her land was taxed unmercifully by the contesting armies, and eventually soldiers seized her animals and burned the farmhouse to the ground. Full of pluck and faith, Katherina borrowed one thousand gulden (about $40,000) to rebuild. To earn money to repay her loan, she took in student boarders.

In 1552, plague broke out in Wittenberg. The staff and students of the university moved to Torgau because it was considered safer. Katie followed them there. Not far from Torgau her horses bolted, and the fifty-three-year-old woman had to leap from the wagon at the edge of a lake. She was lifted from the water severely bruised, hanging by a slender thread between life and death.

The longsuffering Katie had little fight left. After a few weeks, it became clear to her that she was dying. Mindful of the futility of works and of her reliance on the Savior, she uttered a statement that stands among the all-time great testaments of faith: “I will cling to my Lord Christ as a burr on a coat.” Those were her last recorded words. She died on 20 December 1552. The entire university turned out for her funeral the next day.

I am so impressed by that declaration of faith, that if I had been there, I would have turned out in her honor, too.

Reflections by Dan Graves, Christian History Institute webmaster

(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook through October as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)

The latest Christian History magazine is the third in our series on the Reformation.  Read it for free here, order it here, and subscribe to get future issues in print here! Learn more about Katie Luther with the DVD Morning Star of Wittenberg.

Tags faith • Katharine von Bora • Katherine Luther

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