Martin Luther and Women

Theology and Lived Experience

by Laura Jurgens (Author)
©2020 Monographs XIV, 162 Pages


This book argues that Martin Luther did not enforce his own strict theological convictions about women and their nature when he personally corresponded with women throughout his daily life. This becomes clear with Luther’s interactions with female family members and Reformation women. With these encounters, he did not maintain his theological attitudes and made exceptions to his own theology for such influential women. Luther also did not enforce his theology throughout his pastoral care where he treated both men and women respectfully and equally. His pastoral work shows that he allowed his compassion and empathy to win over his own strict theological convictions about women. It is important to remember that Luther not only wrote about women in the abstract, but also lived both his public and private life among women. However, there have been no comprehensive studies that have examined his theological writings about women and personal encounters with women. For this reason, fundamental aspects of Luther have remained in the dark. As actions speak louder than words, scholars need to include the practical, as well as the theoretical when analyzing his attitudes towards women. This book not only contributes to a more nuanced understanding of Luther’s theological views on women, but also how those views compare to his actual social encounters with women. This work highlights the necessity to explore Luther’s personal encounters with women, as well as his theology when trying to provide an authentic assessment of the reformer’s attitudes towards women.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • Chapter One: Introduction: The Underexplored Window
  • Chapter Two: Women’s Lives in the Early Modern Period in Europe
  • Chapter Three: Interpretations of Eve and Other Biblical Women
  • Chapter Four: A Woman’s Nature and the Ideal Woman
  • Chapter Five: Conversations with Female Family Members
  • Chapter Six: Correspondence with Reformation Women
  • Chapter Seven: Offering Women Guidance and Comfort
  • Conclusion: Final Remarks
  • Index

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I would like to take this opportunity to express sincere gratitude to the faculty, students, and staff in the Department of Classics and Religion at the University of Calgary who supported and encouraged me throughout my doctoral program. I especially want to acknowledge Douglas Shantz and thank him once again for his expertise, guidance, and dedication to my work. I would like to acknowledge Christine Helmer, not only for being part of my thesis committee, but for continuing to support me in many ways after I finished my program. I am also particularly grateful for the help and encouragement that I have received from Kirsi Stjerna. I would like to thank everyone at Peter Lang for their hard work on this book. Finally, I would like to thank and show appreciation for all my loved ones. I particularly want to thank Robert Armstrong, my caring and patient partner. I look forward to spending many more happy years with you. I am also very grateful for the support from my parents and brother. I truly appreciate their love and ongoing encouragement and I would not be the person that I am today without it. With lots of love, thank you.

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Martin Luther. Martin Luthers Sämmtiliche Werk. Erlangen and Frankfurt, 1826–1857.


Martin Luther. Luther’s Works. Translated by Jaroslav Pelikan, Helmut T. Lehmann, and Christopher Boyd Brown. Philadelphia: Fortress Press; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955–2009.


Martin Luther. Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1883–2009.


Martin Luther. D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Briefwechsel. Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1930–1985.


Martin Luther. Martin Luthers Werk: Kritische Gesammtausgabe, Tischreden. Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1912–1921.

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Introduction: The Underexplored Window

When I mention the name “Martin Luther,” it is likely to spark a vivid image of a pious German monk publicly challenging the Roman Catholic Church. This is, arguably, Luther’s most iconic image since he is often recognized as a seminal figure who triggered the Protestant Reformation. However, there is much more to this 16th century reformer than simply his Reformation message and activities.1 Scott Hendrix reminds us that the Protestant Reformation was not started by a “robot,” but by someone who was living a vigorous life. Luther was certainly a complex and deeply emotional individual, especially when it came to women. He wrote much about women and related topics such as marriage, sexuality, and family life. These topics can be found throughout nearly every type of his theological works including biblical commentaries and sermons.

