Momentous vows

On June 13, 1525, 41-year-old Martin Luther and Katharine von Bora, 15 years his junior, married in Wittenberg after a brief engagement of less than a day. It was a union that shocked a nation—not because of their age difference, but because the couple was, in the eyes of the medieval church, committing incest.

As a former monk and a former nun, the two had been “brother” and “sister,” even if only in a spiritual sense. Popular opinion held that such a union could only result in a “monstrous birth,” most likely of the Antichrist—a sure sign of the impending end times. Predictably most of Luther’s critics were unhappy with the union. Famed scholar Erasmus (see “The man who yielded to no one,” pp. 42–45) spread the rumor that the lovely bride was only days away from giving birth—thus implying that Luther had left his vows of celibacy because of lust and the wiles of a beautiful woman. But Erasmus also hoped that marriage would help to temper Luther’s irascible personality and soften his tendency to attack his opponents.

In a letter written a year later, Erasmus noted both ideas were in error—Luther’s wife was not pregnant when they married (although by the time of the letter she was in fact “heavy with child”), and Luther continued to write in his former “noxious” and “hostile” fashion against his critics. So much for the moderating influence of a woman!

protestant pigs?

Other enemies were less polite. Many in Catholic Europe thought that Luther’s arguments against monastic vows and clerical celibacy, and his calls to empty convents in the name of “Christian freedom,” were only a cover for his own sinful desires. This perspective was so prevalent that even at the beginning of the twentieth century, respected Catholic historian Heinrich Denifle could still suggest that Luther’s insatiable lust largely caused the Reformation.

In his own day, scores of Catholic writers, and those we would call cartoonists, skewered both Martin and Katharine—one woodcut shows a herd of Protestant pigs forcing their way into a church, followed by the biggest pigs of the group, the proud Martin and Katie Luther. Luther’s characteristic response to such pamphlets was to suggest that they were worth using only to wipe one’s rear end.

But if Luther’s enemies provided an expected response to his marriage, that of his friends is a bit more perplexing. Given the job of observing the initial joining of the couple in the marriage bed (a common practice at the time), Luther’s friend Justas Jonas later wrote that he was moved to tears—and not tears of joy.

Even Luther’s closest colleague, Philipp Melancthon, had misgivings and was surprised and angry when he heard of the event. Melancthon did hope, like Erasmus, that marriage might cure Luther of his sharp tongue and “frequent jesting habits.”

But at a time when all of Luther’s attention was needed for the precarious political and theological situation in Germany, Melancthon thought, he was distracted by “that woman” who had chased him around and ensnared him. It showed a real weakness in a man who was otherwise, according to Melancthon, a saint.

Melancthon’s (momentary) ire at his friend’s wedding was perhaps one reason why Luther neither consulted nor invited him, but it helps reveal why Luther’s marriage was such a bombshell—one that had a long-lasting impact both on the course of the Reformation and on marriage and family life in general.

Better to marry than to burn

Already in 1520, five years before his own surprise marriage, Luther had concluded that celibacy—that is, abstaining from marriage and sex—was no longer necessary for a “religious” (someone living a vowed life, like a monk or a nun) or for a priest (that is, a cleric, hence the term “clerical celibacy”). Celibacy for parish priests had been required by parts of the church for a millennium, although only universally since the tenth century. For monks and nuns, a vow to celibacy had been a basic expectation since the origins of Christian monasticism in the third century.

Luther and other reformers questioned the practice both on scriptural grounds and for practical reasons. Practically it was quite clear that many priests (and some religious as well) could not live celibate lives—the priest and his “housekeeper” were stock characters in popular tales, plays, and songs, along with the “lusty” priest or monk who was a threat to honorable wives and maidens.

These stereotypes were true enough for the church to establish fines that priests could pay for taking concubines and for any resulting children. The reformers thought these financial arrangements gave the appearance that the church was winking at such relationships rather than tackling their serious moral deficiencies. Luther thought the church was unwilling to consider any changes because of all the money to be made in collecting fines.

Instead, reformers argued that Scripture quite clearly indicates that men and women were created for each other and for marriage, and were commanded to marry and be fruitful. For Luther marriage was not a human invention after the Fall, as some theologians maintained, but was the basic expectation for all human beings, an integral part of God’s good creation. The sexual drive, for Luther, could no more be ignored than eating or sleeping.

