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. 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. In the spring of 1542, he married Wibrandis. 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. “When Martin Bucer snatched her from the convent,” one historian writes, “he showed himself a judge of good women.” 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. 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.”
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.
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. 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. 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.” 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.