However, Luther was different from other late medieval theologians because he did not write about women in the abstract but lived both his public and private life among them.2 Luther’s life revolved around women. For example, many of the guests who boarded or gathered in his household were women. He had a close circle of friends, including the Jonases, the Bugenhagens, and the Melanchthons, which meant that there were frequently women who were present within his household. When moving beyond the home, Luther preached at St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg, where his congregation included women. He not only interacted with women as a preacher, but also on a more personal level. Women wrote to Luther ←1 | 2→to receive his personal and spiritual counsel on several issues including childbirth, spousal relations, marriage, family matters, coping with loss, and worry over salvation. Luther also provided advice to Reformation women. It was normal for Luther to speak to women with a confident tone while presenting himself as an expert on women, especially since he had experience from different vocations and with a variety of matters pertaining to women’s lives. These personal interactions show that he viewed himself as a friend of women. Therefore, it is surprising that there continues to be such little scholarship on Luther’s perspectives on women that include explorations into both his theology and his personal life.

Early scholarship on the history of the Protestant Reformation tended to consider Luther’s personal life or “emotions” as “irrelevant,” and so they were removed from the story. Richard Nenneman claims that most historians “probably know little” about Luther’s personal life since many scholars believe that it is not the source of his historical significance.3 This approach may explain why some scholars have been slow to examine Luther from this, more “personal,” perspective. For whatever reason, there are no comprehensive studies that examine Luther’s theological attitudes and personal relations with women.4

Recently, scholars have recognized the significance of examining Luther’s personal life, especially his relationships with women throughout his personal correspondence. In 2013, Susan Karant-Nunn and Merry Wiesner-Hanks acknowledged the lack of scholarship on Luther and women and considered it to be seriously problematic.5 Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks comment that there is still no book-length study on his ideas about women in “any language.” This led them to assemble and translate Luther’s writings and statements about women. They hope that their sourcebook helps to fill this “odd gap” in scholarship. However, as both scholars are trained as historians, they “hoped someone else would write [this book] for them” since they make very few theological comments. For this reason, the reader is forced to look elsewhere for a study that critically engages with Luther’s theology.

Mickey Mattox’s work, published in the same year, provides a place for readers to turn.6 His work focuses on Luther’s exegesis and attempts to better characterize his “treatment of the women of Genesis” through comparing his interpretation to that of other Christian exegetes, like Ulrich Zwingli. Although this work discusses Luther’s comments on women, it is primarily a study of Luther and his exegetical method. Nevertheless, Mattox’s book helps to better illustrate Luther’s theological attitudes towards women.

In 2010, seven years later, the lament for more comprehensive studies on Luther and women continued to be heard. In response, Else Marie Wiberg Pedersen published an article on Luther’s approach to women, specifically his commentaries on ←2 | 3→Mary and the Magnificat.7 In this work, Pedersen notes that Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks, for the first time, made English translations of Luther’s writings about women widely available. These writings demonstrate that Luther held a complex, sometimes ambiguous, view of women. Pedersen attempts to explore these apparent contradictions. She argues that Luther is often conflicted between his more “modern” ideas about women and the “traditional” views of his time. For Pedersen, it is important to “ignore” Luther whenever he is forced to draw on his “bad anthropology” and highlight when Luther’s “good theology” challenged this “anthropology.” This article emphasizes the necessity for readers to acknowledge that Luther’s statements about women are ambiguous or even self-contradictory. She notes that many of these statements about women “stand in stark contrast to his own life among women.” For this reason, Pedersen argues that both Luther’s theology and personal interactions with women should be sufficiently examined by future scholarship.

Recent scholarship has not only called for future studies to explore Luther and his private life, but they have also confirmed the historical value of studying his personal correspondence.8 In 2017, Kirsi Stjerna suggests that when scholars previously tried to approach Luther without including his personal interactions with women, it has made him “seem alien to the very women with whom Luther, actually, could be quite a conversation partner.”9 Stjerna notes that Luther and women, as a topic, has not “attracted rigorous study from ‘serious’ Luther scholars of the past.” She notes that the interest gap is still “palpable,” and that it is “anything but helpful.” This article highlights that the topic of Luther and women has been seriously overlooked or extremely “understudied” in previous scholarship. This is surprising, especially when looking at Luther’s writings, where he paid a considerable amount of attention to women and related subjects. For this reason, Stjerna states that his “impact on the deliberations on gender and womanhood […] cannot be overstated.”

