Martin Luther on Marriage as a School of Character
“Before I was married,” Martin Luther recalled, “the bed was not made for a whole year and became foul with sweat. But I worked so hard and was so weary I tumbled in without noticing it.” However, when Martin married the runaway nun Katherine Von Bora, whom Luther called Katie, the bed was made, the sheets were changed, and the house was kept clean! But life was not all roses for Luther once he was married.
Martin quickly learned that marriage means sacrifice, looking out not only for the needs of yourself but also of your wife and family. "There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage," he wrote. "One wakes up in the morning and finds a pair of pigtails on the pillow which were not there before.” Roland Bainton, in his biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand, comments, “He soon discovered that a husband must take the wishes of his wife into account” (226). To take but one example, if it were not for Katie, Martin would have attended Spalatin’s wedding, encountering violence from peasants in order to get there. Luther no longer could just think of himself, but he now had a wife (and soon many children) to provide for.
A Resourceful Woman
Martin brought nothing into his marriage but some old books and smelly clothes. The Luthers started off with little financial advantage. The responsibilities around the house were not light either. Katie had to work the house and land they lived on to meet the needs of their household. Luther cared for the garden and Katie the orchard, pond, and barnyard. Katie slaughtered the hens, pigs, and cows herself! Martin wrote of Katie in a letter from 1535, “My lord Katie greets you. She plants our fields, pastures and sells cows, et cetera [how much does that et cetera cover?]. In between she has started to read the Bible. I have promised her 50 gulden if she finishes by Easter. She is hard at it and is at the end of the fifth book of Moses.”
Eventually Martin had a farm at Zulsdorf, managed by Katie. The Luthers would spend time out at the farm every year. Comically Martin wrote to his much-loved Katie, “To the rich lady of Zulsdorf, Mrs. Dr. Katherine Luther, who lives in the flesh at Wittenberg but in the spirit at Zulsdorf.” And at another time, “To my beloved wife, Katherine, Mrs. Dr. Luther, mistress of the pig market, lady of Zulsdorf, and whatsoever other titles may befit thy Grace.”
Martin was not an easy one to take care of. Often he was sick and at various times (if not all at once) he suffered from gout, insomnia, catarrh, hemorrhoids, constipation, stone, dizziness, and ringing in the ears. Bainton observes Martin’s love for Katie during these hardships:
Katie was a master of herbs, poultices, and massage. Her son Paul, who became a doctor, said his mother was half one. She kept Luther from wine and gave him beer, which served as a sedative for insomnia and a solvent for the stone. And she brewed the beer herself. When he was away from home, how he appreciated her ministrations! After a year of marriage he wrote to a friend, “My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me that I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus.” He paid her the highest tribute when he called St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians “my Katherine von Bora.” He began to be a trifle worried over his devotion: “I give more credit to Katherine than to Christ, who has done so much more for me."
Martin and Katie loved one another, and Martin valued Katie for taking such good care of his sorry body.
A Growing Household
The Luther household soon grew in number by leaps and bounds. Katie gave birth to a son, Hans. Martin wrote, “My dear Katie brought into the world yesterday by God’s grace at two o’clock a little son, Hans Luther. I must stop. Sick Katie calls me.” In his typical humor, Luther wrapped Hans in swaddling clothes and then said, “Kick, little fellow. That is what the pope did to me, but I got loose.” What I appreciate most about Luther’s journal entries at this point is how true his comments are to real life. As cute as Hans might have been, the late nights with a screaming baby were tiresome and a hardship. “Hans,” Luther said, “is cutting his teeth and beginning to make a joyous nuisance of himself. These are the joys of marriage of which the pope is not worthy.” Total, the Luthers had six children: Hans, Elizabeth, Magdalena, Martin, Paul, and Margaretha. Luther said of Elizabeth when she was born on December 10, 1527, “God has produced from me and my wife Katie a little heathen.”
But the ongoing noise of Luther’s household was not only due to their children but also to the many friends and students who were constantly at Luther’s doorstep. One of the most outrageous examples occurred on the night of Martin and Katie’s wedding. At eleven o’clock there was a knock at the door. It was Carlstadt, who was fleeing from the Peasants’ War, seeking a place to stay. Of course, the Luthers took him in. Carlstadt would not be the last. The Luthers took in the sick on many occasions. Most impressive, however, was the love the Luthers had for orphans. Martin and Katie adopted four orphaned children from their relatives, making a total of ten children (!) in the Luther household. Known for an open door, at times the Luther family had up to 25 children and student boarders under their roof. Needless to say, this was no small task for Katie. Even the mealtimes in the Luther household were occupied. Martin’s famous Table Talk came from the table where the Luthers had their supper. Students were always at his table asking questions into the late hours of the night. But the exhaustion was overwhelming, so much so that one night, when Martin was talking at the table, Katie went up to her room and literally passed out.
