On a fall day in 1541, Martin Bucer stood beside his wife’s bed. The plague that had killed so many in Strasbourg, including three of their children, was now killing her. Elizabeth knew she was dying. She also knew her husband and that he would struggle without her around to help him. So, she asked him to marry her friend, Wibrandis Capito, once she was gone.1 In response, Bucer said nothing, weeping silently.

On November 16, Elizabeth died. The Bucers had been married for twenty-one years—a long marriage in the early modern era—and Martin was devastated. Still in love with Elizabeth, he tried to manage alone. His daughter died in December. Then, his having to pastor a congregation, to engage himself with the Reformation internationally, to raise a surviving preschooler, and to host a home with boarders and frequent guests forced Bucer to reconsider his wife’s plan.2 In the spring of 1542, he married Wibrandis.3 He was Wibrandis’ fourth husband, now stepfather to children from her previous marriages. Though thankful for Wibrandis’ love, care, and godliness, the second marriage made Bucer realize what he had taken for granted in the first. Elizabeth had used her strength in remarkable ways to help him.

Like Katharina Luther, Elizabeth had been given to a convent as a child. She later took vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, only to break them after her conversion by marrying Bucer in 1522.4 “When Martin Bucer snatched her from the convent,” one historian writes, “he showed himself a judge of good women.”5 For two decades, she indirectly facilitated and fueled the Reformation.

Bucer was ordained, so Elizabeth became one of the first pastor’s wives in hundreds of years. It was a bold move, and it took some spirit on her part to make it. A “clerical” marriage broke the law and, with so little precedent, created scandal through Europe. People were conditioned to think more highly of prostitution than clerical marriage.6 The decision to marry angered Rome, but Elizabeth willingly joined Bucer in defying it. Her new husband summed up their feelings: “God has joined us together; he has helped us.”7

As a young pastor full of zeal and conviction, Bucer sought to bring reform to his second post, a church in a small town. Perhaps a lack of tact and patience added to the turmoil that his teaching created. Civil unrest grew. Protestant belief and practice raised so much opposition that Martin and a pregnant Elizabeth ended up escaping the town at night, fleeing to Strasbourg.8

The couple moved in with his parents and, with no pastoral call, Bucer began giving lectures out of a home. The marriage was still an issue, and during these months Rome called on Bucer to stand trial for taking Elizabeth as his wife.9 In its determination to make a clear example of the Bucers’ rebellion, Rome gave biblical marriage a platform. The idea caught on, and in the space of a few weeks, eight Strasbourg pastors took wives.10 The Bucers’ boldness spread the biblical pattern for marriage and family. Roman Catholics spread rumors about infidelity and domestic abuse. Bucer retorted, “The neighbors know that these are lies, for the first quarrel with my wife has yet to come.”11 He was looking forward to a happy marriage for as long as the Lord permitted, and he saw nothing in his wife to dim those hopes.

Because marriage was not an end in itself, when God took it away, Elizabeth could lay out a plan that would continue to facilitate the spread of the gospel through Bucer’s work.

Bucer wrote extensively on marriage—the burning social topic of the 1520s for theologians on both sides of the issue. His thoughts, though sometimes influenced by politics, were extensive, doubtless shaped by his own experience. But apparently Elizabeth gave him more than experience. After Elizabeth’s death, Bucer wrote, “[Wibrandis] is not as free in criticism as my first wife, and I now realize that such liberty is not only wholesome but necessary.”12 Like iron sharpening iron, Elizabeth’s criticism shaped his work and ministry. It must have been done in love for both Bucer and the church, since it seems to have been part of the marriage’s warp and woof. Bucer was known for his willingness to admit and renounce mistakes—something that surely made this give-and-take easier.13 Perhaps Elizabeth’s “necessary” criticism helped give a balance to his later ministry that his early, stormy years lacked. Such “wholesome liberty” was a good example of submission with backbone.

Elizabeth’s daily life was also a blessing, and it refuted Rome’s accusations of debauchery and self-indulgence. Bucer wrote to a friend that Elizabeth “knows how to live a . . . life by which she could serve the advancement of the lives of many people and not be an offence to anybody.”14 In the summer of 1524, he became a preacher in a local congregation.15 No doubt, as the pastor’s wife, Elizabeth faced questions about the changes in liturgy and congregational life.16

On top of unrest, ecclesiastical tensions, and vast hospitality duties, Elizabeth endured around a dozen pregnancies and deliveries.17 The couple buried almost all of their children; only a son with physical and mental special needs survived his siblings and mother. The high infant mortality of the time did not dull the pain of these losses, and Bucer wrote to friends asking them to pray for the health and lives of children. Premature deaths were a fact of life in the early modern era, and almost every family buried a son or daughter. But the grief that Elizabeth bore as a mother was unusual in its scope.

For more than twenty years, Elizabeth “relieved [Martin] . . . entirely all of household duties and child-care, and looked after everything.”18 It seems that until she died, Bucer did not fully understand the extent of her work. That became clear once she was gone. “I only hope I can be as kind to my new wife as she is to me. But oh, the pang for the one I have lost!”19 Elizabeth had given the best years of her life and strength to the marriage. But because marriage was not an end in itself, when God took it away, she could lay out a plan that would continue to facilitate the spread of the gospel through Bucer’s work. That work, which lasted another decade, was a formative force in early Protestantism, even down to the present.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on women of the Reformation and was originally published on November 11, 2020. Anna Reinhard. Anna Adlischweiler. Katharina Schutz Zell. Margarethe Blaurer. Marguerite de Navarre. Jeanne D’Albret. Catherine d’Bourbon. Elizabeth Bucer. Giulia Gonzaga.

  1. Wibrandis Rosenblatt was married, in succession, to Ludwig Keller (1524), Johannes Oecolampadius (1528), and Wolfgang Capito (1532). ↩︎
  2. There is reason to think that Elizabeth’s last pregnancy was in 1539 or 1540. Martin Greschat, Martin Bucer: a Reformer and His Times, trans. Stephen E. Buckwalter (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 257. ↩︎
  3. Before he died, Capito had also asked Bucer to marry Wibrandis, knowing that that Elizabeth was also succumbing. Hastings Eells, Martin Bucer (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1931), 312. ↩︎
  4. Greschat, 201, 40. ↩︎
  5. Eells, 415. ↩︎
  6. Cardinal Campeggio in H.J. Selderhuis, Marriage and Divorce in the Thought of Martin Bucer, trans. John Vriend and Lyle D. Bierma (Kirksville, Mo.: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1999), 68. ↩︎
  7. Selderhuis, 62. ↩︎
  8. Greschat, 45. ↩︎
  9. Eells, 29. ↩︎
  10. Selderhuis, 67. ↩︎
  11. Selderhuis, 118. ↩︎
  12. Roland Bainton, Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg, 1971), 88. ↩︎
  13. Greschat, 141. ↩︎
  14. Martin Bucer to Ulrich Zwingli, June 9, 1524, in Selderhuis, 60. ↩︎
  15. Greschat, 60. ↩︎
  16. Greschat, 63. ↩︎
  17. The exact number is unknown: thirteen is the record that Philip Melanchthon left. Selderhuis, 119. ↩︎
  18. Bucer in Greschat, 201. ↩︎
  19. Bainton, 88. ↩︎

A Reformation of the Heart

Praising God amid the Pressures of Life