Scandal! Ex-Nun Marries Former Priest

In the early morning hours one Easter, 12 young runaway nuns climbed into empty fish barrels and were smuggled out of their convent. Their unlikely hero was a renegade monk they had written to, imploring him to rescue them so they could leave the convent, marry, and one day become mothers. The escape was a daring and successful adventure, and it led to a most unusual friendship and marriage. The hero monk? Martin Luther.

Luther is widely known as one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. Among the most important people to walk the earth, he lived from 1483 to 1546 as a contemporary of Johannes Gutenberg, Copernicus, Henry VIII, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Christopher Columbus, and John Calvin. A copper miner’s son, he was born in Germany some 120 miles outside Berlin.

After a powerful encounter with God in which he was nearly struck by lightning, Luther became a priest and a monk. This included taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience for the rest of his life. Examining his own sin with a brutal honesty and brilliant legal mind, he nearly drove himself mad seeking to make himself righteous in God’s sight out of a terrifying fear of God. This included endless prayer, severe fasting that gave him significant intestinal problems, sleepless nights, freezing cold, and even beating his own body in an effort to atone for his sin.

But by the grace of God, Luther had an epiphany that changed not only his life but also the lives of countless others. While studying the Bible, he learned that righteousness is a gift God gives by grace from and faith in Jesus Christ and not something earned or merited through human religious and moral performance.

Because of the prominence of Martin Luther the theologian, very little attention is given to Martin Luther the husband; however, constantly looming in the background of his works is the ever-present influence of his wife, Katherine von Bora Luther.

Katherine was born on January 29, 1499. She was only six years old when her mother died, and she was sent to a Benedictine cloister to be educated. Around the age of nine or ten she moved to a convent, and by 16 she was a nun. At this same time, miles away, Luther was beginning to disagree with the Catholic Church’s teaching on the preferability of singleness and celibacy in honoring God above marriage. Though himself still a virgin, Luther began teaching and writing on marriage from the Bible, culminating in his booklet On Monastic Vows, which condemned much of the monastic lifestyle.

Among the readers of Luther’s booklet were Katherine and the other nuns in her convent. They longed to escape, marry, and become mothers. So they wrote to Luther, asking the renegade monk to help them escape. To do so was an offense punishable by death. Nonetheless, after their rescue, three of the nuns returned to their families immediately, and the remaining nine were taken to Luther’s Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg. Luther helped six of the nuns find a home, husband, or job. Eventually every one of the nuns was married with the exception of Katherine—whose devoutly Catholic family did not want her back.

Luther tried repeatedly to find a husband for Katherine, with no success. Being a very bold woman, she went so far as to tell Luther that if he could not find her a husband, she expected him to step up and become her husband. But Luther did not marry for many reasons, including the following: “Because I daily expect the death decreed to a heretic.” And he simply did not want to marry, saying, “Good God … they will never thrust a wife on me!”

Much to everyone’s surprise, eight years after leaving the priesthood, the ex-monk Martin married the ex-nun Katherine in the backwoods of rural Germany on June 13, 1525. One of the reasons Martin gave for his marriage was to spite the devil, which is perhaps the least romantic statement ever uttered. Their marriage was a public scandal and arguably the most significant marriage outside the Bible in the history of the world. They set in motion a model for Christian faith and maturity through marriage, sex, and children, rather than through singleness and celibacy.

What is perhaps most curious is that their marriage did not start with love or attraction, but rather with a commitment to the principles of the Bible and service to God. William Henry Lazareth in his biography on Luther wrote, “Martin and Katie did not get along very well because of their clashing temperaments and personalities.”

Certainly they were not romantically in love, and there is no evidence that any kind of courtship preceded their marriage. Martin even confessed to his friends afterward that of all the fugitive nuns, the proud and haughty Katie alienated him. As Lazareth records, Luther wrote, “I never loved Katie then for I suspected her of being proud (as she is), but God willed me to take pity on the poor abandoned girl.”

Making matters worse, the Luthers’ critics were relentless. A folktale in that day said the Antichrist would be born from sex between a priest and a nun, which led to wild speculation about what their children would be like. And Martin’s nemesis, Erasmus of Rotterdam, spread a vicious rumor that they married only because Martin impregnated her out of wedlock. This was a lie he repudiated three months later, but the damage to the Luthers’ reputation was done. Another powerful critic said, “You have truly sinned … nightly wanton and chamber with a nun … Obstinate and defiant wretch … captured by the net of eternal damnation; be merry until you descend into hell, as you surely will, where, infernal brand! you will burn forever, and be eaten alive by the never dying worm” (Lazareth, 25). Even Martin’s friends were not fond of the hasty married, and he reported that many cried with grief upon hearing of it.

