Book Review: Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk


Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk
Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk

Author: Michelle DeRusha
Publication Date: January 31, 2017
ISBN: 978-0801019104
Page Count: 320
Binding Type: US Hardcover
Publisher: Baker Books

Some authors display courage in their choices of topics, others by the frank honesty of their self-disclosure, and others by daring to traverse terrain through which many writers have traveled before them. Michelle DeRusha, through her work on Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk, falls into the third category. If one were to pick the historical figures to whom the most linear feet of library shelves have been devoted, then, in some order near the top of the list, one would name Jesus, Martin Luther, and Abraham Lincoln.

This year marks the quincentennial of the Protestant Reformation, sparked by Martin Luther’s decision to propose reforms of various practices of the Roman Catholic Church. In the five hundred years that have elapsed since 1517, the consequences—both intended and unintended—of that watershed event have touched most facets of modern Western civilization.

But who was Martin Luther, the man at the center of the debate? This book’s novel and distinctive answer reframes this often-asked question. The author makes a quick and convincing case that one cannot understand the event or the man without grasping the character of his life. And one cannot understand his life without coming to appreciate his marriage. Finally, one cannot understand his marriage without getting to know Katherina von Bora, the former nun with whom Martin, the ex-monk, forged the first marital partnership that one could call a modern, Western marriage.

The reader of Katharina & Martin Luther will turn its pages eagerly as the portrait of the couple comes to life. Martin’s life and thoughts persist in copious, written records, making the challenge in sketching his contribution one of selection. On the other hand, the author’s work creates a kind of biographical–paleontological portrait of Katharina. It’s as if the author has found a scattering of shards—only eight letters from Katharina’s hand survive—and reconstructs the woman’s life from those shards and from judiciously selected studies of the lives of sixteenth-century women generally and women religious particularly.

The delight in reading this book comes in the experience of watching the portrait of the relationship take shape and then comparing the couple’s marriage with contemporary relationships. The experience is like seeing the echoes of the faces of grandparents in the still-changing features of their grandchildren. While Katharina & Martin Luther is a biography, amply researched and documented, the author has found a way to vivify her findings and the book’s subjects by telling their shared story and drawing out its implications. This approach makes the book become a page-turner.

The celebrations and dissections of the Reformation, arguably one of the most significant historical events of the last millennium, will only increase in number as the year proceeds. If you want to begin your journey to appreciate this event’s influence on modern society and your own daily life from a place grounded in history and blooming with insights, then Michelle DeRusha’s Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk is an excellent place to start.

The author included me in a team of readers who received copies of the book before its release.

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Daily Passion

A gloss upon the blessing that concludes daily Morning and Evening Prayer.

Holy Thursday

May the Lord bless us
… with Christ’s command to love others
… with His gift of the Eucharist
… and with His commissioning of ministers

Good Friday

protect us from all evil
… through the Son’s obedience to the Father
… through His bearing of our sins
… and through His death upon the cross

Holy Saturday

and bring us to everlasting life
… by Christ’s descent into the depths
… by His harrowing of hell
… and by His rescue of His children from death

Easter Sunday

… So be it!
… Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
… Alleluia!

Hear the Invitation: Come

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ Let the hearer say, ‘Come.’ Let the one who thirsts come forward, and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water” (Revelation 22:17, New American Bible).

St. John arrives at the end of his vision and audition of the apocalypse—the revelation—of Jesus Christ. He shares the simple invitation he hears from the Spirit of Christ and from His bride, the Church: Come.
Listen. The invitation is for you and for me and for all who thirst for that life-giving water.
Come and see. Come and hear. Come and drink. Come and live.
Come and see the uncountable multitudes gathering around the throne of God the Father. Come and see the white-robed martyrs on bended knees, literally genuflecting before the Father who spoke the word that made them, the Son who died that they might live, the Spirit who anointed them that they might believe.
Come and hear the four living creatures singing an unending acclamation:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come” (Revelation 4:8b).

Come and hear every creature, all made by God, sing unceasing praises in achingly sublime harmony:

“To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever” (Revelation 5:13).

Come and drink. Drink from the clearer-than-crystal river that flows through the heavenly city. Come and drink from the water and the blood that flow commingled from the pierced side of the Son of God. Come and drink and never be thirsty again.
Come and live. Gather with all who have died and who now have been raised from death. Gather with all who died in hope that death would not speak the last word. Gather with all who have heard the living voice of the Lamb say, “Arise. Come forth from your grave. Come and live.”
Come and see. Come and hear. Come and drink. Come and live.

