Faithful and Reforming, Featured Stories

Women active in the Reformation

Mary Jane Haemig

Mary Jane Haemig

Women who were a part of, and leaders in, Luther’s reformation are often forgotten. While considerable attention has been given to Katie Luther, Martin’s estimable wife, other significant figures have been overlooked. A brief glance at three women illustrates the varying ways they contributed to Luther’s reformation.
Elisabeth Cruciger (circa 1500-1535) was married to Casper Cruciger (1504-1548), one of Luther’s colleagues on the faculty at Wittenberg. Born Elisabeth von Meseritz, she became a nun in Treptow, Pomerania, but fled from the convent to Wittenberg in the early 1520s.
Cruciger was the first female Lutheran hymnwriter. Her hymn “Herr Christ der einig Gottes Sohn” (“Lord Christ, the Only Son of God”) was published in the first evangelical hymnals, including the Erfurt Enchiridion (1524). Luther is reported to have praised it. It was translated into both Swedish and Danish in the 1520s. Translated into English, it was included in Miles Coverdale’s hymnal Goostly psalmes (c. 1535). The hymn has a long history in Lutheran hymnals in Europe and North America and still appears in many hymnals today. (ELW 309 and LSB 402 “The Only Son from Heaven” are shortened versions of the hymn.)

Unconventional path

Ursula of Münsterberg, granddaughter of the king of Bohemia, was born in the early 1490s. Her parents died when she was young, and she was placed in the convent of Mary Magdalene the Penitent in Freiberg.
In the 1520s Luther’s ideas influenced Ursula and other nuns. Ursula’s statement of reasons for leaving the convent, addressed to Dukes George and Heinrich (her cousins), is dated April 28, 1528, some months before she actually left. In the document she gave theological and personal grounds for her actions. She was convinced that salvation was by faith alone and found monastic life opposed to this. Showing a keen understanding of Luther’s theology and its implications for her life, she complained of lack of access to the Word of God, being forced to receive the Lord’s Supper when she was not ready, and a lack of opportunity to serve others as Christ commanded.

Elisabeth Cruciger was the first female Lutheran hymnwriter.

Ursula left the convent on October 6, 1528, accompanied by two other nuns. They arrived in Wittenberg later that month and Luther took them in.
Ursula asked Elector John for protection and, for the reasons for her flight, pointed to what she had written earlier. Ursula’s defense, with an afterword by Luther, was printed in Wittenberg (twice) in 1528 and in Nuremberg (once) in 1529. In his afterword Luther noted that he had chosen to publish this account in order to praise the activity of God’s Word in winning over people of low and high estate. While the date and place of Ursula’s death are unknown, it is known that other nuns from Freiberg followed her example and left the convent, despite strict preventative steps. (Ursula’s statement is found in Convents Confront the Reformation: Catholic and Protestant Nuns in Germany [1996]. Luther’s afterword is found in Luther’s Works, vol. 58).

Professions of faith

Elisabeth, Duchess of Braunschweig-Lüneburg (1510-1558) had a lasting impact as both a ruler and a writer. Married at age 15 to a man 40 years her elder, Duke Erich of Calenberg-Göttingen, she bore four children.
Through the influences of her mother, who converted to evangelical faith in 1528, Elisabeth’s correspondence with Martin Luther, and her acquaintance with Lutheran pastor Antonius Corvinus, she confessed her evangelical faith openly in 1538. Her husband remained Roman Catholic but did not hinder his wife in the exercise of her faith.
After Erich died in 1540 and Elisabeth became regent for her minor son, she began to introduce the reformation in her territories. Elisabeth thereby helped lay the foundation for what later became the Hannoverian territorial church, now one of the largest Lutheran churches in the world. She wrote the introduction to the church ordinance (1542) for her territories, making clear that her concern was that God’s word be preached clearly and purely. The church ordinance set up structures for education (including catechism for the laity), regulated worship practice (including communion in both kinds), and mandated all teaching be in accordance with the Augsburg Confession.
Elisabeth’s efforts bore fruit as her territories resisted subsequent attempts at recatholisation. Known as one of the most prolific female writers of the 16th century, Elisabeth wrote, among other works, a treatise for her son on the responsibilities of a prince and a book of consolations for women who had been widowed. In all of her works, Elisabeth showed herself to be a thoughtful and forthright theologian.

While continuing to recognize the importance of the person and insights of Martin Luther, historians have increasingly focused on the men and women who supported and furthered Luther’s reformation in diverse ways. These three women were among many who understood their Christian faith in accordance with Luther’s insights, publicly confessed that faith, and aided the progress of the reformation.

Mary Jane Haemig is Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, and director of the Thrivent Reformation Research Program.

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