In 1523, Martin Luther found himself the matchmaker for 12 nuns who had escaped in pickle barrels from a Roman Catholic nunnery near Wittenberg, Germany. He secured husbands for 11, but the 12th, Katharina von Bora, rebuffed two potential husbands.
Her heart was set on the great Reformer.
Finally Luther married her in 1525 for strikingly unromantic reasons: to provide his father with grandchildren and to spite the pope by breaking the vow of celibacy he had taken as a Catholic monk. Though it didn’t seem like the makings of a storybook romance, Luther’s marriage to Katie, as he called her, blossomed into one of church history’s most tender unions.
Learning about famous Christian marriages, like Martin and Katie Luther’s, can “breathe life” into the marriages of believers today and “give some guys and their wives courage to get real and be honest,” radio host and marriage expert Dennis Rainey told Baptist Press.
Good marriages demonstrate how a spouse’s love can lift a Christian “out of doubt and discouragement and perhaps even losing heart,” Rainey, president and co-founder of Family Life, said. Stories of more challenging marriages can encourage believers to persevere through their own marriage struggles, he said.
“There was only one who was perfect, and He wasn’t married,” Rainey said. Being part of God’s Kingdom requires “humbling ourselves and admitting our humanity and sharing the stories of our humanity in some of its stench and … coming clean and getting real – because that’s where everybody is.”
In contrast with the joyful marriages of Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon and others, Methodist movement founder John Wesley and revivalist George Whitefield struggled in their marriages. Wesley made his wife agree that she would not ask him to lighten his schedule of itinerant preaching. The couple eventually separated and she was dead for three days before he found out.
Whitefield once left his wife Elizabeth in America while he returned to England by boat without telling her. One of Whitefield’s protégés said the great revivalist viewed his marriage as a “distraction” and when Elizabeth died, “his mind was put at great liberty.”
The Luthers’ home was “joyful” and “playful,” Michael Haykin, professor of church history and biblical spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP.
“Luther had a deep sense of the joyfulness of the Christian life, and marriage simply exacerbated that,” said Haykin, who has compiled “The Christian Lover,” a book of love letters written by famous Christians.
Though Luther refused to back down in arguments with the pope and fellow Protestant Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, he often yielded to Katie’s opinions and preferences, Haykin said. Among the ways he deferred to her was changing his custom of bathing only once a year – a common practice in the 1500s – because “she would not have it so,” according to one of Luther’s letters.
Since the Luthers raised pigs, Martin playfully referred to Katie by such titles as “high mistress of the Wittenberg pig sty,” Haykin said.
Fellow Reformer John Calvin “epitomizes the Protestant rediscovery of marriage,” Haykin said, referencing the Reformation critique of Roman Catholic celibacy vows.
At age 29, Calvin was driven out of Geneva, Switzerland, and settled in Strasbourg, on the border of modern-day Germany and France, where Protestant leader Martin Bucer attempted to find a wife for him. Bucer and other early Protestants believed that a pastor like Calvin should be an expert on family, and ideally be married himself.
The first three or four potential wives proved unsuitable, including one who spoke only German – a poor match for Calvin who spoke French and didn’t know German. Calvin wrote that he would never marry her “unless the Lord had entirely bereft me of my wits.” Eventually he met and married on his own Idelette de Bure, the widow of an Anabaptist he had known in Geneva.
They were married only eight and a half years before her death; they had experienced two or three pregnancies, though none of their children lived to be more than three days old. Calvin didn’t mention Idelette much in correspondence or sermons, but several surviving letters reveal the depth of their love.
In 1541 a plague raged through Strasbourg, so Calvin sent his wife away for her safety. He wrote to a friend that “day and night my wife has been constantly in my thoughts, in need of advice now that she is separated from her husband.”
When Idelette died in 1549, Calvin wrote, “Mine is no common source of grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, of one who, had it been so ordered, would not only have been the willing sharer of my indigence, but even of my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance. She was never troublesome to me throughout the entire course of her illness; she was more anxious about her children [from her first marriage] than about herself.”
The marriage of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards was “a passionate love story,” Haykin said, noting that Edwards was among the Puritans in England and North America who, among other notable practices, broke from the longstanding tradition of arranged marriages.
