A sixteenth-century German, Katharina Schütz Zell (1497/8–1562) was one of the first Protestant women to marry a clergyman. Katharina lived all of her life in what was formerly Alsace, known today as Strasbourg, France, close to the border of Germany.
A Reformer, she published a collection of congregational hymns, cared for the sick and imprisoned, and reached out to refugees displaced by religious warfare. Matthew Zell, one of the priests in her community who researched the ideas Martin Luther was speaking about in 1521, began preaching about "grace alone." Katharina found solace in the message that God’s salvation is purely a gift through the grace of Christ.
They married, which was scandalous at the time. When the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Matthew for marrying Katharina, she wrote a letter (that she later published) to the bishop in defense of clerical marriage. Considering literacy rates along with women’s lack of social power, Katharina’s actions amounted to no small feat of skill and courage.
She also published tracts. She and Matthew had only two children, both of whom died before the age of four. And Katharina was known for writing words of comfort that drew on mothering imagery. One she wrote for the consolation of wives whose husbands were exiled for their faith. In it she cited Isaiah 49:15 in which the prophet describes God as a mother who cannot forget a nursing child. She wrote another consolation tract for the city magistrate, who was quarantined. A meditation on the Lord’s Prayer, it included these thoughts: “Our Father, who art in heaven. He is called not Lord or judge, but Father. And since through his Son we are born again, we may call him grandfather, too. He may be likened also to a mother who has known the pangs of birth and the joy of giving suck.” She, like many before her, such as Lady Julian of Norwich in the fourteenth century, found comfort in the biblical mothering metaphors used to reveal God.
In visiting prisoners, caring for the sick, and arranging care for floods of refugees, Zell encouraged many in the faith at a time when Protestants faced severe persecution.
“Therefore, seeing that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every weight and the sin that so easily besets us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus—the author and finisher of our faith….”