Questions for Reflection

  • Where in your life do you feel thirsty for God’s life-giving water?
  • How do you respond to God’s invitation to come into His presence?
  • Where do you encounter reminders of God’s promise of life-giving water?

Father in heaven, help me to hear your invitation to come to you, to come and to drink the life-giving water that forgives my sin and restores my soul. When I have died, raise me up so that I may gather with all who have heard the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” I pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Southwood Lutheran Church, Lincoln, provides daily devotions by e-mail. This reflection served as the message for Friday, January 10, 2014.

What Became of the Shepherds’ Flock?

In his sermon for Christmas Eve, our pastor, preaching on St. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus Christ, wondered aloud what the shepherds did with their flock after they had heard the angels’ assurance of the birth of the Savior and their promise of the sign the shepherds would find swaddled in the manger. Luke’s gospel does not tell us what became of the flock of sheep.

This morning’s Office of Readings began with the Invitatory psalm—Psalm 95. The antiphon appointed for Christmas framed the psalm, proclaiming:

Christ is born for us; come, let us adore him.

Then, lo and behold, the middle of this psalm, one that begins this office of the Liturgy of the Hours every morning, shone with new light, revealing God’s answer to the wondering question of what became of the shepherds’ flock:

Come, then, let us bow down and worship
bending the knee before the LORD, our maker.
For he is our God and we are his people,
the flock he shepherds.

—Psalm 95:6–7, LH

As David, the shepherd and psalmist, reminds us, we are the flock of sheep. And so, the shepherds do not leave us on the Judean hillside, grazing in the meadow. They bring us with them to the manger. On bended knees, we gather around the manger, and worship in true wonder the One who is our Lord, our God, our Shepherd. Amen.

A Dependable Foundation


St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, October 30, 2012. The liturgy featured the feast of Sts. Simon and Jude, Apostles, transferred from October 28.


Deuteronomy 32:1–4
Psalm 119:89–96
Ephesians 2:13–22
John 15:17–27


Saints Simon and Jude appear in the gospels in the lists of Jesus’s disciples. Sometimes Simon is called Simon the Less or Simon the Canaanæan or Simon the Zealot. This helps us to remember he is not Simon Peter. Jude appears sometimes as Judas not Iscariot or Judas of James or Thaddæus so that Christians will know he is not Judas who betrayed Jesus.

That’s really all we know about these two apostles, their names and that they labored to lay the foundations of the Church. The foundations of a house, when it is ready for habitation, are hidden behind the interior finish and the earth graded back into place around the house. A solid foundation gets no attention; no one who visits our home ever remarks, “What solid footers; what sturdy basement walls.”

This is a good reminder for us as we celebrate the work of Saints Simon and Jude, because their unheralded labors to spread the Good News rest dependably and invisibly beneath us as the footings upon which our lives of faith stand solid.

In the reading from Ephesians, we heard, “… you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19b–20, NRSV). That is a powerful and encouraging word of promise.

It might seem some days—or maybe even most of them—as if our lives are shaky and precarious. Perhaps violent storms threaten to blow off or wash away all we own, while we watch impotently. A devastating diagnosis comes and casts into grave doubt the health we just assumed was ours. The phone does not ring, the letter does not come, and the days turn to weeks and to years since we heard last from a loved one, making the gift of family feel hollow. Controversies arise in the community of the church and division splits the family of God, leading us to wonder what has become of the unity we thought we shared.

These challenges test both us and our faith, but beneath us—always—sits “… the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

“My Hope is Built on Nothing Less,” a beloved hymn, written by Edward Mote in the 1800s, offers us a reminder of Christ’s utter dependability:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’s blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’s name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

Come, let us prepare for the feast of Christ’s body and blood, the solid Rock, the foundation of our faith, passed on to us by the apostles. Amen.

Officiating of Contracts and Blessings of Covenants

The October 2012 issue of The Lutheran, the news magazine of the ELCA, contains an article, “Lutherans & Politics,” by Darrel H. Jodock, appearing on pp. 20–25. On p. 24, the article states:

In matters of public policy, the distinction between the two governances means the church is not to insist that its priorities be made into law. In a religiously pluralistic society, what the church considers right behavior for its members may or may not serve the common good.

