Reinventing Family Life

For a thousand years, the single, celibate life had been upheld as the Christian ideal. Sex, though grudgingly permitted inside marriage, was not to be enjoyed. As Jerome declared in the fourth century, “Anyone who is too passionate a lover with his own wife is himself an adulterer.”

Then came Luther.

Luther elevated marriage and family life; in one scholar’s words, he “placed the home at the center of the universe.” His teaching and practice were so radical, so long-lasting, some scholars have argued that other than the church “the home was the only sphere of life which the Reformation profoundly affected.”

In this excerpt from Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution (Doubleday, 1992), Dr. Steven Ozment introduces Luther’s views on women, sex, marriage, divorce, and children. If Luther’s ideas seem tame today, it is only because so many people have accepted them.


When we think of Martin Luther, we understandably think first of the monk and theologian who wanted to reform the church, a great man of God seemingly obsessed with sin and the Devil and lost in otherworldly pursuits. But the monk and the theologian who wrote the 95 Theses was also a husband and the father of six children.

While still a celibate priest, Luther wrote extensively on marriage. He portrayed marriage as an institution as much in crisis as the church and no less in need of reform. He described marriage as “universally in awful disrepute,” with peddlers everywhere selling “pagan books that treat of nothing but the depravity of womankind and the unhappiness of the estate of marriage.”

Luther was a leading defender of the dignity of women and the goodness of marriage. He is well-known for his jesting comments, “Women have narrow shoulders and wide hips. Therefore they ought to be domestic; their very physique is a sign from their Creator that he intended for them to limit their activity to the home.” Luther, however, also deserves to be known as the century’s leading critic of Aristotle’s depiction of women as botched males. Luther also criticized the church fathers (Jerome, Cyprian, Augustine, and Gregory) for “never having written anything good about marriage.”

Chastising Chastity

Like the church fathers, the clergy of the Middle Ages were obsessed with chastity and sexual purity. Augustine portrayed sexual intercourse in Paradise as occurring without lust and emotion. A vernacular catechism from 1494 elaborates the third deadly sin (impurity) under the title, “How the Laity Sins in the Marital Duty.” According to the catechism, the laity sin sexually in marriage by, among other things, having sex for the sheer joy of it rather than for the reasons God has commanded, namely, to escape the sin of concupiscence and to populate the earth.

Luther and the first generation of Protestant clerics rejected the tradition of ascetic sexuality in both their theology and their lives. This rejection was as great a revolution in traditional church teaching and practice as their challenge of the church’s dogmas on faith, works, and the sacraments. They literally transferred the accolades Christian tradition heaped on the religious in monasteries and nunneries to marriage and the home. When Jerome, writing in the fourth century, compared virginity, widowhood, and marriage, he gave virginity a numerical value of 100, widowhood, 60, and marriage 30. “Faith, not virginity, fills paradise,” the Wittenberg pastor Johannes Bugenhagen retorted in the 1520s.

When Protestant towns and territories dissolved cloisters and nunneries, they believed they were freeing women from sexual repression, cultural deprivation, and domination by male clergy and religious. Among the leaders of the Reformation, it was widely believed that in most cases women had been placed in cloisters against their will. 

 

Luther actively encouraged fathers to remove their daughters from convents. In 1523, for example, he praised Leonhard Koppe, who successfully plotted the escape of his daughter and eleven other nuns, among them Katherine von Bora, Luther’s future wife. Koppe regularly delivered herring to the cloister and apparently smuggled the sisters out in empty herring barrels. Luther published a pamphlet account of the deed, comparing Koppe’s freeing of the sisters with Moses’ deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt. Where the Reformation succeeded, new laws prohibited boys and girls from entering cloisters, and monks and nuns wishing to marry received permission immediately to do so.

