A Renegade Monk and Protestantism’s First Lady: a book review

The tales of Martin Luther defacing a door and denouncing the Catholic Church’s captivity to Babylon are well known. The whole Protestant movement owes its origin to the way this cantankerous monk was gripped by the idea of saving grace. The story that many Christians don’t know, or know in far less detail, is that of his marriage to Katharina von Bora.

9781493406098In Katharina & MartinMichelle DeRusha unfolds the love story between the renegade Monk and Protestantism’s first lady. DeRusha previously authored 50 Women Every Christian Should Know.  Here she hones in on the story of a marriage. Meticulously researched, she describes the story of Martin and Katharina’s love—the events leading up to their marriage, the reaction of friends and critics, their shared life and the circumstances of their deaths. DeRusha includes cultural background of the late Medieval ideas of marriage.

Katharina was an aristocratic nun who fled the cloistered life in the midst of the sixteenth century, Protestant awakening. Luther tried in vain to marry her off, but she was not happy with her would-be suitor. Eventually, he married her, himself, albeit partly for practical and political reasons (he had already written on the sacredness of married life and against celibacy). Luther’s primary reason for marrying was wanting to be obedient to what he felt was God’s call.

Luther was not attracted to Katharina at first and there was no spark of romance. Many of Luther’s friends (including his close friend Philip Melancthon) did not approve and actively opposed their union. Yet Luther grew to love his wife and value their partnership. Katharina discussed theology with Luther, managed the household and the family finances. Luther’s would come to speak of his wife with real affection and respect (even if still self-aggrandizing), “Kate, you have a god-fearing man who loves you. You are an empress; realize it and thank God for it” (207). The two of them weathered crises together, including the grief of losing children.

This is popular level history at its best—a compelling read with enough footnotes for the reader to verify the substance. DeRusha relies on good research, referencing documentary evidence and scholarly research rather than opining on Luther and Katharina’s inner thoughts. I enjoyed this book and am happy to have it on my church history shelf. As unique as their relationship was, DeRusha places Martin and Katharina within the late Medieval context.  Martin Luther was neither an arch-Complementarian or Katharina a proto-Egalitarian. Their marriage was countercultural in lots of ways (i.e. Katharina was intelligent, industrious and independent women, but in other ways traditional and deferring to her husband). I give this book four stars and recommend it to anyone interested in church history, the Reformation era, or the history of Christian women.

Note: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review

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