by Mary Helene Rasmussen Jackson—
During my years researching the Reformation, I quickly learned that most people know three things about the event: Martin Luther had something to do with it; he pounded the 95 Theses (whatever they are!) on a church door; he married a nun.
There is much more to the story. The Reformation began 100 years before 1517. The 95 Theses were complaints about church teachings, meant for academic discussion. And, yes, he married a former nun—Katharina von Bora, an extraordinary woman who stood in strength by his side.
How can we honor Katharina, who was born on January 29, 1499? We can only try to recover her life from a century in which most women could not read, had limited legal rights, faced death from pregnancy, buried half their children and disappeared into the shadows of history. But here are 15 facts related to this incredible woman about which most scholars agree:
The von Bora family was of noble lineage but lost its fortune and lived in near poverty. Katharina’s mother died of an unknown disease. Her father remarried Margaret von Ende.
At the age of 9, she entered Nimbschen Convent near Grimma, in Germany’s Mulde Valley. Because her father could not afford a dowry, future marriage was impossible; she could become a nun or face spinsterhood, a disgrace at that time.
Katharina took her final vows of silence, poverty and charity at age 16. These promises were irreversible upon penalty of excommunication, shame and eternal separation from God and the Holy Mother Church.
We do not know her reason for leaving the convent. We do know that six years after the firestorm of the 95 Theses, she and others secretly left in 1523. They may have been aware of the peasants’ march for religious freedom by limited contact with a nearby Augustinian monastery where some of them had brothers. Luther had visited that monastery.
After their rocky trip to Wittenberg, Luther found jobs and sometimes husbands for the young women. Katharina learned household duties in the upscale Reichenbach and Cranach homes. She met and almost married a student, Hieronymous Baumgaertner, from Nuremberg. His parents refused permission and arranged a “suitable” marriage for him with a 14-year-old. Marriage with a former nun was a crime.
Mary Helene Rasmussen Jackson is the author of Daughter of the Reformation, A Historical Perspective of the Life and Times of the Wife of Martin Luther.
This article is excerpted from the January/February 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.