Podcast episode 011: The extraordinary Mrs Zell

by | Nov 28, 2017

It’s been a year of “Reformation”—of remembering, celebrating and learning afresh from Reformers like Luther, Calvin, Cranmer and Tyndale.

But among the lesser known Reformers was Matthew Zell, an admirable, courageous and extraordinary man who was one of the leading Reformation pastors in Strasbourg.

However, this episode of the CCL podcast is not about Matthew Zell and what we might learn from him about the Christian life; it’s about the equally admirable, courageous and extraordinary woman who was married to him.

In episode 11 of the CCL podcast, Jane Tooher introduces us to the extraordinary Katherine Zell.

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TP: Well, 2017 is drawing to a close, and with it, the close of a year of Reformation celebration. We’ve spent the last 12 months remembering Luther and Calvin, and all the other great heroes of the Reformation period, and their recovery of the biblical gospel.

One of the less known figures of the Reformation, however, was Matthew Zell. Matthew Zell was one of the four leading Reformation figures in the city of Strasbourg, along with Martin Bucer and others.

Now, Matthew Zell was a faithful, godly, courageous and, in many ways, extraordinary man, from whom we could learn a great deal about the Christian gospel and the Christian life. But in this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast, we’re not going to do that; we’re going to learn, instead, from the example of an equally faithful, godly and extraordinary person, who was married to Matthew Zell.


TP: Hello, I’m Tony Payne and welcome to episode 11 of the Centre for Christian Living podcast, coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. Here at the Centre for Christian Living, we strive to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues. And in this episode, we’re going to take one last fond look at the Reformation era and what it can teach us about the challenges of Christian living. And in particular, we’re going to be looking at the life and writings and example of Katherine Zell. Our guide will be Jane Tooher.

JT: I’m Jane Tooher. I serve on the faculty of Moore College, and I lecture in ministry and mission, church history and New Testament, and I’m the director of the Priscilla and Aquila Centre.

TP: What is that? Tell us about the Priscilla and Aquila Centre.

JT: Well, one of the official values of Moore College is gender complementarity, and so this centre assumes the position of complementarianism, and the centre is really trying to look more seriously and creatively about, really, the application end of complementarianism.

TP: And in case you don’t know what that long word “complementarianism” means, it means—

JT: —That men and women are created equal, but at times, there will be differences—that we’re created—like, gender is a gift, and at times, in the home, in the church, those—there’s good reasons for those differences, and God has made us with differences for the sake of building his church and extending his kingdom.

TP: But let’s turn to Katherine Zell. Who was she?

JT: A German woman. So she was born and raised, lived all her life in Strasbourg. And she grew up in a religious home. And then when Luther’s tracts became available in Strasbourg, she started reading them. And through those tracts, she became convicted of the Reformed faith, and God saved her.

TP: Was that unusual? Were there many women who were, as far as we know, hearing about the Reformed faith, responding to it, becoming Reformed evangelical Christians?

JT: Yeah, there were a number of women—many of them, we know—I guess the ones we more commonly hear of were the women that were in convents. So because we hear about Martin Luther’s wife and some others who used to be nuns. Katherine Zell was never a nun, and so it’s probably more unusual that we hear about someone that was never in a religious order. But, yeah, God wasn’t just saving men in the Reformation; there were many women that were saved as well. But we don’t normally hear their stories because we don’t have things that they have written, by and large. But with Katherine, we do.

TP: You say that she was in Strasbourg—that that was a significant town for the Reformation.

JT: Yeah.

TP: In what sort of ways?

JT: So it’s significant in that it was a free city, so people had quite a lot of religious freedom. So it attracted Protestant thought—even, like, radical Reformers as well, not just the mainline Reformers. But it also was a sizeable city. So it was a trade city and it had the printing press in it, and so Luther’s tracts and Melanchthon tracts, they were able to be printed easily, quickly, cheaply, and distributed throughout the city. So those ideas—those Reformed ideas—got out there and got out in people’s hands, and in people’s hands like Katherine.

