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“Mother” in the Reformation

I noted after reading Cheryl Exum’s work on Deborah that the Old Testament’s conception of motherhood is broader than family or biological ties. Though the Reformation elevated and celebrated biological motherhood, there were some women who claimed a larger title of mother. Katharina Schütz Zell (KSZ) was one such woman and she even saw it as an office of the church! 

KSZ dedicated herself to God’s service when she was 10 years old and converted to Lutheranism when she was 23. She saw herself as set apart as a church mother “a nurturer of the pulpit and school.” She had a particular concern for the ordinary woman and her involvement in the life of the church, becoming a Protestant reformer in her own right.

KSZ married one of the leading Protestant pastors in Strasbourg, a prominent Protestant leader, Matthias Zell. Since she was so devout, many people expected her not to marry and she herself had thought to support herself with a tapestry weaving business. At a time when clergy marriage was controversial, the Zells’ marriage took the brunt of the criticism and they were forced to defend themselves.

In some ways, KSZ’s marriage looks fairly typically Protestant. She spoke of herself as Matthias’ ‘helper’ and much of her work was in hospitality and caring for the poor, sick and refugee. She was a woman of enormous empathy. Some have wondered whether her care for others was a compensation for her own empty nest. Others have observed that she fits rather neatly into the biblical office of ‘deacon’. Indeed, she never explicitly identified herself as a teacher or pastor and her compassionate work fits with perceived womanly attributes.

However, KSZ believed that her care for the laity could not be confined to caring for their physical needs. She believed that they needed education and empowerment that only the gospel could bring and saw her work as a female pamphlet writer as the most far-reaching and long lasting ‘care’ of her people. She published sermons, hymns and biblical treatises as well as ‘private’ letters about specific situations. Just as Katie von Bora had oversight of her children’s spiritual nourishment, so KSZ felt that she had responsibility for the development of the laity of Strasbourg.

KSZ was well respected by other reformers as well. It was partly at her urging that Luther married. Kaspar Hedio asked for her to pray with him on his deathbed. While some were threatened or irritated by her strength and determination, those who benefited from her ministry respected and loved her. Her most significant theological contribution is her exposition on the Psalms which she wrote when seeking comfort after the death of her children.

KSZ for women in ministry

One thing that attracted me to KSZ is her uniquely feminine concept of ministry. She wasn’t attempting to be like the men. Certainly she interacted with them as equals, even writing to Luther to critique his sermon on Psalm 110 and admonishing others on their lack of unity. However, she didn’t grasp for a position within their church structures. Rather, she created a new office for herself, an office that only a woman could occupy, convinced that this was God’s calling for her and supported, defended and celebrated by her husband.

Another intriguing thing about her is that, though the space she created for herself expanded Protestant notions of motherhood, it was still about motherhood. She could have accessed the convent language of being married to God and celibacy providing a life’s calling but she didn’t. She chose to marry and her role as mother partly comes because she’s married to a reformer. Additionally, she uses the womanly language of compassion, care and nurture. Though she saw herself as unique because of her gifting, calling and lack of children, she still felt that she could carve out a place and a role for herself within the Protestant landscape.

Categories: History Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

1 reply

  1. As ever – a helpful window into an aspect of the Reformation (and of ministry in general) that many of us would not have peered into without your assistance. Thank you for sharing this fascinating glimpse.

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