Church History

Oft-Forgotten Reformers: Katherine Zell

Katherine Zell was a woman who trusted God at his word. Her writings don’t show someone fake, sterile, sanitized. Rather, in their pages we meet a real woman – with strengths and weaknesses. So who was Katherine Zell?

Katherine lived 500 years ago in Germany and is an oft-overlooked but nevertheless inspiring character of the Protestant Reformation.

Katherine grew up in Strasbourg. For a would-be reformer it was a great place to live – there were printing presses in Strasbourg and its occupants enjoyed a comparatively high degree of religious freedom.  People could discuss Protestant ideas and spread Reformed teaching cheaply, quickly and easily. Katherine received a good, albeit basic, education. Most importantly, Katherine’s parents encouraged her to use her mind, an ability we see strongly evidenced throughout her life.  

Katherine grew up thinking she needed to do things to please God. This all changed when as a young adult she began to read works by Martin Luther and to listen to Reformed preaching, including by the minister at her church – Matthew Zell – whom she would later marry. Both Matthew and Katherine were driven back to re-examine the scriptures and were persuaded of the truth of Reformed doctrines – such as, that you can’t do anything to pay for your sin. Jesus paid it all.

Matthew and Katherine married and by all accounts they had a very happy marriage and were very close, even amidst the grief of losing two children in infancy. Together they formed a great partnership. Katherine called herself Matthew’s ‘helper according to my means and my ability: in his house and also in his office and service’.[i]

Katherine was known for showing hospitality on both a small and large scale; both to well-known reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin and also to outcasts – like prison inmates and sufferers of leprosy and syphilis.

She also had a reputation for being able to work with Christians whom she, and the mainline reformers, disagreed with theologically. For example, while others kept their distance, Katherine visited the radical reformer Melchoir Hoffman while he was in prison for many years and she worked with Lucas Hackfurt to distribute aid relief to refugees.

Another key way Katherine worked for the kingdom was through writing. She wrote to encourage people; to teach people; to confront false teaching; to rebuke people. She even edited a large hymnbook into smaller sections so that people could afford to buy it and thus learn about God through good songs. But amidst their variety, what stands out in all Katherine’s writings is her trust in God. Let’s examine a couple of examples more closely.

On July 22 1524 Katherine wrote to a group of women who lived in Kentzingen – a city near Strasbourg.[ii] These women and their children were essentially under siege because their city had accepted Reformed teaching – they were isolated and vulnerable, copping abuse at the hands of the armed forces. So Katherine writes to comfort these women in their suffering, and to encourage them to keep growing in their trust in God so that they persevere. Crucially, she recommends they do this by continual meditation on God’s word. You want to grow in your trust in God? Then mediate on God’s word. It’s through God’s word that you will see that God is powerful, right, and good. But Katherine doesn’t just recommend it to the women. In her letter, she does it. Every couple of sentences have Bible references and allusions that demonstrate Katherine has meditated on God’s word. They reflect both a broad knowledge of the Bible, and also a firm grasp of deep theological truths.

Katherine also wrote on more controversial topics. In early September 1524 she wrote a public letter defending her own marriage and clergy marriage more generally.[iii] At the time, under Catholic teaching, if a minister like Matthew Zell got married, they broke church law. Katherine wrote explaining the bible’s view of marriage: Clergy or non-clergy who were married were not somehow less in God’s eyes. Being a priest and remaining single, didn’t make you more holy. Then, as now, what made you holy was whether you had put your trust in Jesus for your sins – it was exactly the same for the priest, the carpenter, the mother, the teenager, the farmer, the child, the seamstress. The same for everyone. Whether you were single or married.

In her letter Katherine’s Protestant convictions are crystal clear. She constantly cites Scripture to argue her case. And she states that the false teachers are the ones that do not, and cannot, argue their case from Scripture. Her letter was published as a pamphlet, before being banned by the city. It is a great example of a lay person writing largely to educate other lay people about marriage.

Katherine’s letter is also a wonderful testimony to how upholding the authority of the Bible brought powerful changes in people’s understanding of sexuality, sexual relations and marriage during the Reformation. Previously, priests who’d secretly married or who lived with a mistress, had needed to pay a tax to the bishop –  the church was making money out of not allowing clergy to marry! This corruption was overturned by an understanding of the teaching of Scripture. This understanding showed that Matthew and Katherine’s decision to be married was not a running away from God’s purpose and his call on their lives, but rather an embrace of the good things God had given. It enabled a gospel partnership between these two Christian people that benefitted so many others, including us, 500 years later.

When we learn about Katherine Zell, we can think, “She was so courageous. So fearless. I could never be like that.” Or, “I’m a very different personality to her.” “I’m an introvert.” “I have different gifting.” “I’m in a different life situation.” But the key in Katherine’s life, was that she trusted God’s word. And that is key whoever we are. Whatever our stage of life. Whatever our situation in life.

Katherine realized that God is worth trusting in. That is why she showed courage. That is why she was fearless when she needed to be. Katherine is an example to us of a Christian, who trusted God at his word in what was happening in her life, because she realized God is worth trusting in. It was His word, revealing His character, which fueled her faith and ignited her courage.

Further reading about Katherine Zell:

1) First Wives’ Club: Twenty-first Century Lessons from the lives of Sixteenth-century Women by Clare Heath-Whyte

2)  Katharina Schütz Zell, Church Mother: The Writings of a Protestant Reformer in Sixteenth-Century Germany by Elsie McKee

And we at the ACR would also recommend Jane’s chapter in Celebrating the Reformation edited by Mark D. Thompson, Colin Bale & Edward Loane. Pp 161-179

[i] Elsie McKee, Katharina Schütz Zell, Church Mother: The Writings of a Protestant Reformer in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 106.

[ii] Church Mother, 50-56

[iii] Church Mother, 62-82