Mother of the Protest

Women have always been a very significant part of the Christian church, participating in every community and every century. They have often been overlooked, however, because their roles have frequently been subordinate and less valued, and what they do has been much less documented. In the sixteenth century, although the ideal of holiness was simply a celibate life, some women who were interested in reforming the church wanted an active ministry in the world.

Women in the Reformation

Those who broke with Rome changed many aspects of both the ideals and the practices of Christianity. Most women did not leave records of these manifold changes, but you might say they voted with their feet. Ordinary women could show their trust in justification by faith and grace alone by breaking the fasting laws and feeding their families meat on Fridays. They could show that they did not pray to the saints by breaking their statues, or by baking or cleaning on a saint’s day when they were not supposed to work. They could stop using the Latin prayers, and instead learn the new prayers, hymns, and Psalms in their own language and teach them to their children. They could read the Bible for themselves and even sing in church. And if they had vowed to be celibate, they could break those vows by marrying.

For women, one of the most important changes was the new status of marriage as a way to serve God. Traditionally, sexuality was regarded as negative, and celibacy as the one truly holy life. Since women were often associated with sexuality (as men with rationality), there was even a negative perspective on femaleness. However, Protestant teaching on justification by faith and grace alone meant that taking religious vows of celibacy did not bring a person closer to God or earn God’s favor. In fact, Protestants identified sexuality as part of God’s good creation, though of course it was meant to be confined to marriage. Women remained subordinate and patriarchy did not change, but the ideal of a holy celibate life did change, and this contributed to a different status for women.

Marriage, then, became an important way to identify a Protestant. As a way of showing that they followed Scripture instead of church tradition, Protestants read texts like 1 Timothy 3, which speaks of the bishop as a “husband of one wife” (KJV), to indicate that pastors should be married. And when priests who became Protestant had to find wives, women participated in this aspect of the Reformation by establishing a completely new role: pastor’s wife.

Additionally, if they were literate, Protestant women might write and publish pamphlets or letters. They might teach or preach in public what they learned from the Bible, defying not only their male counterparts, but also church or state authorities in doing so. And women who believed they had been inspired by the Holy Spirit might tell their visions or make prophecies. One woman who did many of these things stands out: Protestant “church mother” Katharina Schütz Zell.

Katharina's Protest

Katharina Schütz was a very devout young woman in the city of Strasbourg, about 20 years old when the Reformation began. Trying to please God, she had vowed to be celibate. She thought that most nuns did not keep their vows well, and she lacked the money to enter a monastery. Though she was determined to live the most holy life possible at home, Katharina was not sure of her salvation. This changed when she heard her parish priest, Matthew Zell, proclaiming the new teaching of justification by faith and grace alone. Katharina was convinced by Zell’s teaching and rejoiced in the new assurance of her salvation that she now discovered in the Bible. This new teaching immediately shaped her activity in the church, as she believed that God had called her to be a “fisher of people,” helping others to learn the gospel as she had. As a statement of her faith, one of her first public acts was to marry Zell!

Matthew needed a wife and Katharina believed strongly that this was what Scripture told her to do. So in 1523, she became the first respectable woman of Strasbourg to marry a priest, breaking her own vow of celibacy to do so. When people started saying scandalous things about Matthew because he broke his priestly vows, Katharina wrote a pamphlet to defend clerical marriage on biblical grounds, quoting Scripture in order to defend him, both her neighbor and spouse, against false witness. Her pamphlet made the bishop very angry. While she did write the pamphlet for Matthew’s sake, she wrote it especially for the sake of his congregation. The slander against Matthew was making people reject his preaching. For Katharina, to love her neighbor as herself meant to show them that Matthew was following Scripture so that they would trust the truth of his teaching and be saved. Eventually, when Matthew died, she spoke at his burial to remind his congregation of this teaching.

A Protestant Church Mother

Schütz Zell’s work did not end there. She took refugees into her home and spent much time doing pastoral visiting. She continued to write, teach, and preach, informally but effectively. She published a number of booklets to teach the new understanding of faith, sometimes offering biblical consolation to problems of persecution. In 1524, she wrote to women who were suffering under their Catholic rulers, encouraging and praising them for their faithfulness.

Katharina was very worried about the need for Christian education. Recognizing that the old songs and prayers to the saints were not biblical and that there was not much else to sing, she published a hymnbook to help mothers teach their children biblical hymns in their own language. She also wrote an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer and meditations on select Psalms.

Schütz Zell recognized that some people misunderstood what Luther and Zell had taught, and that even the Reformers themselves disagreed over what she thought were relatively minor points. While she was clear about the need for the fundamental teaching on justification and following the Bible, she did not like to see the Reformers fighting each other. She once wrote to Luther himself to rebuke him for a lack of charity to Zwingli. Other times she talked or corresponded with other Reformers who were quarreling in order to persuade them to be reconciled, believing that this kind of truth-telling was the best way to love her neighbor. As committed a Protestant as she was, she was convinced that not everyone had to agree on every doctrinal detail. When the Zells’ foster son, Rabus, attacked Katharina as a heretic because she was friendly with Anabaptists, she tried to explain to him why he should tolerate Anabaptists as Matthew had. Indignant at Rabus’ refusal to listen, Katharina published a history of the early Reformation—wanting to be sure the next generation understood Zell’s and Luther’s teaching as she had experienced it. She called herself a “church mother” and certainly played that role in Strasbourg.

Contributor: Elsie McKee


Elsie McKee is the Archibald Alexander Professor of Reformation Studies and the History of Worship at Princeton Theological Seminary. She earned her Ph.D. at Princeton Seminary and the Diploma in Theology from Cambridge University in England. The history and theology of the Reformation are the focus of her research, along with a strong interest in cross-cultural issues developed by experience in central Africa. Her research themes include the history of Biblical exegesis and spirituality and women in the church.