Luther liked to turn traditional criticisms of women and marriage back onto the clerical critics. He once described marriage, for example, as the only institution where a chaste life could be maintained, and he insisted that “one cannot be unmarried without sin,” arguments that baffled the defenders of celibacy. Nothing seemed to Luther to be a more natural and necessary part of life than marriage. “Marriage pervades the whole of nature,” he disarmingly pointed out, “for all creatures are divided into male and female; even trees marry; likewise, budding plants; there is also marriage between rocks and stones.”

Finding a Companion

Luther had a high regard for the ability of women to shape society by molding its youth and civilizing its men through the institution of marriage. “A companionable woman brings joy to life,” he told his table companions one evening. “Women attend to and rear the young, administer the household, and are inclined to compassion; God has made them compassionate by nature so that by their example men may be moved to compassion also.”

Once Luther told a visiting Englishman that he should learn German from Luther’s wife, Katie, because she was the more fluent, indeed, “the most eloquent speaker of the German language.” On more than one public occasion, Luther described Katie as his “lord.” “I am an inferior lord,” he would say, “she the superior; I am Aaron, she is my Moses.” He bore her outspoken criticism of his poor business instincts with respect and good humor. Once he concluded, “If I can survive the wrath of the Devil in my sinful conscience, I can withstand the anger of Katherine von Bora.”

Luther also acknowledged his respect for Katie’s abilities in his last will and testament. Ignoring the German practice of appointing a male trustee to administer a deceased husband’s estate for his widow and children, he directly designated her “heir to everything.”

Katie earned such respect from her husband, whom she excelled in virtually all worldly matters. She became a model housewife and an accomplished businesswoman. To increase their income, she remodeled the old cloister in which she and Martin lived so that it would accommodate up to thirty students and guests. She also expanded the cloister garden and repaired the cloister brewery. She became locally famous as a herbalist, and her beer was so renowned that Luther once took samples to the electoral court. He dubbed her “the morning star of Wittenberg,” as her day began at 4:00.

Luther obviously meant it when he said “there is no bond on earth so sweet nor any separation so bitter as that which occurs in a good marriage.” His comments on marriage leave the impression of an experienced husband who had given the matter a lot of thought. Take, for example, the following analysis: “In the beginning of a relationship love is glowing hot; it intoxicates and blinds us, and we rush forth and embrace one another.” But once married, we tend to grow tired of one another, confirming the saying of Ovid: “We hate the things that are near us, and we love those that are far away.”

“A wife is easily taken,” he added, “but to have abiding love, that is the challenge. One who finds it in his marriage should thank the Lord God for it. Therefore, approach marriage earnestly and ask God to give you a good, pious girl, with whom you spend your life in mutual love. For sex [alone] establishes nothing in this regard; there must also be agreement in values and character.”

According to Luther, both he and Katie had “begged God earnestly for grace and guidance” before they married. They had in fact had a long association with each other in Wittenberg between 1523 and 1525. (This engendered much gossip, as Luther was a constant visitor at the home of Lucas Cranach, where Katie, a renegade nun under Luther’s supervision, lodged. According to Catholic pamphleteers, he and Katie “lived together” in Wittenberg before they married.)

Permitting Divorce

Because of the importance attached to companionship in marriage, the reformers endorsed for the first time in Western Christendom genuine divorce and remarriage. Although they viewed marriage as a spiritual bond transcending all other human relationships, a marriage could definitively end this side of eternity and a new one begin for separated spouses. In his earliest writing on such matters, Luther expressed “great wonder” that the church forbade people irreconcilably separated and living apart because of adultery to remarry. “Christ,” he pointed out, “permits divorce for adultery and compels none to remain unmarried [thereafter], and St. Paul would rather have us [re]marry than burn [now with lust and later in hell].”

In the medieval church, divorce had meant only the separation of a couple from a common bed and table, not the dissolution of the marriage bond and a right to marry again. So long as both lived, a divorced couple remained man and wife in the eyes of the church and were so treated by law where the church prevailed. In practice, this meant that the turmoil of a failed marriage might never end for a couple.

