After her husband’s death, Katharina continued her works of charity, housing refugees and visiting prisoners and the sick, including a magistrate who had contracted leprosy. She also offered refuge to Bucer and Paul Fagius when they were banned from Strasbourg for their outspoken criticism of the Augsburg Interim – a compromise dictated by the emperor, demanding a hybrid of Roman Catholic and Protestant worship. To overcome her grief for the death of her husband and for the imposition of the Interim, she kept a journal of meditations on the Psalms, which she published in part in 1558.
Often described as “Church Mother,” Katharina Zell was one of the pillars of the Protestant Reformation and one of the most prolific women writers of her time. Unlike other well-known writers such as Katherine Parr, Marguerite of Navarre, Anne Locke, and Mary Sidney Herbert, she didn’t achieve a higher level of education, although her writings became widely respected and influential.
Born around 1498 to a middle-class family and orphaned at a young age, she exhibited early on an eagerness to obey the Scriptures, attending the sacraments, praying, doing good works, and reading the Bible (in German, a habit the church at that time didn’t encourage). Like Martin Luther, she could never find assurance of salvation in her actions.
She first found this assurance around 1521, under the preaching of Matthias Zell, a cathedral priest who had adhered to Luther’s teachings. Based on her understanding of the Lutheran doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, Katharina interpreted her calling as a “fisher of people” – bringing the good news of the gospel to others.
At that time, Matthias Zell was the only preacher in Strasbourg to present the gospel as it was recovered by Luther. Martin Bucer, Wolfang Capito, and Kaspar Hedio joined him in 1523. Bucer was married, and might have encouraged Zell to leave the celibate life.
On December 3, 1523, Matthias married Katharina, causing great scandal in the city and abroad. Soon, the couple became the object of slander and rumors. Katharina must have been aware of these consequences. Many Roman Catholics supposed that, if a priest married, it must be to fulfill uncontainable urges or to cover up a pregnancy. In Matthias’s case, some imagine a persistent lustful character that caused Katharina to catch him red-handed with their maid.
Katharina didn’t take these slanders laying down, and wrote to the bishop of Strasbourg’s to defend not only her husband’s character and their union but clerical marriage in general. She based her defense on Scriptures, showing the depth of her knowledge of both Old and New Testaments. This letter – the first of her known writings – was included in a second publication meant for the public: an Apologia for Matthias Zell on Clerical Marriage, published in September 1524.
Katharina praised marriage as a gift from God, emphasized the authority of Scripture over all others, and exposed the hypocrisy of the clerical law that allowed a priest to cohabit with a woman as long as a fee was paid to the church. She described her defense of her husband as a dutiful act of love toward a brother in Christ. And her love extended to her readers, who should be protected from falsehood.
To those who said that women should keep silent, she recalled Joel’s prophecy: “I will pour forth my spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters will prophecy” (Joel 2:28). This was a popular verse during the Reformation, when many believed the end of the world was at hand.
“I do not seek to be heard as if I were Elizabeth, or John the Baptist, or Nathan the prophet who pointed out his sin to David, or as any of the prophets, but only as the donkey whom the false prophet Balaam heard. For I seek nothing other than that we may be saved together with each other. May God help us to do that, through Christ His beloved Son.”
The Apology was not the first of Katharina’s publications. Earlier the same year, she published a Letter of Consolation to the Suffering Women of Kentzingen, a town near Strasbourg where Protestants were being persecuted. Many of the men of Kentzingen (150, including the pastor, Jacob Otter), had been forced to leave town, and the city secretary had been executed for possessing a German New Testament.
While the men found refuge in Strasbourg (80 in the Zell home), Katharina encouraged the women to stay strong and be witnesses to the gospel. Her letter is a long string of God’s promises, focusing on those addressed to barren women and widows in Isaiah 54.
“O you women, who are perfectly described in this chapter! Who would want a better description than this? Are you not now widows, called by God? All these things have happened to you for the sake of His word. Has He not hidden Himself from you for a little, so that you might think He had forgotten you? So that you could scarcely see Him through a window (that is, by faith), for He stands behind the wall, as also the lovesick soul wails in the Song of Songs in the second chapter. Are you not also insulted and left without comfort in the storm? Yes. Consider, however, what He says here: ‘Do not fear, you will not be shamed,’ and He says that His mercy and covenant of eternal peace will not be divorced from you in such a storm, for He will not divorce Himself from you as He does from the ungodly. …”