Following Phoebe

Katharina Zell: A Woman of the Reformation

"Reformation Garden" mural at the Artist House in Wittenberg.1

The 31st of October.

Most people know it as Halloween. Reformed Protestant Christians know it as Reformation Day.

On this day in 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Chruch in Wittenberg. And this event became one of the key events which sparked the Protestant Reformation.

The Reformation brought about the translation of the Bible into the common languages in Europe, which became widely available with the contempory invention of the printing press, so that regular people could read the Bible themselves instead of relying on the priests of the church to tell them what the Latin Bible said. The movement overturned the practices of the church at the time including:

  • indulgences
  • teachings of purgatory
  • intermediary relationships with the saints etc., instead teaching that Jesus is the only mediator (solo christo)
  • that we are justified by faith and works, but rather teaching that it is by faith alone (sola fide)
  • that we can earn greater grace by merit. Teaching that it is only God who gives grace for salvation and humans can do nothing to earn more (sola gracia)
  • the equal authority of church tradition and Scripture but instead teaching that Scipture alone has authority for the teachings of the church (sola scriptura)
  • glory being given to humans, including saints and popes. They taught instead that God alone is worthy of all glory (soli Deo gloria)

The Reformation also generally introduced an attitude of people reading the Word of God for themselves which was lost over the preceding 1000 years.

Most of the people we learn about who brought about the Reformation are men like Luther, Calvin, Knox, Zwingli, Cranmer, the Puritans etc, etc. But apart from Luther's wife Katharina, how often do we hear about women in the Reformation?

A friend recently sent me some of the readings from their studies at Bible College about the women of the Reformation. So given that it is new to me to learn about Reformation women, I thought I'd share it with you on this 499th Reformation Day.

Because I haven't read too widely on many of the women in the Reformation, I'll just focus on one German woman, Katharina Schütz Zell. But I found this list of other influential women from other European countries during the Reformation which might be helpful for looking at them in more detail later!

Katharina Schütz Zell

The Reformation brought a move away from the holiness of celibacy which was seen as fitting for clergy and those who devoted their lives to God. This lead to monastic life being disrupted. Priests and nuns gave up the celibate life, got married and had lots of kids. In fact this is how Martin Luther became married because he match made a whole bunch of reform minded nuns and Katharina von Bora was the only one left unmarried, and so he married her. Despite the less than romantic beginnings, they served God together until Luther died.

While Katharina Schütz was not a nun, she was one of the first Protestant women to marry a member of the clergy. Her husband was a priest named Matthew Zell.

In fact, one of her best known works of writing was an apologetic for her husband titled "Katharina Schütz’s Apologia For Master Matthew Zell, Her Husband, Who is a pastor and servant of the Word of God in Strasbourg, because of the great lies invented about him". In this work, published in 1524, she defended herself and her husband against lies being spread about them, and in doing so defended clerical marriage using the Scriptures and a strong wit. She was very concerned about preventing stumbling blocks for the common person which was a hallmark of the reformation, and this drove her to write strongly and critically of many who opposed the Reformation movement.

Published in the same year was also a letter Katharina wrote; "Letter to the suffering women of the Community of Kentzingen, who believe in Christ, sisters with me in Jesus Christ". This was a letter to Christian women in Kentzingen in the south of Germany, encouraging them to stand firm in their suffering for Christ's sake. It's a really beautiful letter from one sister in Christ to a group of others full of exhortations and encouragements from God's word. It was not only the women this was addressed to who ended up reading this letter, in fact, Katharina's writing was so widely read that Martin Luther was familiar with it and recieved a personal copy of this work!

During her lifetime she also wrote a collection of hymns called "Hymnbook of the Bohemian Brethren" published in 1531, a collection of songs between 1534 and 1536 called "Some Christian and Comforting Songs of Praise about Jesus Christ our Savior".

Towards the end of her life, a man who previously had lived in her house, Ludwig Rabus, preached against her and called her a disturber of the church. She responded by writing the aptly titled "A Letter to the Whole Citizenship of the city of Strasbourg from Katharina Zell, Widow of the (Now Blessed) Matthew Zell, The Former and First Preacher of the Gospel in This City, Concerning Mr. Ludwig Rabus, Now a Preacher of the City of Ulm, Together With Two Letters: Hers and His. May Many Read These and Judge Without Favor or Hate But Alone Take to Heart the Truth. Also a Healthy Answer to Each Article of His Letter".

Her last published work before her death in 1562 was fittingly an encouragement: "The Misere Psalm Meditated, Prayed, and Paraphrased with King David by Katharina Zell, The Blessed Matthew Zell’s Widow. Together with the Our Father with its Explanation, Sent to the Christian Man Sir Felix Armbruster for Comfort in His Illness, and Published for the Sake of Afflicted Consciences that are Troubled by Sins. Some Sayings from the Psalms and Prophets". Fitting because throughout her life she was an encouragement to many.

Katharina Zell was a woman of the word, she trusted God's Word and her life was devoted to encouraging others in their faith and in a consistant and faithful understanding of Scripture. What a woman! And what a testament to God using all his children in the reformation and revitalisation of his Church.


  1. Public Domain phtotgraph sourced form https://www.heiligenlexikon.de/Fotos/Katharina_Zell.jpg

Laura Haines
Author

Laura Haines

Laura is a Christian, a wife, a daughter. She has a BBehavSci and GradDipCouns. She works as an International Student Worker at St Helen's Bishopsgate, London.