Martin Luther is best known as a bold Reformer, full of fire and passion, and that he was. Luther is a hero to many of us today and is often perceived as a man of impenetrable steel. Yet the sixteenth century German preacher wasn’t immune to heart-aches and griefs. Reading his letters and his ‘Table Talk’ (published notes written by those who spent time with Luther around his meal table) reveals the fiery Reformer to be at the same time a gentle and tender-hearted husband and father.
Martin and Catherine (Katie) Luther knew the joy of parenting six children together. They also knew the sorrow of burying two of those dear children. Elisabeth (1527-1528) died at just eight months. Magdalena (1529-1542) died at just thirteen years. Magdalena’s death hit Luther and Katie particularly hard as raising her, their second daughter, had helped them overcome the loss of Elisabeth.
Luther’s letters and speech tell of the pain that Luther and Katie felt at losing their children, offering insight into the depths of grief experienced by parents who lose a child. At the same time we wonderfully see a glimpse of the hope that Luther and Katie held firmly to throughout their heart-ache.
Elisabeth Luther (10 December 1527 – 3 August 1528)
Luther and others had been shaken by the tragic death of a friend in the church, a lady called Hanna. She was the wife of a deacon in Wittenberg, George Rorer, and she died shortly after giving birth to a stillborn child. Luther wrote to his friend, Justus Jonas, a week later and expressed his concern for Katie:
‘I am concerned about the delivery of my wife, so greatly has the example of the Deacon’s wife terrified me. But He who is mighty has done great things for me; and so the endurance of great things also is required of me. May my Christ, whom I have purely taught and confessed, be my rock and fortress. Amen.’
One month later, on 10 December 1527, Elisabeth Luther was born. Elisabeth was Luther and Katie’s second child (after John) and first daughter. A thrilled Luther again wrote to his friend, Justus, this time on the day of his daughter’s birth:
‘At this hour, ten o’clock, when I returned home from a lecture, I received your letter. I had read only ten lines of it when at that very moment I was told that my Katie was delivered of a little daughter. Glory and praise be to the Father in heaven. Amen. The mother in childbed is well but weak. And our little son John is also well and happy again…’
It’s likely that Elisabeth was weakened by a plague that hit Wittenberg around the time of her birth, and just eight short months later she sadly died. Luther again put pen to paper, this time writing to his friend Nicholas. Here he reflects on the raw pain he felt:
‘My baby daughter, little Elizabeth, has passed away. It is amazing what a sick, almost woman-like heart she has left to me, so much has grief for her overcome me. Never before would I have believed that a father’s heart could have such tender feelings for his child. Do pray to the Lord for me. In him, farewell.’
Magdalena Luther (4 May 1529 – 20 September 1542)
Less than a year after losing Elisabeth, Katie gave birth to another daughter, Magdalena. A day later Luther wrote to another Nicholas, a friend in the ministry in Germany, to joyfully tell him of the Lord’s kindness towards them:
‘The last letter to you … I wrote in the presence of Katie, who soon thereafter began to moan and to go into labor. Three hours after I had written the letter she gave birth to a healthy baby daughter without difficulties. The Lord has blessed us so richly that she had an uncomplicated delivery; to him be glory forever. Amen.’
A note recorded in Table Talk by Veit Dietrich gives us an insight into Luther’s hands-on parenting, as well as giving us a glimpse of his affection for the then two-year old ‘Lena’:
“Though I am a great doctor, I haven’t progressed beyond the instruction of children in the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. I still learn and pray these every day with my Hans and my little Lena.”
Fast-forward eleven years, Luther and Katie would once again suffer the loss of a daughter. In September 1542 Magdalena had become seriously ill and was expected to die. Growing up, she had become especially close with her older brother John, who was away from home studying with a Marcus Crodel. In an obviously pain-filled letter and concerned for both John and Magdalena, Luther wrote to Marcus Crodel:
‘My Marcus Crodel! I ask you to be quiet to my son about what I am writing to you: my daughter Magdalen is ill and almost in her last hour; in a short while she might depart to the true Father in heaven, unless God has decreed otherwise. She herself longs so much to see her brother that I feel compelled to send a carriage [for him]. They loved each other so much; perhaps his arrival could bring her some relief. I am doing what I can so that later the knowledge of having left something undone does not torture me. Therefore without giving John any reason, order him to fly back in this carriage; he will return soon, when Magdalen either has fallen asleep in the Lord, or has recuperated. Farewell in the Lord! Tell John that something is the matter which is to be entrusted to him in secret. Otherwise everything is fine.’
Concerned as a father for John, Luther was also concerned as a husband for his dear Katie. Whilst Magdalena was suffering, her mother ‘wept loudly,’ and Luther comforted her with his solid understanding of the future hope for the Christian:
“Think where she’s going. She’ll get along all right. Flesh is flesh, spirit is spirit. Children don’t argue. They believe what they’re told. All things are simple for children. They die without anxiety, complaint, or fear of death, and they have little physical pain, as if they were falling asleep.’
Desiring to comfort John and Katie, Luther also sought to comfort Magdalena in her suffering. A note published in Table Talk records an intimate conversation between Luther and his daughter:
“Dear Magdalene, my little daughter, you would be glad to stay here with me, your father. Are you also glad to go to your Father in heaven?”
The sick girl replied, “Yes, dear Father, as God wills.”