Regarding Paul’s pronouncement that while it is “better to marry than to burn,” it is far better still if Christians can remain unmarried (1 Cor. 7:8–9), Luther acknowledged that a few men are given the gift of remaining celibate. (He questioned whether women are ever given it.) But it is a gift, not something that could be required for the ministry and certainly not something that anybody could make a vow about. Any vows that attempt to set up a higher or different set of requirements than those already required by God are suspect at best and damning at worst.

marriage and ministry

Luther was by no means the first reformer to marry: Melancthon, despite being so aghast at Luther’s nuptials, had already married in 1520; Johannes Bugenhagen (the Wittenberg pastor who performed the Luthers’ wedding; see “From preachers to popes,” pp. 39–44) married in 1523; and Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli did so in 1524. Many others did too, some at great risk if they married in lands still Catholic and under the authority of non-reform-minded bishops.

Luther encouraged many of his friends to marry, writing to another monk in 1525: “Stop thinking about it and get on to it with joy. Your body demands it; God wills it and urges you to it.” But it initially appeared that Luther was not going to practice what he preached—even in early 1525, he wrote to friends that he was not inclined to marry. Knowing he was a condemned heretic, he felt sure that he would experience an early death, and it was hardly fair to bring a wife and children into such a life.

Also the period from late 1524 to 1525 was an incredibly difficult and dangerous time, fraught with frequent uprisings of peasants who cited Reformation teachings of “Christian freedom” as their rationale. It was hardly time, many thought, for Luther to be distracted by marriage—and to undercut popular support of reform by giving support to the idea that the whole movement was based on one monk’s sexual drive.

But Luther thought his marriage was God’s plan: “While I had other matters to think about, God suddenly in a marvelous way threw me into marriage with the nun Katharine von Bora.” He acknowledged that he married for a number of reasons: to please his father (who wanted grandchildren), for companionship (he was, after all, a human being), to show support for the value of marriage, and to provide a suitable home for Katharine, who had fled her convent two years before and was the last of 12 nuns from that convent to find a permanent home.

The practical problems of finding appropriate living situations for women (and men) who left their religious lives behind occupied Luther. But he thought the value of leaving behind the false and hypocritical life of vowed celibacy for lives of true value and vocation in the world far outweighed the challenges.

Marriage, despite its sacramental status in the medieval church, had long played second fiddle to celibacy. The reformers were determined to reverse that. They did not wish to reject celibacy for those truly given that gift, but since they saw the gift as so rare they hardly worried about it.

Instead they sought to fight the mistaken high estimation of an “easy” life of celibacy over marriage. They saw the latter as a life of sacrifice and service, and as the only real and divinely ordained remedy against the sin inherent in sexual desire, which a vow of celibacy could never kill.

This message found a ready ear. Numerous monks left their monasteries, married, and found other professions or became clergy in the growing reform movement. Nuns also left, although in fewer numbers—families were not always willing to receive them back again, and the same economic factors that had driven many women into convents to begin with were still in place. The inability to find a husband of the proper social status or to provide a proper dowry often led parents to send “excess” daughters to convents.

In some German-speaking lands, rather than closing and forcing unprotected women out into the world, convents became Lutheran. They espoused evangelical teachings and offered freedom from restrictive vows, but remained safe homes for unmarried or unmarriageable women.

Women who did leave their convents—especially those who, like Katharine von Bora, married former priests or religious—were often reviled and attacked as “whores” unable to keep their vows on account of weakness and lust. However, in general, areas that became Protestant quickly adjusted to the notion of married clergy. It took a long time before communities were willing and able to support these new clergy families financially. But many were ready to see monks and nuns return to secular status as good tax-paying citizens of their towns.

The “weaker” sex?

Luther and many other writers complained that marriage (and women) had fallen into disrepute in their day. Books and pamphlets repeated criticisms of the married life and its difficulties, and complained about women’s weak nature and behavior. Popular songs, plays, and woodcuts likewise joked and complained about marriage and women.

Luther blamed both the church and the so-called wisdom of ancient Greek and Latin authors for these negative attitudes. The reformers felt that they needed to encourage parents to provide spouses for their children rather than sending them off to monasteries or convents and to encourage young people to marry despite any possible hardships, rather than choosing lives of selfish ease. They saw marriage as central to society, the most important building block of every community.

