Argula von Stauffer and Katherine Zell
Verse: Matthew 6:26
Quote: “I am distressed that our princes take the Word of God no more seriously than a cow does a game of chess.” (Argula von Stauffer)
One of Luther’s most outspoken defenders is Argula von Stauffer (1492 – 1563). But in the eyes of Catholic opposition, she is an “insolent daughter of Eve.” Born into landed nobility in Bavaria, she marries a nobleman with whom she bears a daughter and three sons. For more than four decades she risks her life and the wellbeing of her family for the cause of the Reformation. She refuses to be silenced, and in a letter to Catholic authorities, she demands, “What have Luther and Melanchthon taught save the Word of God?” She taunts them for condemning him but not refuting him. In 1523, as a young mother, she boldly defends her views in a debate before the Diet of Nurnberg. The German princes, however, pay her little heed. “I am distressed,” she laments, “that our princes take the Word of God no more seriously than a cow does a game of chess.”
Persecuted not only by state officials but also by her husband, whose political career and very livelihood are in jeopardy because of her activities, she is aware of the risk: “I understand that my husband will be deposed from his office. I can’t help it. God will feed my children as he feeds the birds and will clothe them as the lilies of the field.” Martin Luther, writing to a friend, clearly recognizes her sacrifice, calling her “a singular instrument of Christ.”
Her heroes are Old Testament women like Deborah and Esther, but she does not dismiss apparent New Testament constraints: “I am not unacquainted with the word of Paul that women should be silent in church,” she concedes, “but, when no man will or can speak, I am driven by the word of the Lord when he said, ‘He who confesses me on earth, him will I confess and he who denies me, him will I deny.’ ” She breaks civil law by repeatedly conducting religious meetings in her home and officiating at clandestine funerals. She faithfully carries on Luther’s reform, outliving him by nearly two decades. The “old Staufferin,” as the Duke cynically describes her, is twice imprisoned, the last time shortly before her death at age seventy.
Another Reformer who boldly challenges the religious establishment—and sometimes her fellow Reformers—is Katherine Zell (1497 – 1562). Her decision to marry Matthew Zell, a priest-turned-Reformer, corresponds with the Reformation focus on the family. She defends the marriage, insisting it diminishes the frequent priestly sins of lust and fornication. As a minister’s wife in Strasbourg, she works with refugees fleeing persecution, providing shelter to hundreds of homeless exiles. During the Peasants’ War of 1525, she directs a vast relief program, serving some three thousand who seek refuge in Strasbourg. The Zell home is also open to some of the most celebrated Reformers of the era, including Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. But she is not star-struck by fellow Reformers. “Why do you rail at Schwenckfeld?” she demands of a Lutheran leader. “You talk as if you would have him burned like the poor Servetus at Geneva” (a swipe at Calvin). She laments that the Anabaptists—good Christians “who accept Christ in all the essentials as we do”—are “pursued as by a hunter with dogs chasing wild boars.”
Accused of becoming “Dr. Katrina” and taking over her husband’s pulpit at his death, she angrily reacts, insisting that “instead of spending my time in frivolous amusements I have visited the plague infested and . . . those in prison and under sentence of death,” often without eating or sleeping. She writes evangelistic tracts and devotionals as well as materials on religious education, civic reform, pastoral care, apologetics, and theology. In her spare time, she edits a hymnbook.
In her final act of selfless ministry, she officiates a funeral service for a woman regarded as a “radical”—a Reformation heretic. She crawls out of her sickbed at dawn to minister at the grave-side service. When the city council hears of it, they resolve to reprimand her when she recovers. But she dies before they can officially condemn her one final time.