JAC Online

Luther and Marriage
by Major JoAnn Shade


In the second verse of “The Farmer in the Dell,” children heartily sing, “The farmer takes a wife.” Such was the case for Martin Luther, monk, reformer, and yes, also farmer. As a member of a religious order as well as a long-time theology chair at the University of Wittenberg, Luther and his fellow religious were expected to remain unmarried. After he was excommunicated, he did not hold his fellow reformers to their previous vows of celibacy, but he had no plans of his own to marry. Only six months before he “took his wife,” he had written to a friend, “I shall never take a wife, as I feel at present. Not that I am insensible to my flesh or sex (for I am neither wood nor stone), but my mind is averse to wedlock because I daily expect the death of a heretic.”


Yet eight years after he presented his ninety-five theses to his bishop, thus firing the first volley of the Protestant Reformation, the forty-six-year-old Martin Luther took one of the women he had helped liberate from the monastery of Marienthron as his bride. Katharina von Bora had lived within the convent walls since the age of five, and was one of twelve nuns smuggled out of the cloister in herring barrels. Assuming responsibility for their well-being, Luther had found husbands for the other women, but Katharina had been more difficult to settle. In fact, she had vowed to marry only Luther or his fellow reformer, Nikolaus von Amsdorf.


Like most marriages, the motives of Martin and Katharina were many, and some remain unknown, but Luther himself noted that “his marriage would please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.” By all reports, if not love at first sight, their union was a fruitful and satisfying one.


In the five centuries since Luther and his contemporaries began to marry, both marriage and the role of the clergy have changed. However, Dr. and Mrs. Luther clearly paved the way for Christians to enter into the vocations of ministry and marriage. In 1520, he wrote, “Priests should be free to marry and not to as they choose, because God has not bound them and no one else ought to bind them.” Thus, as Trevor O’Reggio suggests, “Luther saw no contradiction between the divine calling of God and marriage . . . thus overturning a well-established tradition within the Catholic church.”


Were Martin and Katy Luther alive today, they’d agree with Henri Nouwen: “The basis of marriage is not mutual affection or feelings, or emotions and passions that we associated with love, but a vocation, a being elected to build together a house for God, in this world.” Today’s married clergy are thankful that, in his “irascible and earthly style,” Luther brought reform through “the power of his pen and the courage of his life” (O’Reggio), so the sacred calling to build that holy house is open to all.









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