In the same year, Stjerna published a chapter in a book, where she argues that there are still many “uncharted” research areas and avenues for future exploration, especially when it comes to Luther and women.10 One seriously unexplored area includes the “personal.” She argues that Luther’s personal encounters with women can offer scholars helpful insights with, still, unanswered questions about Luther and women. For example: What do scholars know about Luther’s relationships with women? How did he treat them? Did he enforce his own theology and theological convictions about women throughout his daily life? For Stjerna, women in Luther’s theology and personal life is still an “underexplored window” that can provide scholars with many more insights. She notes that “a deeper and broader analysis is still needed when it comes to Luther’s treatment of the topic of women ←3 | 4→in order to unveil his truest instincts and intentions.” Stjerna emphasizes that Luther can “hardly be understood without ‘his’ women, just as women today can expect to be pleasantly surprised by their critical and compassionate conversations with Martin Luther.”

It is clear from previous works that future scholarship needs to include the practical, as well as the theoretical when analyzing Luther’s attitudes towards women. It is important to remember that his theology alone does not tell the whole story. This book analyzes Luther’s attitudes towards women by examining his theology and his personal correspondence.11 I investigate how Luther wrote about women in his theological writings and what he said to women in his personal letters. Since scholarship has been slow to explore Luther’s attitudes towards women from this approach, this book provides the comprehensive assessment of both his theory and practice that has been called for by many previous studies. This perspective has not only been frequently emphasized by past scholarship, but it also appears to be the most promising method. This book not only provides a more nuanced understanding of Luther’s theological views on women more generally, but also how those views compare to his actual social encounters with women. I show that Luther’s personal encounters with women, as well as his theology, need to be examined when trying to provide an authentic assessment of the reformer’s attitudes towards women. This is where his encounters with women gain a greater significance than simply showing Luther’s humanity. When both his theology and personal encounters with women are examined, he proves to be a rather complex individual. His views on women, and perhaps even the extent of his inconsistencies, become even more evident when one explores beyond his biblical commentaries. By moving beyond his theology, I argue that Luther did not enforce his own strict theological convictions about women and their nature, especially when he personally corresponded with women throughout his daily life. This becomes very clear with Luther’s interactions with female family members, such as Katharina von Bora, and Reformation women, like Argula von Grumbach, who boldly challenged his theology. With these personal encounters, he did not maintain his theological attitudes and he often made exceptions to his own theology for such women. He did not lash out, enforce his own beliefs, or reprimand them in any way. This is interesting as Philip Melanchthon, one of his closest colleagues and first biographers, stated that Luther’s “character was, almost, so to speak, the greatest proof” of his theological doctrine.12 Perhaps Luther made exceptions for family members or influential women because they helped him to spread his Reformation message.13 However, this explanation does not work when compared to other instances from Luther’s life. For example, he did not enforce his strict theology throughout his pastoral care. When caring for the troubled or sick, Luther treated both men and ←4 | 5→women respectfully and equally. Luther’s pastoral work shows that he allowed his compassion and empathy to win over his own strict theological convictions. Since actions speak louder than words, these personal interactions contrast strongly with his, often vacillating, theological statements. For this reason, Luther’s personal situation, his correspondence, and how he treated women throughout his life cannot be overlooked. This book provides a rich, new perspective and more nuanced context to existing scholarly conversations among those who are not only interested in assessing Martin Luther’s attitudes towards women, but also his theological place within western Christian history.


  1. For more information on Martin Luther and the recent anniversary of the Reformation, see Christine Helmer, “Luther: The Age of the Individual, 500 Years Ago Today,” Capitalism and Society 13, no. 1 (2018): 1–8.


XIV, 162
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XIV, 162 pp.

Biographical notes

Laura Jurgens (Author)

Laura Jurgens received her PhD in religious studies from the Department of Classics and Religion at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She previously attended St. Francis Xavier University and Saint Mary's University in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her research focuses on the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, and women.


Title: Martin Luther and Women