Convents Confront the Reformation

The Story of Catholic and Protestant Nuns in Germany

This book collects four very interesting letters written by nuns living in Germany in the early years of the Reformation. They lived in different convents. Each woman expresses strong opinions about her experience living in a convent. The first writer, Katherine Rem, vigorously defends the Catholic religion and confirms her wish to live in a convent. The second writer, Lady Ursula, is renouncing her Catholic faith and leaving her convent. The third writer, Anna Sophia, is a Lutheran nun! In a Lutheran convent! Doesn’t that break the mold. The fourth writer, Martha Elisabeth Zitter, is leaving her convent, having been converted to the Protestant faith. All four of these women are well educated and well versed in the Bible.

The first letter, written in 1523, is from Katherine Rem, a nun living in Augsburg. She writes a vigorous defense of her Catholic faith and her life with other nuns in a convent. Katherine’s brother Bernard had recently become a Lutheran evangelical and left the Catholic faith. He wrote to his sister Katherine, appealing to her to leave the Roman Catholic Church, but she replied with thunder and that it is he who is in danger on the Judgment Day.

Katherine Rem’s letter to her brother. An extract.

You have sent us two letters that I am returning to you. We regard you as one of the false prophets that Jesus warned against in the Holy Gospels. You wanted to lead us astray. You should not think that we are so foolish as to place our hope in the convent and in our own works. Rather, we place our hope in God. He is the true Lord and rewarder of all things. God the Almighty will judge all of us at the Last Judgment. Therefore, think about yourself. You pull a splinter out of our eye, while you yourself have a large log in yours. You have wanted to come to see us; if you want to straighten us out, then we don’t want your message at all. You may not send us things anymore; we will not accept them. We already have many good books.[1]

The second letter is from Lady Ursula, giving reasons why she and other nuns are leaving the convent in Freiberg. Ursula is writing to the Duke of Saxony and other nobles and is herself a member of the nobility. Ursula writes as follows (an abstract):

Grace and peace in Christ our Savior, exalted princes, my dear friendly lords and cousins, I have learned that both of your graces have been very uncivil because I have left the convent along with two other women. Through this letter, your graces will discover that this has not happened out of thoughtlessness, but because I am accountable to God for my soul.

Paul says, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the community of God” (der gemeine Gottes) (1 Corinthians 10:32). We have not neglected to give grounds and reasons through which we are motivated to abandon convent life together with its ceremonies, ways of life, positions, and persons. Every pious Christian who hears and sees this will take to heart the great and perilous dangers to our conscience. He will find that we could have escaped God’s unavoidable judgment in no other way except in this manner.

The first reason we have left the convent is this: Christ said, “Proclaim the Gospel to all creatures. Who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 15). And “God so loved that world that he gave his only son so that all who believe in him will not be lost but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The prophet Habakkuk also says, “The righteous will live by faith” (2:4). In these verses it is clearly announced that all will be accepted on faith alone. Since faith alone now is our salvation and unbelief our damnation, we find this place and situation [the convent] wholly the antithesis of it.

The second reason we must leave the convent life is this: We now recognize from holy Scripture that faith is the only work necessary for our salvation. For that reason, how shall we be pardoned if we worship the Mother of Christ and many other saints with divine reverence instead of him [Christ], which happens daily [in the convent]?

The next reason is this: Everywhere in sacred Scripture it is written that our life should be directed toward reaching out our hands to one another and serving them. Christ said, “I have given you an example, that you should do the same as I have done for you.” Therefore, if we are put in such a place where we cannot serve anybody, is it not advisable to leave such a place?

In conclusion, we will pray for you, dear brothers and sisters, for whom this writing has been done. We have written with our own hand, without anyone’s help or advice, that we were trapped and stuck under the Babylonian Captivity. We wanted to give our truthful testimony of faith and praise to all-highest God, who has delivered us from such danger; and through love of the Spirit helps us battle with prayers, that all of us together may be blessed in Christ. Amen.

The third letter is from a Lutheran nun, Anna Sophia of Quedlinburg, living with other Lutheran nuns in a Lutheran convent! She wrote the letter in 1658. The Quedlinburg convent was continuously active until 1802, so it was a Lutheran convent for nearly three hundred years. The Quedlinburg convent and other Lutheran convents accepted Lutheran theology and “took to heart Luther’s early teachings on the possibility of a truly Christian convent life.” This possibility was expressed in the Wittenberg Articles of 1536:

If certain persons of outstanding character, capable of living a life of rule, feel a desire to pass their lives in a cloister, we do not wish to forbid them, so long as their doctrine and worship remain pure.”[2]

At least fourteen convents in the relatively small territory of Brunswick/Lüneburg became Lutheran convents and survived into the nineteenth century. Theologians who lived after Luther were more critical of the monastic life. Anna Sophia addressed her letter to “The enlightened princess, Mother Sophia Eleonora,” and several other noblemen and women. She writes:

