Martin Luther—the Story of his Life - E. Singmaster

Marriage and Family Life

In the midst of his anxiety about the Peasants' War and his difficulties with Erasmus, Luther took a step which pleased some of his friends, displeased others, and startled all. He had long since declared that vows of celibacy were void, and now he determined to marry. He declared that only fools and fanatics thought marriage a reproach, and pointed to "Abraham, David, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, and all the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, as well as many holy martyrs and bishops" as examples of pious men "who knew that God had made them men and were not ashamed to be and to be thought so and therefore considered that they should not remain alone." He was not carried away by admiration or affection for any particular person, since he had not decided who his bride should be.

Among those who had vowed themselves to the life of the cloister and who had been affected by the new teaching were the nuns in a convent at Nimbschen. Of these, twelve decided to escape. Among them was Catharine von Bora, a pious and modest young woman of good education, who at the age of five had been consigned to the cloister and who at the age of fifteen, responding naturally to the influences about her, had been consecrated as a nun.

Nine of these young women came, destitute and poorly clad, to Wittenberg. Before long all were provided for either by marriage or in other ways, except Catharine, who went to live in the home of a former burgomaster. She was not long without admirers, or, indeed, without love affairs. Not beautiful in feature, she possessed the greater attractiveness of a good mind, much more education than most young women of her age could boast of, and a practical acquaintance with all the lore of housekeeping and even of farming.

That Luther had for a long time not the least intention of marrying "Katie," as he afterwards called her, is shown in his active interest in her possible marriage first to a rich young man who was in love with her and later to another suitor. Finally, appreciating her ability and her many attractive qualities, and with the calm mind of a man of forty-one rather than the impetuous passion of youth, Luther married her himself on the evening of June 13, 1525, at the Black Cloister. In his own words, "I was not carried away by passion, for I do not love my wife that way, but esteem her as a friend." Two weeks later the wedding festivities were held with many guests, among them old Hans and Margaret, who had embraced their son's evangelical faith and who now rejoiced greatly. To the newly married pair the Elector, the town, and the university sent presents.

The marriage brought to Luther great happiness. Katie put to use all her housewifely skill and the Black Cloister, which had for so many years sheltered an unnatural assemblage of men, became the comfortable abode of a Christian family. Katie cared for her husband with the most tender anxiety; she administered his affairs admirably, and truly loved him. For her and her energy and ability Luther had whole-hearted admiration. "I would not change my Katie for France and Venice," said he, "because God has given her to me, and other women have much worse faults, and she is true to me and a good mother to my children." "I am rich, God has given me my nun and three children: what care I if I am in debt, Katie pays the bills."

There grew in the hearts of the late-wedded pair, not merely respect and admiration for each other, but a true and deep affection which was not without the romance of early youth.

To them were born six children, Hans, Elizabeth (who lived less than a year), Magdalene (who lived to be thirteen), Martin, Paul, and Margaret. Though Luther was almost middle-aged when the oldest of his children was born, and though his life was filled with important affairs, he made himself their companion and playfellow. During an absence from home, he wrote little Hans a letter which shows the tenderness and skill with which he adapted a great truth to the mind of a child:

"Grace and peace in Christ, dear little son. I am glad to hear that you are studying and saying your prayers. Continue to do so, my son, and when I come home I will bring you a pretty present.

"I know a lovely, pleasant garden where many children are; they wear golden jackets and gather nice apples under the trees and pears and cherries and purple plums and yellow plums, and sing and run and jump and are happy and have pretty little ponies with golden reins and silver saddles. I asked the man who owned the garden whose they were. He said, 'They are the children who say their prayers and study and are good.' Then said I: 'Dear man, I also have a son whose name is Hans Luther; may he come into the garden and eat the sweet apples and pears and ride a fine pony and play with these children?' Then the man said: 'If he says his prayers and is good, he may come into the garden and Phil and Justy too, and when they all come they shall have whistles and drums and fifes and dance and shoot little cross-bows.' Then he showed me a fine large lawn in the garden for dancing, where hang real golden whistles and fine silver cross-bows. But it was yet early and the children had not finished eating and I could not wait to see them dance, so I said to the man: 'My dear Sir, I must go and write at once to my dear little Hans about all this, so that he will say his prayers and study and be good, so that he may come into the garden, and he has an Auntie Lena whom he must bring with him.' Then the man said; 'All right, go and tell him about it.' So, dear little Hans, study and say your prayers and tell Phil and Justy to say their prayers and study too, so you may all come into the garden together. God bless you. Give Auntie Lena my love and a kiss from me.

"Your loving father,


The "Aunt Lena" alluded to was Katie's aunt, who had been like her an inmate of the convent of Nimbschen and who became a valued member of Luther's household.

