Our memory of what took place during the sixteenth-century Reformation has been somewhat selective. As heirs of Reformed Protestantism, we have remembered it chiefly as a recovery of the gospel and the biblical way of worship. But we also need to recall it as a great recovery of the biblical understanding of marriage.
Building on the monastic piety of late antiquity—found in authors such as Augustine and Jerome—the medieval church had come to regard the celibate life of the monastery or nunnery as the seedbed of a spirituality far superior to that found in the homes of those who were married. The celibate, it was argued, lived the life of the angels, and thus already experienced in some ways the life of the world to come. With the growing corruption of the church in the late Middle Ages, however, the reality was that far too many of the clergy were celibate but not chaste.
Luther, Pioneer Husband And Father
Although Martin Luther was not the first of the Reformers to marry and have a family, his marriage to Katharina von Bora on June 13, 1525, became in many ways the paradigmatic ideal for the Protestant family. Initially, their marriage was no love match. Katharina had escaped from a nunnery in Nimbsch, near Grimma, with a number of other nuns and wound up in Wittenberg seeking refuge. For a time, Luther acted as a sort of marriage broker, seeking to find husbands for the nuns. Eventually, Katharina alone was left, and Luther married her, he said, to please his father, who had always wanted grandchildren, and also, as Luther inimitably put it, to spite the pope.
These are hardly the best of reasons for marriage, but in time, their marriage “blossomed into a partnership of real depth and touching devotion,” to quote Andrew Pettegree in his recent study of Martin Luther. This “joyous success” of Martin and Katharina’s marriage and the six children who came from their union became, in Pettegree’s words, “a powerful archetype of the new Protestant family.” Luther’s love for his children led him to rightly see that central to the joys of marriage was the gift of sons and daughters. And “people who do not like children,” he once said in his blunt style, are “dunces and blockheads, not worthy to be called men and women, because they despise the blessings of God, the creator and author of marriage.”