The father said, “You dear little girl! … The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. I love her very much. If this flesh is so strong, what must the spirit be?”
He would comfort her regularly:
“Dear daughter, you have another father in heaven. You are going to him.”
And this was not an empty comfort that Luther offered his daughter, but it was the counsel with which he comforted himself:
“I love her very much. But if it is thy will to take her, dear God, I shall be glad to know that she is with thee.”
‘Often’ he would say:
“I’d like to keep my dear daughter because I love her very much, if only our Lord God would let me. However, his will be done! Truly nothing better can happen to her, nothing better.”
On September 20 1542, Magdalena died. Luther fell on his knees at her bed and, it is recorded in Table Talk, ‘weeping bitterly, [he] prayed that God might will to save her.’ She died in the arms of her father, with Katie in the same room but unable to draw near through grief.
During Magdalena’s illness, Luther had acknowledged how hard he found it to praise God. “In the last thousand years God has given no bishop such great gifts as he has given to me,” he said. Yet he continued, “I’m angry with myself that I’m unable to rejoice from my heart and be thankful to God, though I do at times sing a little song and thank God. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s …”
Understandably still finding it hard to ‘joyfully give thanks’ to God after Magdalena’s death, Luther wrote again to his friend Justus Jonas. In this letter, the grief that Luther and Katie felt as parents now without their child is painfully evident:
‘I believe that report has reached you that my dearest daughter Magdalen has been reborn in Christ’s eternal kingdom. I and my wife should only joyfully give thanks for such a felicitous departure and blessed end by which Magdalen has escaped the power of the flesh, the world, the Turk, and the devil; yet the force of [our] natural love is so great that we are unable to do this without crying and grieving in [our] hearts, or even without experiencing death ourselves. For the features, the words, and the movement of the living and dying daughter who was so very obedient and respectful remain engraved deep in the heart; even the death of Christ (and what is the dying of all people in comparison with Christ’s death?) is unable totally to take all this away as it should. You, therefore, please give thanks to God in our stead! For indeed God did a great work of grace to us when he glorified our flesh in this way. Magdalen had (as you know) a mild and lovely disposition and was loved by all. Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ who has called, elected, and made her glorious. God grant me, and all my [loved] ones, and all our friends such a death – or rather, such a life. This alone I ask of God, the Father of all comfort and mercies. In him, farewell to you and your whole family. Amen.’
When ‘Lena’ was placed in her coffin, Luther said, “You dear little Lena! How well it has turned out for you!” His understanding of life after death was not an abstract understanding, but he held firmly to the concrete hope of the resurrection, looking at her and saying:
“Ah, dear child, to think that you must be raised up and will shine like the stars, yes, like the sun!”
When friends spoke to Luther at the funeral, we read this hope-filled response from him:
“You should be pleased!” I’ve sent a saint to heaven – yes, a living saint. Would that our death be like this! Such a death I’d take this very hour.” The people said, “Yes, this is quite true. Yet everybody would like to hold on to what is his.” Martin Luther replied, “Flesh is flesh, and blood is blood. I’m happy that she’s safely out of it. There is no sorrow except of the flesh.” Again, turning to others, he said, “Do not be sorrowful. I have sent a saint to heaven. In fact, I have now sent two of them.”
And returning home from the funeral he said:
“My daughter is now fitted out in body and soul. We Christians now have nothing to complain about. We know that it should and must be so, for we are altogether certain about eternal life.”
He also wrote a short epitaph to console Katie, pointing her to the blessing of Magdalena’s death:
‘I, Lena, Luther’s beloved child, Sleep gently here with all the saints And lie at peace and rest. Now I am our God’s own guest. I was a child of death, it’s true, My mother bore me out of mortal seed, Now I live and am rich in God. For this I thank Christ’s death and blood.’
Yet Luther’s resurrection hope was not at odds with Luther’s grief:
“I am joyful in spirit but I am sad according to the flesh. The flesh doesn’t take kindly to this. The separation [caused by death] troubles me above measure. It’s strange to know that she is surely at peace and that she is well off there, very well off, and yet to grieve so much!”
Both Katie and Luther knew this grief all too well. On October 9 1542 he wrote to his friend, James Propst. It’s fitting to give Luther the final word here, and so we shall. As was his fiery nature, Luther snarled at death; as was his fragile and tender nature, he did not hide his tears and his affection:
‘My most beloved daughter Magdalen has departed from me and gone to the heavenly Father; she passed away having total faith in Christ. I have overcome the emotional shock typical of a father, but [only] with a certain threatening murmur against death; by means of this disdain I have tamed my tears. I loved her so very much.’
 Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbert, London: Yale University, 2006), 238.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works (ed. Gottfried G. Krodel; 55 vols.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), 49:173.
 Ibid., 181.
 Ibid., 203.
 Ibid., 218-9.
 Luther, Luther’s Works, 54:9.
 Luther, Luther’s Works, 50:234-5.
 Luther, Luther’s Works, 54:428-9.
 Ibid., 430-1.
 Ibid., 432.
 Ibid., 430-1.
 Ibid., 432.
 Ibid., 430-1.
 Luther, Luther’s Works, 50:236-8.
 Luther, Luther’s Works, 54:432.
 Ibid., 432-3.
 Ibid., 433-4.
 Oberman, Luther, 312.
 Luther, Luther’s Works, 54:432.
 Luther, Luther’s Works, 50:246.