In the education of his children Luther took a deep interest. In their minds and childish ways, he found a never-ending store of illustrations. "We must rejoice in the Lord, but such a joy will often lead us astray, too. David had to endure many a temptation until he turned to the fear of God and remained therein. Therefore he says in the Second Psalm, 'Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling.' They go together—joy and fear. My little Hans can do it before me, but I cannot do it before God. If I sit and write and Hans sings a song over there and plays too noisily, I speak to him about it and he sings more quietly with care and reverence. So God will have us always joyful, with but fear and honor to him."

The family in the Black Cloister was not limited to Luther's own immediate kin. Anxious to improve her husband's estate, Katie took student boarders. Besides there were many guests, among them at various times twelve nieces and nephews, and needy folk of all kinds. No matter how crowded the Black Cloister, there was always room for one more needy person; no matter how pressed for room the family table, another plate could quickly be set.

The students and guests, both regular and irregular, took constant note of all that Luther said. This material when collected became his "Table Talk." It is not uniformly valuable as a record of historical facts, but is invaluable as a revelation of the man Luther. Expressions of the most sublime spiritual emotion appear beside humorous accounts of household events or contemporary happenings. The variety of the affairs upon which he was consulted as well as the amusement with which he regarded the self-appointed amanuenses are shown in an incident which one of them recorded.

"After the doctor had gone to his room for the night, a messenger came with a note from the widow of a pastor of Belgern with a request for a husband. Luther said to the messenger: 'She is of age and must look out for herself; I cannot help her.' When the messenger had gone, he laughed and said to me: 'For Heaven's sake, Schlaginhaufen, write that down too. Isn't it a nuisance? They must think I am a matrimonial agent. Fie on you, old world! Friend, write it down and mark it!'"

Overzealous as the amanuenses sometimes were in recording conversations with which a later age has been impatient, they recorded much without which our picture of the man would be incomplete. Over and over in various ways and in simple language, at the family table and in family gatherings, Luther expressed those principles which he had declared in his books and sermons.

"The world does not know the hidden treasures of God. It cannot be persuaded that the maid working obediently and the servant faithfully performing his duty, or the woman rearing her children are as good as the praying monk who strikes his breast and wrestles with his spirit."

"The principal study of theology is to learn of Christ and know Him well."

"Since our Lord God has made this transient kingdom, the sky, the earth and all things in them, so beautiful, how much more beautiful will he make the eternal kingdom."

"How wonderful it is that God is so rich! He gives enough, but we don't .appreciate it. He gave to Adam the whole world, but that was nothing; what he cared about was a single tree, and so he must ask why God had forbidden it to him. It is the same to-day. God has given us enough to learn in His revealed Word, but we leave that and seek after his hidden will, which, however, we are unable to learn. Therefore it is no more than right if in acting thus we are utterly ruined."

Music, in Luther's opinion, was one of the greatest gifts of God to mankind. In the Black Cloister the family sang not only in the evening, but at meals, both secular and sacred songs. Singing not only drove away care, but even the devil himself "flees from the sound of music as he does from the exhortation of religion." Music, said Luther, should be taught to young people and should be supported by the State, "for the preservation of the arts as well as of the laws is the work of monarchs." He deplored the fact that while there were so many fine secular poems and songs there were so few fine spiritual songs. This need he did his best, both by his own efforts and by the encouragement of others, to supply. He said that if David were to arise from the dead he would be astonished at the progress that had been made in music. With what joy would Luther have hailed the master of all modern musicians, John Sebastian Bach, who was two centuries later to raise Lutheran music and all music to a height never before attained or since surpassed!

For one of the members of his household, a devoted servant, Wolfgang Sieberger, Luther wrote a letter which reveals his playful humor. It pretended to come to Luther from the birds which Wolfgang tried to snare.

"We thrushes, blackbirds, finches, linnets, goldfinches and all other pious, honorable birds, who migrate this Winter over Wittenberg, give your kindness to know, that we are credibly informed that one Wolfgang Sieberger, your servant, has conceived a great wicked plot against us, and has bought some old, rotten nets, very dear to make a fowling-net out of anger and hatred to us. He undertakes to rob us of the freedom God has given us to fly through the air, a thing we have not deserved of him. All this, as yourself can imagine, is a great trouble and danger to us poor birds, who have neither houses nor barns nor anything else, and so we humbly and kindly pray you to restrain your servant, or, if that cannot be, at least to cause him to strew corn on the fowling-net in the evening and not to get up in the morning before eight, so that we can continue our journey over Wittenberg. If he will not do this but keeps on wickedly seeking our lives, we will pray God to plague him, and instead of us to send frogs, locusts and snails into the fowling-net by day and at night to give him mice, fleas, lice and bugs so that he will forget us and leave us free. Why does he not use his wrath and industry against sparrows, swallows, magpies, crows, ravens, mice and rats? They do you much harm, rob and steal corn, oats and barley even, out of the houses, whereas we only eat crumbs and a stray grain or two of wheat. We leave our case to right reason whether he has not done us wrong. We hope to God, that as many of our brothers and friends escaped from him, we too, who saw his dirty old nets yesterday, may escape from them.

