Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on women of the Reformation. Next post. Previous post.
Huldrych Zwingli praised Matthew Zell’s wife, Katharina, saying, “She combines the graces of both Mary and Martha.” Intense and capable, Katharina became the early Reformation’s leading female author. Sometimes called the “Mother Reformer,” she spent herself in gospel service.
Born in 1497 in Strasbourg to a middle-class family, Katharina received a good education. She developed a deep religious zeal while young but struggled with assurance of her salvation, feeling that her deeds were never enough. But in her late teens, new doctrines came through town. Around 1518, Matthew Zell arrived, preaching the gospel to crowds in the cathedral. Biblical truth turned the city largely to Protestantism. In the congregation, Zell’s future wife accepted Scripture’s truth. Katharina’s search for spiritual security was gone—assurance of salvation came with an understanding of Christ’s finished work.
Marriage and Work
Pastor and parishioner were married December 3, 1525. Katharina was supportive of her husband, who was twenty years older. She said she and Matthew were “of one mind and one soul. . . . What bound us together was not silver and gold. Both of us possessed a higher thing, ‘Christ was the mark before our eyes.’” It was one of the first Protestant marriages—a bold step for both husband and wife as it broke canon law and defied Rome. But it was a step that the Lord blessed.
Katharina’s education and growing understanding of the Bible allowed her to defend her views by word and pen. Sometimes it seemed that she outdid her husband in this; Martin Bucer shruggingly said that Katharina was “a trifle imperious.” But he also said that she was “as God-fearing and courageous as a hero.”
Katharina’s first published work was a defense of clerical marriage. This not only refuted false accusations about her marriage but also helped people rethink the issue. She stated that Roman Catholic arguments against clerical marriage were not based on Scripture but on the pope’s system of taxing the rampant prostitution among the clergy. Katharina’s behavior counters the stereotype of a helpmeet being spineless and needy. Her direct and frank rebuttal made her known throughout Europe.
She was also busy caring for Protestant refugees: “I have already in the beginning of my marriage received many excellent and learned people in their flight, and comforted them as God has said: ‘Support and strengthen the weak knees.’” When Protestants had to flee from Baden, the Zells took in an old doctor. Later, he was in a Roman Catholic prison and said that memories of Katharina’s kindness comforted him. In 1524, 150 men were driven out of Kentzingen and fled to Strasbourg. Zell welcomed eighty of them into his house. Katharina cared for them and wrote to their wives, encouraging them to stand firm in their faith.
During the German Peasants’ War, three thousand more refugees poured into Strasbourg. Katharina was continually busy. Zell delighted in her service, which was a joint endeavor. At their wedding, Matthew had commissioned her to be a “mother to the poor and refugees”—she was doing what they believed God wanted her to do.
Theologians came, too. Bucer fled Weissenburg, finding refuge in Mrs. Zell’s house. When John Calvin fled France, Katharina welcomed him. In 1529, a debate between Martin Luther and Zwingli brought many Reformers to Strasbourg, and Katharina hosted again: “I have been for fourteen days maid and cook while the dear men Oecolampadius and Zwingli were here.”
Family also took up Katharina’s time. Her parents and siblings lived nearby. And Katharina gave birth to her own baby as well, likely in 1526. Both parents were thrilled. But in February 1527, the baby died. “Matthew seemed to cope better, but Katharina especially struggled.” Sometime around a period of serious illness in 1531, Katharina gave birth to a second baby. It is unclear how long this child lived, but by 1533, this child, too, had died. In addition to a mother’s grief, Katharina the theologian worried that the deaths were a chastisement from God. Friends assured her they were not, but the grief and struggle to understand were still great.
Though the double loss was a deep valley for Katharina, it does not seem to have slowed her service to others or her care for the church. She wrote often for truth and peace. She sent Luther a letter, asking him to treat the Swiss with a little more mildness in the controversy about the Lord’s Supper, and received a reply that was more polite than was usual for Luther.
While she was staunch for the truth, she was more sympathetic toward the Anabaptists than were many of the other Reformers. Her love for Christ gave her a love for all of Christ’s people.
During a time of plague in 1641, Katharina nursed many people in Strasbourg—including her husband—back to health. Once more, she saw a clear calling to serve, and her fearless obedience shone.
Widowhood and Conflict
Her work aged her. But she was still active when her husband died on January 9, 1548. The city magistrates allowed Katharina to stay in the cathedral parsonage, which kept her from poverty.
Despite failing health, Katharina continued her care for the sick. In 1558, one of the city magistrates contracted leprosy. His own family was denied visitation, but Katharina gained permission to see him and encouraged him in his affliction. There was also a nephew with syphilis who was sent to a hospital. Feeling a family burden for him, Katharina lived with him there for a time, giving him the quality care that the staff did not.
After Zell’s death, Strasbourg changed, and Katharina became involved in her most public and painful controversy. When her husband was alive, they had a student, Ludwig Rabus, live in their home as an intern. He became Zell’s successor and the city’s most popular preacher. Despite his training, he attacked Reformed views and customs, urging high Lutheranism. Katharina’s tolerance did not extend to one abusing her husband’s pulpit and theology, and she wrote against Rabus. Her writings against him are the most notable of her works, as their defense of truth and very public, controversial nature placed Katharina in the role of Reformer.
In 1557, Rabus answered her; the letters move from theological-political issues to personal attacks on Katharina, whom he called “disturber of the peace of the church.” She replied in a letter to the whole city. Her language was severe and eloquent: “Do you call this disturbing the peace that instead of spending my time in frivolous amusements I have visited the plague infested and carried out the dead? I have visited those in prison and under sentence of death. Often for three days and nights I have neither eaten or slept. I have never mounted the pulpit, but I have done more than any minister in visiting those in ministry. Is this disturbing the peace of the church?” And later: “You young fellows tread on the graves of the first fathers of this church in Strasbourg and punish all who disagree with you.” It was a time that caused her sorrow.
By 1558, Katharina’s study of the Scriptures, partly flowing out of her grief at Matthew’s death, theological divisions, and a friend’s sufferings, was published. A commentary on Psalms 51 and 130 and the Lord’s Prayer, it is more meditative than her other writings, showing an author spiritually developed by the means of grace and sorrow. It was her last published work.
She continued to protect and provide for persecuted Protestants, continuing her labors of love until she died. The date of her death is unknown. She was living on March 3, 1562; a letter she wrote that day survives, saying that she was “often half dead with her long sickness.” Certainly by the end of that year, at the age of sixty-four, she was in glory. A few years earlier, she had written to a friend:
I see before my eyes and welcome the time of my release; I rejoice in it, and know that to die here will be my gain, that I lay aside the mortal and perishable and put on the everlasting immortal and imperishable. I am now sixty years old, and I have walked before God in fear of Him and despising the world for fifty years, so that I can say with the holy Ambrose: “I have lived so that I am not ashamed to continue to live among the faithful, but I do not fear to die, for I am certain that in Christ I will live again and that in Him I have a gracious God forever.”