The Bible lifts up women and praises their spirit and character. Ever is the mother of all living. Debora venerated God with the most glorious song of praise. Hannah’s heart rejoiced to honor God. Who is not moved to the same joyful heart as the Mother of God upon hearing her Magnificat (Luke 1:47)? Christ has enjoined us to hold fast the example of the wise virgins, to be prepared when he as our heavenly soul’s bridegroom will come (Matthew 25:10). God the Holy Spirit rendered women multiple honors, as in the exalted Song of Solomon in which he compares the Christian church to a bride. We have God the all-highest to praise, who so greatly dignified us poor miserable people and accepted us before all others as his friends. If Jesus had not offered himself up for us, all sacrifices would be too little to deliver us from a single sin. All calf’s blood, yes, all human blood would not be powerful enough to make up for a single sin, had Jesus not entered into holiness through his own blood (Hebrews 9:12).[3]

The fourth letter, written by Martha Elisabeth Zitter, explaining why she left the Ursuline convent at Erfurt to profess the true evangelical religion.

Martha Elisabeth Zitter was persuaded to enter the convent when she was only 14. Now, at age 22, she has gathered her strength to leave that place and disclose the abuses that she endured. She writes:

High honorable and beloved mother, I know that you were very afflicted by and spoke strongly about my leaving the convent and changing from the papist religion—which happened through the undoubted prompting of the Holy Spirit—and that you disinherited me because of this. It is not unknown to me that you lack all knowledge of what the evangelical religion understands itself to be, which I now profess out of the particular grace of God with both my heart and mouth and with a thankful soul toward his godly majesty. You know that I did not enter this of free choice but was sent into the convent by you eight years ago when I was fourteen years old, in order to learn the French language and all sorts of maidenly virtues as well as respectable work. Not a month had gone by when some of the Ursuline nuns began to try to influence me through all types of means and ways to put on their habit. Although I—as God can attest—felt the strongest opposition in my soul to this, I finally let myself—at that time I was still foolish—be persuaded, and said yes, with the hope that after the trial-period had passed I would have appropriate reasons to break myself off from the overburdened ways of the Ursulines. What types of tricks they used against this are not known to you, my mother. Contrary to the rules of their own order—which demand at least three months between beginning the novitiate and putting on a habit—they put a habit on me fourteen days after I began my novitiate. This was without any explanation of the rules and customs of the order . . . I can still remember what a Jesuit spoke to me very energetically and said: “Even if your father lies crying with bloody tears in front of the door sill, and your mother sinks dead to the ground pulling out all her hair, you should still step over your father and let your mother lie in order to run into the convent.” Every reasonable person can consider with me how much this does not fit with the fourth commandment. Isaiah has written well what our Lord also spoke, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” With false witness and enticements they won me over. Yet their bad examples, the like of which I had never seen in a private house outside the convent, made the order and the nuns’ existence more contemptible to me every day. There are four nuns, the oldest, who are hateful and bitter toward each other, speaking only prickly and quarrelsome words to each other or very annoying things about each other that are uninteresting to everyone.

Everywhere in the convent holiness consists of chattering in Latin, which they don’t understand. Furthermore, their holiness consists of: whipping themselves once a week until the blood flows; wearing little silver barbs, brass belts with points, and horsehair belts on their bare bodies. Young novitiates beg for food—from the nuns who sit at the table—from off the floor in the presence of all. Confessing their sins every Saturday, kneeling in the presence of the abbess and the whole community; Sometime fasting with bread and water; sometimes wearing hair shirts on their bare bodies, and other similar human inventions in which they—as noted—place all their supposed holiness. The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience also belong here, which should be valued just as little as the previously noted human rules, for they are nowhere established in the Old or New Testaments of God’s word, nor are they commanded or recommended.

The other motive that moved me to leave the Roman Church is that along with trust in their own works, they place hope and confidence in the merits, help and supplications of the saints of their church. Out of a hundred churches in Catholicism will scarcely one be found that is dedicated to the Holy Trinity or one of the persons of the Godhead. They all turn to the saints, hoping and waiting for help. How does that fit with Scripture, where God commands in Psalm 50:15, “Call on me in your need; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

Moreover, I changed my religion because of the confusion of the papist teaching about indulgences, penance, and purgatory.

I therefore hope and request in a childlike manner that you, my mother, will choose to excuse me for these reasons, and that your motherly favors will remain attached to me. I recommend you to God’s gracious protection and remain until I am in my grave, your humble and obedient daughter, Martha Elisabeth Zitter.[4]

[1] Merry E. Wiesner, Convents Confront the Reformation: Catholic and Protestant Nuns in Germany, Reformation Texts with Translation (1350-1650). Women of the Reformation ; V. 1 (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1996). 31

[2] Ibid. 17

[3] Ibid. 71ff.

[4] Ibid. 103