Life was hard. Family life was hard. Marriage was hard. And yet, Martin and Katie loved each other tremendously. They viewed marriage as a school of character, whereby God uses the hardships of daily family life to sanctify us. Bainton puts the matter as well as anyone:
In this sense it displaces the monastery, which had been regarded by the Church as the training ground of virtue and the surest way to heaven. Luther in rejecting all earning of salvation did not exclude exercise in fortitude, patience, charity, and humility. Family life is exacting. The head of the house has the lifelong worry over daily bread. The wife has the bearing of children. During pregnancy she suffers from dizziness, headache, nausea, toothache, and swelling of the legs. In travail her husband may comfort her by saying, “Think, dear Greta, that you are a woman and your work is pleasing to God. Rejoice in his will. Bring forth the child. Should you die, it is for the noble work and in obedience to God. If you were not a woman, you should wish to be one, that you might suffer and die in so precious and noble a work of God."
Perhaps nowhere is the “school of character” more evident than in raising children. If you are a parent you know how stressful it can be and how trying to your own sanctification it can be to have a child who is relentless, disturbing the entire household with screams during the night. I know I do, and my wife more than I. Luther’s household was no exception. Bainton writes,
The rearing of children is a trial for both parents. To one of his youngsters Luther said, “Child, what have you done that I should love you so? You have disturbed the whole household with your bawling.” And when a baby cried for an hour and the parents were at the end of their resources, he remarked, “This is the sort of thing that has caused the Church fathers to vilify marriage. But God before the last day has brought back marriage and the magistracy to their proper esteem.” The mother of course has the brunt of it. But the father may have to hang out the diapers, to the neighbors’ amusement. “Let them laugh. God and the angels smile in heaven.”
Marriage and Patience
Martin’s words were never lacking the combination of biblical truth and humor. Luther exclaimed at one point, “Good God, what a lot of trouble there is in marriage! Adam has made a mess of our nature. Think of all the squabbles Adam and Eve must have had in the course of their nine hundred years. Eve would say, ‘You ate the apple,’ and Adam would retort, ‘You gave it to me.’”
Katie’s patience ran dry as well. She snapped at Luther one time, “Doctor, why don’t you stop talking and eat?” Luther snapped back, “I wish that women would repeat the Lord’s Prayer before opening their mouths.” But Bainton explains why their patience with one another, and especially with their many children, may have run out at times:
Part of the difficulty was that the rhythm of work and rest did not coincide for Luther and his wife. After a day with children, animals, and servants, she wanted to talk with an equal; and he, after preaching four times, lecturing and conversing with students at meals, wanted to drop into a chair and sink into a book. Then Katie would start in, “Herr Doktor, is the prime minister of Prussia the duke’s brother?”
Martin knew his patience was hard to find at times. He once said, “All my life is patience. I have to have patience with the pope, the heretics, my family, and Katie.” But as Bainton rightly observes, Martin “recognized that it was good for him.” Again, marriage and family was a school of character.
Despite the hardship of daily life, Martin loved Katie enormously. And he knew that marital love grows stronger over time. “The first love is drunken. When the intoxication wears off, then comes the real marriage love.” And again Luther wrote, “Union of the flesh does nothing. There must also be union of manners and mind.”
Martin’s love for Katie was evident especially when she was sick. He wrote, “Oh, Katie do not die and leave me.” Martin could not stand the thought of losing his “rib,” as he so often called Katie in joking.
But Martin and Katie loved their children as well, and they loved them more than life itself. Perhaps the most difficult trial Martin and Katie experienced was the death of their 14-year-old daughter, Magdalena. On her deathbed Martin prayed, “O God, O love her so, but thy will be done.” Bainton explains what happened when she died:
Luther reproached himself because God had blessed him as no bishop had been blessed in a thousand years, and yet he could not find it in his heart to give God thanks. Katie stood off, overcome by grief; and Luther held the child in his arms as she passed on. When she was laid away, he said, “Du liebes Lenchen, you will rise and shine like the stars and the sun. How strange it is to know that she is at peace and all is well, and yet to be so sorrowful!”
Peace and sorrow. May the marriage of Martin and Katie, as well as their love for their children, remind us today of Christ’s love for his church and the Father’s love for us as his redeemed children.