Katherine read them and she started—she went along to the cathedral, where Matthew Zell, her future husband, was preaching. And Matthew had started reading Luther’s tracts as well. And he got changed by them, and he ended up preaching Reformed doctrines, ’cause he ended up believing that. So he was a priest, he was a priest at the cathedral, and, yeah, he hadn’t been there very long. He used to be somewhere else, came to Strasbourg, read Luther’s—read Luther, and, yeah, they ended up getting married. She was a member of his congregation.

TP: You say she married Matthew Zell, the priest—

JT: Yeah.

TP: —which, for us, is no big deal, though: she was in the congregation; they got married. But of course, for them, that was a big deal, right?

JT: It was a really big deal. It was a really big deal also—not just that it was, you know, Catholic clergyman getting married and they weren’t allowed to get married, it was also one of the first clergy marriages, and a really high profile clergy marriage. So most of us have never heard of Matthew Zell. But he’s a really famous preacher in his day, and he was one of the key—there’s four key guys in Strasbourg, and he was one of those four key guys. And so he was, yeah, big name in his day—big name in the continental Reformation.

And so him being married actually was, you know, he faced being expelled from the church. And Katherine being married to him, she faced also—and she received—not just criticism from the church hierarchy, but also a lot of lay people also weren’t really convinced that clergy should get married. And so a woman who was not—who hadn’t been a nun and was from a respectable family, she’s, like, the first woman that did that in Strasbourg.

So it wasn’t an easy thing. And also, the marriage is fascinating because, I think, we—often when we’re thinking about the Reformation, we think about these guys like Luther, Bucer and others who—they got married, they faced, you know, in a sense, persecution for doing that. But actually we don’t necessarily think about the women who married also, and that they had firm theological convictions for getting married, and they also faced flack for doing it as well. And they weren’t passive recipients in these marriages. Well, Katherine certainly wasn’t; when you read her writings, you can see that she’s well thought out theologically about marriage, and also the marriage that she had with Matthew was one of deep love as well.

TP: You say that we have some access to what Katherine thought and felt, and so on, because some of her writings survived. And one of those writings that you write about in this article1 has to do with her marriage—a kind of apologia or defence—

JT: Yeah.

TP: —of the marriage, and of her husband. What was her defence and what does she say in that letter or apologia?

JT: Yeah, so just—well, just before that letter, she’d actually—there’d been some private correspondence between her and her bishop and others defending her marriage. And then she ended up deciding to write a public letter, because to defend—is actually defending clerical marriage more generally, really, is what it does. She says that, actually, for just was, you know—the criticism was just, you know, concerning her and Matthew, that she wouldn’t have, you know, written, but she was concerned because people started to believe the lies: there was a lot of lies that were being spread about Matthew.

TP: Such as?

JT: That he abused her, that he killed himself in remorse, that he’d had an affair with their servant girl, who worked in their house—all these lies and slander. And so—and she saw that people were being persuaded to go back to Roman teaching, and she didn’t want that. And she wanted to make clear, actually, what was happening, not just in her marriage, but also the validity of clerical marriage more generally as well. And we see that—we see that she does defend Matthew, but also so much—I guess, the letter is so much stronger, in a sense, because she defends clerical marriage more generally.

TP: Now, Katherine Zell’s defence of clergy marriage was not just a defence of her husband, but also a critique of the corruption of the Roman Catholic church in this area, because many clergy, although not allowed to be married, had mistresses or concubines who lived openly with them. And in order for this to be tolerated by the church authorities, they paid a tax—they paid a financial settlement to their bishop in order to be allowed to continue to have someone living with them—a “housekeeper”, in inverted commas—who was effectively their de facto wife. So Katherine not only defended Matthew, she also critiqued the corruption—the financial corruption—of the Catholic church in this whole area.

But that’s not the only thing she did.

JT: But she also—theologically, brilliantly—she makes it clear that clerical marriage shows it’s a priesthood of all—sorry, clerical marriage allows, like, basically the priesthood of all believers: it’s not a special class of clergy and then, you know, the laity, you know, are second—second-rate or whatever. But actually clerical marriage shows that, actually, everyone is all the same: marriage or non-marriage doesn’t make you, you know, more special, more sanctified in God’s eyes.