Protestants, by contrast, generally permitted divorce and remarriage on five grounds: adultery, willful abandonment, chronic impotence, life-threatening hostility, and willful deceit (such as when a presumed virgin is discovered after marriage to have given birth previously to an illegitimate child). Most Protestant writers sympathized with the position of the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer, who declared no proper marriage to exist where affection was not regularly shared and all conversation had ceased.

Protestant marriage courts did not permit divorce and remarriage to occur without first making every effort to reunite an estranged couple and revive the dead marriage. All concerned deemed reconciliation preferable to divorce in every case.

When a table companion once expressed to Luther the belief that adulterers should be summarily executed, Luther rebuked him with a local example of how harsh punishment had done more harm than good to a couple. A pious wife, who had borne her husband four children and had never been unfaithful, one day committed adultery. For the transgression, her enraged husband had her publicly flogged.

Afterward, Luther, Pastor Bugenhagen, and Philipp Melanchthon tried to persuade the couple to reconcile. The husband was willing to take her back and let bygones be bygones, but the wife had been so humiliated by the flogging and the resulting scandal that she abandoned her husband and children, wandered away, and was never seen again. “Here,” Luther comments, “one should have pursued reconciliation before punishment.” Chronic and willful public adultery, however, was treated harshly and without regret.

Both spiritually and socially, Lutheran theology held the community formed by a husband and a wife to be society’s most fundamental. The marriage bond was too important to be allowed to stand when all conversation, affection, and respect between a husband and a wife had irretrievably broken down. The same bond was also too important to allow a marriage to die without a fight to save it.

Raising Children

Luther had six children (Hans, Elizabeth, Magdalene, Martin, Paul, and Margaretha), whom he subjected to high moral standards and strict discipline. “My greatest wish,” he once confided at table, “is that none of my children become lawyers,” a sentiment that expressed his association of lawyers, along with Jews and papists, with a legalistic frame of mind that knew nothing of charity toward others or salvation by faith.

Luther could be a stern father. Once he punished Hans, his eldest, for an unspecified but serious moral lapse by forbidding him to be in his father’s presence for three days. At the end of this period, he required the boy to write a letter begging his father’s forgiveness, to which letter Luther replied that he would sooner have his son dead than ill-bred.

Nevertheless, Luther urged parents always to discipline their children with forethought and caution, taking into account the unique personality of each. Once he explained his entrance into the monastery as a cowardly act that had resulted from his parents’ too strict discipline, which he believed had rendered him timid. He did not think the discipline wrong or the punishment undeserved. But he accused his parents of not taking sufficiently into consideration the effect of their punishment on him.

If a parent’s reaction to the death of a child may be taken as a commentary on parental character, Luther was a deeply loving father. When Elizabeth died at 8 months, he commented “I so lamented her death that I was exquisitely sick, my heart rendered soft and weak; never had I thought that a father’s heart could be so broken for his children’s sake.” Magdalene’s death in 1542 at age 13 overwhelmed him. He wrote to his friend Justus Jonas, pointing out that while he and his wife should be thanking God that Magdalene was now “free of the flesh and the Devil,” neither could do so. “The force of our natural love is so great that we are unable to do this without crying and grieving in our hearts ... [and] experiencing death ourselves ... The features, the words, and the movement of our living and dying daughter, who was so very obedient and respectful, remain engraved in our hearts; even the death of Christ ... is unable to take all this away as it should. You, therefore, please give thanks to God in our stead.”

Returning home from her funeral, he tried to console himself by declaring that he had always been more merciful to girls than to boys, because girls needed more care and protection than boys, and that he now gladly gave Magdalene to God because he knew that God would provide her all the care and protection she needed, adding pitiably: “but in my human heart, I would gladly have kept her here with me.”

The theologian and man of faith was also a husband and a father who taught that “no power on earth is so noble and so great as that of parents.” The success of his Reformation was, arguably, most unambiguous in the domestic sphere. CH

By Steven Ozment

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #39 in 1993]

Dr. Steven Ozment is professor of history at Harvard University and author of When Fathers ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Harvard, 1983) and Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution (Doubleday, 1992).
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