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 1541, 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.