The reformers argued that church law did not help the situation. First, Catholic doctrine stressed the sacramental nature of marriage; that is, if performed correctly with the right intention, God promises to provide grace through the act. But what if the promises of marriage are not performed correctly? And what if one (or both) of the actors do not intend to engage in a true marriage?

Church law insisted that the sacrament and legal bond of marriage required no witnesses, parental consent, or priestly approval—but only promises of consent from the man, aged at least 14, and the woman, aged at least 12. Cases over contested marriages filled the courts. Secret marriages were the biggest problem. Many people found it appealing to promise marriage to a partner but not always to keep or even “remember” such promises. More often than not, court cases were brought by young women left high and dry (and frequently pregnant) after secret marriage vows. They were not always successful, especially if either partner was already promised to another.

The second complication reformers complained about was the extensive list of impediments to a lawful marriage between a man and woman. Not only was marrying within blood relations forbidden, but also within relationships created by marriage and even by spiritual ties such as godparenthood. Forbidden marriage relationships became so frequent that the church developed payments to excuse brides and grooms from the possible legal restrictions that might prevent them from marrying their chosen spouses.

A sweeping change

Luther’s response was shocking: marriage is a wholly secular matter. In keeping with his views of church and state, he insisted that church laws should not govern who can and cannot marry, who is married, and whether or not such unions can ever be dissolved. He felt marriage decisions should be governed by the state’s laws and judges, according to the principles of natural law.

Furthermore, he argued, while God commands marriage, it is not established by Christ in the New Testament as a sacrament. Instead it is a civil union, in which the church has only an advisory role. The state could and should forbid secret marriages, and it should require public proclamation prior to any official wedding and registration of the union to make it legally binding.

These sweeping changes were introduced widely in Europe over the course of the century—even in Catholic regions—because the problems caused by secret marriages were simply unsustainable.

Likewise, because marriage does not have the permanent quality of a sacrament, Luther felt it was not indissoluble. Divorce and remarriage could be an option. Luther accepted three grounds for divorce: impotence, adultery, and the refusal of sexual intercourse (the “conjugal debt”). Many jurisdictions in Protestant areas began to allow divorce, although the practice remained quite rare: Christians were urged to forgive their partners and seek to live according to the law of love rather than the mere letter of permission.

Luther’s private Life

Luther was not the first priest to marry in the sixteenth century, nor was he arrested or martyred in the end for doing so. All the foremost reformers of the day (apart from Erasmus) married, and most had children. Luther and Katie had six children, two of whom died young, and he experienced all the joys and griefs of husband and father, as he often noted when reflecting upon his life.

If Luther’s own marriage and family life had a larger impact on the Reformation than those of others, it was for two reasons: he had a fairly happy and successful marriage and family life, and he spoke and wrote about it often.

We know far more about Luther’s “private” life than almost anyone else’s in this period, as he shared it in person with many of his contemporaries (his Wittenberg home was always filled with visitors and boarders) and in writing with almost everyone else (he was a hugely popular author and wrote copiously about many topics, including his own life). For centuries admirers have idealized Luther’s home as the proper Protestant parsonage—the prolific intellectual father, the hard-working and thrifty wife, the well-behaved children.

But apart from its beginning, Luther was not particularly radical or trailblazing in his married life. He respected and loved his wife, and disciplined and loved his children. He was not superhuman or without fault, but neither was he cold or distant, unable to navigate the transition from a celibate monastic community to a commonplace family setting with its hustle and bustle, its fears and joys.

In fact it is possible that by his very ordinariness as husband and father, Luther provided the best example for those who looked to him, either to fail or to succeed. His teachings on marriage were revolutionary and had far-reaching impact, but his own marriage and family life, for all its public status, found its continued influence through its very sharing in the common lot of others. CH


mag coversChristian History’s 2015–2017 four-part Reformation series is available as a four-pack. This set includes issue #115 Luther Leads the Way; issue #118 The People’s Reformation; issue #120 Calvin, Councils, and Confessions; and issue#122 The Catholic Reformation. Get your set today. These also make good gifts.


By Beth Kreitzer

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #115 in 2015]

Beth Kreitzer is director of the Liberal Studies Program at Belmont Abbey College and the author of the volume on Luke in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series.
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