“The whole idea of falling in love and then getting married is very much rooted in the Puritans,” Haykin said.
Edwards met Sarah when he was 20 and she was 13. She was six feet tall and “striking in terms of her physical beauty,” Haykin said, but “what caught his eye was her spirituality” and love for God. They married in 1727 with Sarah wearing green, which Edwards believed was God’s favorite color.
The mother of 11 children, Sarah was a “fabulous home economist” and Edwards “relied upon her enormously,” Haykin said. On one occasion when Sarah was away from home to attend a funeral, Edwards wrote a letter asking her to “please come home” because “things are falling apart here.”
When Whitefield stayed in the Edwards’ home for five days in 1740, he wrote that he had not seen a “sweeter couple” and began praying that God would provide him with a wife like Sarah.
Among Edwards’ last acts before he died was to give his daughter Lucy a message for Sarah: “Give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever.”
Charles and Susannah Spurgeon represent another strong marriage from church history, though she had a “very poor first impression” of the great Baptist preacher, Haykin said. The Spurgeons met when he preached for the first time at the London church that came to be known as the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
“He was sweating profusely … and he pulled out this huge handkerchief with polka dots on it,” Haykin said. “And she thought, ‘What kind of country yokel have the deacons brought in to preach?’“ But soon they were married.
Among other strong marriages in church history were Martyn and Bethan Lloyd-Jones, B.B. and Annie Warfield and Francis and Edith Schaeffer.
Not all famous Christians, however, enjoyed vibrant marriages. C.T. Studd, a legendary missionary and author of the poem “Only One Life, ‘Twill Soon Be Past,” went to China for some 15 years without his wife Priscilla, Haykin said. Then he returned home only briefly before going to the Congo without her.
Studd “is often held up as a model of total commitment to Christ,” Haykin said. “I have problems with him in my mind because of his marriage.”
Foreshadowing his own marriage troubles, John Wesley once tried to convince his brother Charles that marriage interfered with commitment to Christ. The week before Charles was to be married with John officiating, the brothers began a journey to the wedding site that should have taken two days. But John scheduled so many preaching engagements along the way that they barely arrived in time for the wedding.
“Charles, in his diary, was absolutely furious at his brother,” Haykin said. John “was giving his brother an object lesson … that preaching the gospel is more important than marriage.”
When John married two years later, he made sure his wife Molly never interfered with his preaching – with disastrous results. Molly travelled with him for a year. But after “tramping around the British countryside, sleeping under hedgerows, eating half-cooked meals, she told him she was settling down in London,” Haykin said. “Their marriage then began to disintegrate.”
John and Molly experienced ongoing tension over letters he exchanged with other women. She publicly accused him of infidelity at least once, though no evidence exists to substantiate the charges, and monitored his mail before they separated.
Although Whitefield prayed for a wife like Sarah Edwards, when he married, he was far less considerate as a husband than Jonathan Edwards. Whitefield once wrote that he was “not one of those lovers who is swooning for love at his beloved.”
Haykin said Whitefield demonstrated a consistent “lack of husbandly care of his wife.”
Though some may overlook the marriage difficulties of well-known Christians because of their spiritual impact, Haykin sees the matter differently.
“If their marriages would have been solid, I think of how much better their ministries might have been,” he said.
With Wesley, for example, “we don’t see” the impact of his marriage failures “at this distance, and people may not have seen it even in his own day,” Haykin said. “But inevitably it would have had a kickback on ministry. How can he go out to preach the love of God to a crowd and he’s just had a row with his wife? Surely it had some sort of spiritual impact.”
On a positive note, Rainey of Family Life said ministers like Wesley and Whitefield illustrate that God still uses people who don’t “have it all together.”
“I think one of the big fallacies of being in ministry is the lie … that you have to have it all together in order to preach the gospel,” Rainey said. People are “desperate” for “authentic human beings who are like them, who fail and then get back up and ask for forgiveness from God and their spouse, or their child, and make things right and keep going.”
But Rainey and Haykin agreed that preachers must have godly marriages.
“Marriage is a reflection of the love of God for His people and for His church,” Haykin said. “… Therefore, a Christian pastor who is representing God, speaking God’s Word to His people, if he is married, needs to have a solid marriage.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)