2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the ELCA, the 40th anniversary of women of color, and the 10th anniversary of LGBTQ+ siblings.
It’s an incredibly important marker for the ELCA, though it is only the beginning for the Church, as women are still denied ordination across the denominations and hold less than 15% of the leadership positions in the worldwide church! Therefore, in 2020, we in the Oregon Synod will highlight one woman from Christian history every week. Some you may know, others you may not, but all worthy of our respect and gratitude.
#44: Katharina Von Bora Luther
Katharina von Bora was one of the many religious sisters of the 16th century who was inspired by the liberating ideas of a radical priest named Martin Luther. When she eventually married Martin, she became one of the few educated, literate women of her time who could also claim to be a mother, a wife, and a businesswoman.
Katie grew up in a convent in the southern part of Germany and took her vows as a teenager. She might have stayed there if not for the writings of Martin Luther. Three things moved her: 1) the notion of reading and interpreting holy scripture for herself 2) finding God’s grace to be all-encompassing, and 3) Luther’s absolute rejection of clericalism—that calls only priests and nuns “holy.” She prayed for months and eventually decided to leave the convent. This was an extremely dangerous undertaking. At this time, a person caught abandoning their monastic vows could be tortured and imprisoned for the rest of their lives.
Along with some similarly minded sisters in her convent, she wrote to Luther for help escaping, and he agreed. In 1523, the day before Easter, they left hidden in the back of a wagon carrying large barrels of herring. When they arrived in Wittenberg—smelling to high heaven—they were greeted by Luther himself. Now he needed to help them settle into society. First, he tried to return them to their families, but their families refused. Aiding and abetting a runaway nun was a crime. Next, he tried to marry them off. The main problem? Their age. At this time most girls married as teenagers—Katie was already 24!
Martin was able to find mates for all the women except Katie. She had a fiancé who left her when his mother disapproved. She had other suitors, but she was unwilling to marry below her standards. Because Katie von Bora was literate, as were most former nuns, she was able to find work while taking classes at the university. After two years had passed, Katie made it clear she would be open to marrying Martin—not for the faint of heart!—as along with the constant threat of danger his notoriety brought, he also had no stable income. For these reasons—along with not wanting to give ammunition to the idea that his only interest in reformation was getting out of his vow of celibacy—he was hesitant to marry. However, he eventually agreed to wed Katie in 1525, when he was 42 years old. They settled at Black Cloister, the former Augustinian monastery in which Luther had lived as a friar. It was a large household for Katie to manage, but by this time she was becoming a very accomplished woman: she grew crops, fished, practiced herbal medicine, raised cows and pigs, and brewed beer. She used the empty rooms as a boarding house of sorts for students, orphans, the sick, the houseless, and refugees. She gave birth to six children (four would live to adulthood). She also adopted orphans of Luther’s family—niece, nephews, and a great-nephew.
One of Katie’s life-long goals was to help ease Martin’s melancholy. She yearned to keep him engaged in their family life as well. She used her humor to break through his black moods. One day she dressed all in black, stopped working, and proclaimed God was dead (because what else could explain his foul mood?). She used her sass and courage to oppose his attempts to isolate himself, as when he locked himself in his office, and she had a workman come and remove the door.
They were extremely close. When Martin died, in 1546, he left everything to her (instead of the children, which was the custom of the time). However, she was unable to maintain Black Cloister without his income. The remaining years of her life were not easy. Political tensions were high and violent. Black Cloister was destroyed. She died in 1552 fleeing an outbreak of the plague. Her last words: “I shall cling to Christ as a burr clings to a coat.”