On top of all this, the couple lived in great poverty yet with great responsibility. They had three boys and three girls during their first nine years of marriage. Tragically, one daughter died at the age of 13 months and another at 13 years in the arms of her devastated father. By all accounts, Katherine was a wonderful mother and Martin a loving and fun father who spent his evenings playing music for his children and teaching them the Bible, which was a welcome and joyous diversion from his busy and stressful life.

Martin’s old 40-room monastery became their home, and Katie quickly went to work cleaning the bachelor pad, including throwing out the straw bed Luther had not changed in more than a year, decorating the home, planting a garden for fresh food, changing Martin’s diet to nurse him to health and help overcome his legendary flatulence problem, and growing herbs.

Their home was bustling with activity. Martin was constantly studying and publishing to fuel the Protestant Reformation, preaching and teaching, working on translating the entire Bible into German, traveling, and keeping up a vast correspondence with ministers across many nations. Apparently Katherine often sat with Martin as he wrote letters, for they frequently included sections about what Katherine was doing at the time and the greetings she sent. Their home was constantly filled, and as many as 25 people lived with them at any one time, not to mention the 11 orphans they sheltered. Dinners there often fed more than 100 people.

The couple’s early years were reportedly awkward, likely because neither had spent much time in the company of the opposite sex during their monasticism. Martin reported, “Katie used to sit down next to me while I was studying and, not knowing what to say, would begin to ask questions like: ‘Dear doctor, is the prime minister of Prussia the duke’s brother?’”

Something that helped them learn to live together in love was their willingness to dish out and take a joke. They were known for being brutally honest with each other, poking fun at each other, and doing so as friends. For example, when he would start to bristle against her, she would commonly retort that perhaps a little prayer should occur before “preaching a sermon.” His letters often teased her, but Katherine certainly could hold her own. Martin often struggled with severe depression, and it was very difficult to pull him out of his funk. But Katherine found creative ways to do so. John Piper and Justin Taylor share in their book that on one occasion she dressed up like a grieving widow in black mourning attire and met Martin at their door upon his return home. “Are you going to a funeral?” he asked. “No,” she replied, “but since you act as though God is dead, I wanted to join you in the mourning.” Luther quickly recovered!

Through their years together, the Luthers built a genuine friendship. This is easily noticed in the letters we have from Martin to his wife. His favorite title for her was “Lord Katie.” He also called her his “dear rib,” “Sir Katie,” “the empress,” “my true love,” “my sweetheart,” and “a gift of God.” In a romantic statement that perhaps only a theologian’s wife could truly appreciate, Martin referred to his favorite book of the Bible, Galatians, as “my Katerine von Bora [sic].”

When he suffered from catarrh, kidney stones, constipation, insomnia, dizziness, and a buzzing—“not a buzzing but a roll of thunder”—in his head, she nursed him back to health. When he would fall into his frequent bouts with severe depression, she would hold him, pray for him, comfort him, and read Scripture to him. She drove the wagon, looked after their fields and gardens, purchased and pastured cattle, brewed beer, rented horses, sold linen, helped edit his writings, prepared meals, kept house, raised kids, entertained guests, and was often awake by 4 a.m. and working until 9 p.m. She was such an incredibly hard worker that Martin had to frequently urge her to relax and even offered to pay her to sit down and read her Bible. She reportedly had a keen theological mind and often sat with Martin and visiting theologians to discuss and debate theology, something unusual for a woman in that day.

The tenderness with which Martin spoke of his wife increased throughout their marriage. He wrote, “I am a happy husband and may God continue to send me happiness, from that most gracious woman, my best of wives.”

Luther’s earlier teaching on marriage essentially portrayed marriage as a sort of necessary evil to stave off sexual temptation. But, as his loving marital friendship with Katherine grew, his perspective matured as suggested by statements such as, “The greatest gift of grace a man can have is a pious, God-fearing, home-loving wife, whom he can trust with all his goods, body, and life itself, as well as having her as the mother of his children.”

After preaching what would be his final sermon, Martin died at the age of 62, while away from his beloved Katie. In his will he said, “My Katherine has always been a gentle, pious, and faithful wife to me, has loved me dearly.”

The above is a story of one great marriage friendship between Martin and Katherine Luther that Grace and I share in our book and I in my sermon this week, “Friend with Benefits.” The Luthers' story shows that, though marriage isn’t always based on friendship, by God’s grace, a great friendship can happen in even the most unlikely scenarios. Friendship is an important and unfortunately overlooked aspect of marriage and big reason why Grace and I wrote Real Marriage. It’s our prayer that as you look at your marriage, you would evaluate whether you are a good friend and share a good friendship with your spouse. If so, continue to cultivate that friendship. If not, begin working on your friendship now so that you can exit this life holding hands, enjoying each other's company and memories, and giving glory to God.