"Written in our lofty home in the trees with our usual quill and seal.

"'Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap nor gather into barns; yet our Heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?'"

The years brought grief as well as joy to the Luther family. The death of the baby Elizabeth was truly mourned and the death of Magdalene almost prostrated the mighty reformer. Of her he said, "God has given no bishop so great a gift in a thousand years as he has given me in her." Both Luther and his wife had serious illnesses and Luther's health failed steadily. Never comfortable, he was often visited by torturing pain in which he prayed that his life might end. The death of his father in 1530 and of his mother in 1531 caused him keen sorrow. If the discipline of his youth was ever resented, the resentment was long since forgotten. "Now I am sorrowful," he wrote, "for I have received tidings of the death of my Father, that dear and gentle old man whose name I bear, and although I am glad for his sake that his journey to Christ was so easy and pious and that, freed from the monsters of the world he rests in peace, nevertheless my heart is moved to sorrow. For under God I owe my life and bringing-up to him.'

In joy and sorrow, in sickness and health, whether affairs were moving smoothly along or whether vindictive enemies or rebellious servants annoyed and angered him, Luther continued his hard work, teaching, preaching, and attending to a large correspondence and to multitudinous affairs of greater or less importance.

His popularity as a teacher did not abate. Until the day of his death he employed that simplicity of speech which he felt to be one of the chief requirements for a good teacher. His interest in his students did not end with the delivery of the lecture, for he took great pains to discover whether the lessons were really understood. Though he might be impatient with the Papist, he was always patient with youth. Said he: "Some masters rate the proud youngsters to make them feel what they are, but I always praise the arguments of the boys, no matter how crude they are, for Melanchthon's strict manner of overturning the poor fellows so quickly displeases me. Every one must rise by degrees, for no one can attain to true excellence suddenly."

Luther's busy pen produced in all four hundred and twenty works which range in size from small pamphlets to large books. Indifferent for the most part to his style, anxious only to make his thought clear, he is the finest writer of his age and one of the finest writers of all time.

In order that the doctrines of the Church might be easily comprehended, he prepared the Large and Small Catechisms in which the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer were expounded clause by clause, the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist were explained, and various forms of prayer were given. Of the two the Small Catechism is the greater. Avoiding all polemics, all disputation, all attacks upon those who had perverted the truth, Luther translated into the simple language of children and of unlearned men the great truths of the gospel, and produced thereby one of his most enduring works. To the simplicity, beauty, and truth of this "layman's Bible," as Luther called it, many have testified, none more eloquently than the historian Von Ranke. Said he: "It is as childlike as it is profound, as comprehensible as it is unfathomable, simple and sublime. Happy he whose soul was fed by it, who clings to it! He possesses an imperishable comfort in every moment; under a thin shell, a kernel of truth sufficient for the wisest of the wise."

The Small Catechism had at once an enormous circulation. Edition after edition was printed until in less than forty years a hundred thousand copies had been sold. The claim of Lutherans, that next to the Bible it is the most widely translated and circulated book in the world, is probably justified.

In 1532 Luther completed his greatest work, the translation of the Bible which he had begun with the translation of the New Testament at the Wartburg in 1521. The translation of the Old Testament was begun in 1522 and was published in four parts. Luther was assisted by Melanchthon, and two other scholars, Aurogallus and Rorer, and when all Was finished a revision was made with the additional aid of Cruciger, Bugenhagen, and Jonas.

The work was much more difficult than that on the New Testament, even with the able assistance of other scholars. Luther made humorous comment upon its difficulties. "We have so much trouble translating Job, on account of the grandeur of his sublime style, that he seems to be much more impatient of our efforts to turn him into German than he was of the consolations of his friends." Again: "I am now at work translating the Prophets. How hard it is to make the Hebrew writers speak German! They withstand our efforts, not wishing to give up their native tongue for a barbarous idiom, just as the nightingale would not change her sweet song to imitate the cuckoo whose monotonous note she abhors."

The virtues of the New Testament translation are the virtues of the Old. Sound in scholarship, noble in style, free in idiom, yet faithful to the original, the German Bible remains Luther's greatest monument.