For example, Christians bless marriages, but marriage itself is a matter of the state. When a pastor officiates, he or she does so because of state authorization. In matters of marriage, therefore, the primary question for voters should not be what the Christian view of marriage is but what serves the interests of the community as a whole.

The state has a strong interest in stable families because abuse and neglect are costly. But the question of what compelling interest the state has in reserving marriage for heterosexuals deserves careful discussion. People need to decide what is good for society and vote accordingly, but the decision should not be made on the basis only of what Christianity favors. The state needs to protect non-Christians as well as Christians.

This contains several notions that seem odd, to say the least.

  • “… what the church considers right behavior for its members may or may not serve the common good.”
  • “… Christians bless marriages, but marriage itself is a matter of the state.”

These seem to be the two most significant and problematic statements in this portion of the article. They raise a number of questions.

  • What right behaviors does the Church commend that do not serve the common good?
  • How does one square the notion that “marriage itself is a matter of the state” with the liturgical declaration that “the scriptures teach us that the bond and covenant of marriage is a gift of God in which a man and a woman are joined as one, an image of the union of Christ and the church” (Pastoral Care, p. 288)?

On the first point, it seems that if the Church commends behaviors that accord with God’s Word, they would, by their very nature, serve the common good—at least as perceived from the vantage of the kingdom of God. It is hard to see that another perspective should matter to the Church.

On the second point, the quotation does—and rightly so—distinguish officiating and blessing. The pastor’s signature on the marriage license is the act that officiates, while the pastor’s presiding over the liturgical celebration is the act that leads the Church in blessing. Pastors would not need to serve as arms of the state, officiating at the signing of contracts, in order for them to preside over blessings of covenants in worship. The two are absolutely separable and it may be argued that to separate them would serve the common good by making clear the profound and ultimate difference between the two acts and the two items, namely contracts and covenants.

It seems to me that the Church rightly blesses marriages that, as the liturgy states, are “a gift of God in which a man and a woman are joined as one.” Such blessed unions are “image[ s ] of the union of Christ and the church.” Other contractual relationships, recognized as legal contracts by the state, which do not entail “a man and a woman … joined as one,” would not be “image[ s ] of the union of Christ and the church,” and would not, then, be blessed.

The Fort Sumter Issue of 1961: A Commemorative in Conflict


Here is the text of the abstract for a presentation I will make in late 2012.


Postal History Symposium
Blue & Gray: Mail and the Civil War
November 2–3, 2012
American Philatelic Center, Bellefonte, Pa.

The Fort Sumter Issue of 1961: A Commemorative in Conflict
David M. Frye

The centennial of the Civil War afforded the administration of President John F. Kennedy the occasion for announcing the debut of its first series of commemorative stamps—the Civil War Centennial series of 1961–1965. The Post Office Department released the first issue in the series on April 12, 1961, recognizing the one-hundredth anniversary of the war’s opening shots at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. While marking this milestone, the issue landed in the midst of a public and rancorous debate over the nature of the country’s centennial observances and their place in a country experiencing the growth of the civil rights movement.

This presentation will place the Fort Sumter issue in the context of the U.S. Post Office Department’s 1961 commemorative stamp program. A sketch of the controversies surrounding the planned centennial celebrations will provide some historical context for the stamp’s issuance. A survey of the content and presentation of first-day cover cachets will explore how the philatelic community, as a part of this country, reflected the nation’s conflicted views on the nature and meaning of the Civil War.

Taken together, the elements of this survey will illustrate how the history of this commemorative stamp, designed to mark the centennial of the Civil War, itself formed the subject of another chapter in this nation’s long struggle to create “a more perfect union.”

Thoughts About “The End of a Kansas Tradition: Moderation”

A blog on the Web site of the New York Times reflected upon The End of a Kansas Tradition: Moderation.

It’s always hard to put one’s finger on exactly what causes bodies of people to “flock” in particular directions. Nebraska, where I live, voted for FDR in 1932 and 1936, but in 1940 it voted Republican, and has, I think, in every election save 1964 (and Omaha’s district, for Obama in 2008). Kansas looks to have followed the same pattern, turning Republican in 1940, going for Johnson in 1964, and voting Republican for the presidency in all other elections.

