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Learning with the Luthers

by Kathryn A. Kleinhans

When you hear the name Martin Luther, what’s the first picture that comes to mind?

Perhaps you imagine Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517. Perhaps you imagine him making his bold “Here I stand” speech before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Do you ever picture him at home, surrounded by his wife and children and friends?

On June 13, 1525, the former Augustinian friar Martin Luther married the former Cistercian nun Katharina von Bora. Two years earlier, Luther had helped Katharina and 11 other nuns escape from their convent. Katie needed a husband, and Martin thought he should practice what he preached about married life being more pleasing to God than life in a monastery or convent. Their marriage began as a practical decision rather than a love match, but husband and wife came to love each other dearly. Luther talked about the surprise of finding pigtails on his pillow and the comfort of having someone to turn to when anxieties kept him awake at night. “I wouldn’t give up my Katie for France or for Venice,” he once remarked.

The Luthers had six children: Johannes (Hans), Elisabeth, Magdalena, Martin, Paul, and Margarethe. Luther’s letters show us that the household was a loving one. We read affectionate banter between the spouses. Sometimes when he was traveling Luther closed a letter by asking his wife to kiss the children for him. He mentions receiving letters the children have sent him while he is away. In one letter, he tells Katie he has been unable to buy a gift for the children and asks her to have something ready for him to give them when he returns. These letters show us a family more like ours than we may have imagined. Martin Luther, who stood up against the emperor and the pope, delighted in his children.

The Luthers’ household was an expansive one. In addition to their own children, the Luthers raised seven orphaned nieces and nephews. Katie’s aunt, another former nun, also lived with them. They took in students as boarders and accommodated other guests as well. The Luther household was a bustling one and often short of money, but one of the students who lived with the Luthers, Veit Dietrich, once commented on how grateful he was for the faith and devotion he witnessed in the Luther house. What a compliment. What a blessing if others experience such faith in our homes!

The Rev. Dr. Kathryn A. Kleinhans holds the McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission at Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa, where she has taught since 1993. She and her husband Alan Schulz, also an ELCA pastor, are the parents of two adult sons.

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