In some ways the two states—Kansas and Nebraska—are similar, at least at the level of national elections. Nebraska has a tradition, to be broken this November, of sending relatively centrist Democrats to the Senate (Jim Exon, Bob Kerrey, and Ben Nelson). On the other hand, Nebraska’s unicameral makes comparisons at the statehouse level a little more dicey. Both states exhibit on odd phenomenon where conservatism and “ruralism” are positively correlated, and yet the rural economies depend so heavily upon federal support of agriculture, which is surely a more liberal notion, at least classically.

All of this would lead me to say that the “move to the right” is really the artifact of the decline of the center and the movement of both parties to what, in our country, passes for the extremes. It’s the difference between a rod and a dumbbell of equal masses. The polarity is a matter of distribution. In a nation with a small, undecided center and clusters at the poles, I’d argue that the “correct” candidates for any state are those representing the pole closer to the state’s behaviors. So, in the case of Kansas, given its performance in presidential politics, Republicans are a closer fit, just as Deb Fischer, a Republican, is a better fit to Nebraska than Bob Kerrey, Democrat, at least in 2012’s contest for the state’s open Senate seat.

As far as Secretary Sebelius goes, history will have to judge the influence of her department’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the fissure this created by its perceived (as by those who believe it has been an) infringement upon the free exercise of religion among the nation’s Catholics and others of like mind. I believe this will end up in the Supreme Court as a test of whether the government can constitutionally define what constitutes the free exercise of religion. I believe her rules are an unconstitutional overreach and stand at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church, in which she is a member.

“Wackos” is a little strong. Ferment and innovation typically come from the margins and are co-opted by the middle. This process has a tendency to grind down the burrs and rough edges. The process works the same, regardless of the pole.

Thoughts About “An Ideology without Promise”

Michael Gerson’s column, “An Ideology Without Promise,” appeared on the Web site of the Washington Post on Sept. 20, 2012.

Mr. Gerson’s attempt to help us see the need for subtlety and distinction in an age where the broad brush and the generalization are rampant is a noble one. I’d agree that clinging to ideologies does little to explain the complexity of our current circumstances. His indictment of reductionism is spot-on. What began as an acknowledgment of the Creator-endowed rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has become a frantic clinging to the society-guaranteed entitlements to something akin to “security, license, and the guarantee of painlessness.”

I believe that our culture, as embraced by both left and right, has gone a long way toward surrendering those rights because we find them a difficult and sometimes challenging responsibility to bear. Instead, we seek to minimize risk and hardship at the cost of our freedom, which as a gift from God, is always relentlessly communal and not individualistic.

Mail and the Civil War Attracts Postal Historians

New Oxford, Pa, — September 21, 2012 — The role of mail in the Civil War will serve as the focus of “Blue & Gray: Mail and the Civil War” when the seventh annual Postal History Symposium meets at the American Philatelic Center, Bellefonte, Pa., on Nov. 2–4, 2012. Produced jointly by the American Philatelic Research Library, the American Philatelic Society, and the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, the three-day event annually draws postal historians, collectors and scholars from a diverse array of disciplines.

The symposium features a dozen presentations on the Civil War’s local postal history, postal uses, the cultural impact of the mail and the economic influences of the mail system. Topics including the following: “Decorated Envelopes as Weapons of War”; “Balancing the Books: Newspapers & the Postal Business of the Confederacy”; “Transatlantic Peace Advocacy and the Fight for Ocean Penny Postage”; and “Union and Confederate Soldiers’ Stationery: Their Designs and Purposes.”

The Postal History Society, one of the affiliates of the American Philatelic Society, includes several of the event’s presenters among its members: Alan Parsons, Diane DeBlois, Robert Dalton Harris, Terence Hines, Douglas N. Clark and David M. Frye.

Saturday evening will feature a banquet with a keynote speech by Dr. Joseph M. Adelman, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Framingham State University, Framingham, Mass. His scholarship attends to the media, communication and politics of the early periods of American history. The United States Postal Service awarded him the junior Rita Lloyd Moroney Award for Scholarship in Postal History in 2011 for his research article, “‘A Constitutional Conveyance of Intelligence, Public and Private’: The Post Office, the Business of Printing, and the American Revolution.”
The United States Philatelic Classics Society will hold its 2012 philatelic exposition in conjunction with the symposium. The exposition will offer exhibits and a philatelic dealers’ bourse.

The Postal History Society, founded in 1951, encourages the study of postal history—broadly understood—among more than 600 members around the world. More information about the society, including membership and the society’s journal, published in February, June and October, is available on its Web site.

Details about the symposium and registration information are available on the Web.