Another thing that clerical marriage shows clearly is also justification by faith. It’s not these special vows and these special things that a priest has to give up; it’s actually clearly justification by faith. It doesn’t matter if the priest gets married or if he doesn’t get married; it’s a Christian freedom issue. But, yeah. So it—clerical marriage actually was the most physical demonstration of the teachings that were happening during the Reformation—justification by faith and things like the priesthood of all believers.

TP: So it was almost like an embodiment or an illustration—

JT: Yeah.

TP: —of some of these key doctrines.

JT: Yeah, exactly. It definitely was. And the thing is, that there’d be some priests that may have accepted some Reformed teachings, but they may have been quite guarded in their preaching and everything, and so you still couldn’t really tell where they were at. But once a priest got married, there was no denying where—what he thought about clerical marriage and what he thought about justification by faith and priesthood of all believers and things like that. So, yeah, it was the most—it was most clear demonstration of basically the changes that the Reformation brought in in terms of sexuality, in terms of domestic life, and marriage. Yeah, the freedom that it brought.

TP: Do we have much sense of what sort of marriage they had?

JT: Yeah, we do—we do get a sense, because we have—well, we have from Matthew’s side, but we also, I guess, my concern—I was looking at Katherine’s side in her letters, and because she mentions Matthew a number of times, so these three letters that I was looking at in her art—in the article, one of them is a defence of their marriage, and then one of them is actually the eulogy at Matthew’s funeral. And so they’re very very personal. And we see that she describes herself as Matthew’s “helper” in, you know, life and ministry, and work and home, and all aspects.

So Matthew and Katherine had two children who both died in infancy. And so, in many ways, Katherine was in a very unique situation: she was more freed up than some of the other Reformation women. And we really see through the letters that … yeah, this close partnership, and at one stage, in the letter defending her marriage, she, when these accusation that he’s had an affair and these other things—abusing her—she says, “We—in all our marriage”—they hadn’t been married very long at that point—but even still, they had been married for a couple of years—“we’ve only been 15 minutes apart”. And, yeah, there’s strong love and, yeah, this strong sense of partnership and respect.

But also, though, that she’s very much got her own mind, and a strong independent mind as well, and we see evidence that that is potentially influenced by her upbringing, and that her parents really encouraged her to have independent thinking as well, which helped in God’s providence—her being living in the time that she was, and standing up to false teachers and saying what she thought, and being really convicted of the truths of the Bible and, yeah, not being afraid to say them to others.

TP: Some of the people she wrote to and encouraged were other Christian women, and one of the letters you examine is a letter to a group of Christian women in another town, who are undergoing a very difficult circumstance. Can you tell us about that letter and how she encouraged them?

JT: Yeah, so those—those women—that town, they basically got converted through Protestant preaching and through—really, through this one man. And that man ended up basically getting expelled from the city. So as an act of solidarity, the many men of the city walked out the city—out of the city with him, past the city gates, and though by the time they got back, the armed forces patrolling the city, they refused to let the men back. And so, those men ended up going to nearby Strasbourg—it was a city not far from Strasbourg—and Katherine Zell and others housed them for weeks and weeks, and fed them.

But the women staying there—and it’s easy to think, “Oh, the men, you know, they weren’t allowed back home. They were suffering persecution ’cause they were out at Strasbourg”, and that is true to a certain extent. I mean, they were looked after by, you know, Reformers. But the women, actually, they suffered persecution and suffering from the hands of the forces that were patrolling the city, and without their husbands and other men in the city. And so Katherine writes them a letter encouraging them in their situation, and she makes it clear in the letter that they might actually die for their faith. And so, it’s a very realistic letter, and basically, she says, “The way you get through this situation—the way you cope through this situation—is to keep on meditating on God’s word.” So she says that, but also all the way through her letter, she has allusions, references, to God’s word all through her letter. So she’s actually, in a sense, meditating on God’s word all through her letter, and that’s what she’s urging the women to do—to really have an eternal perspective of things. Yeah. And that it’s actually going to be worth it.

And she encourages them—this is another thing that kind of changed in the Reformation: they didn’t have—she’s not encouraging them to, say, have
the—to follow Mary as an example; she encourages them to have Abraham as their example—as a man of faith. And so she tells them to put on manly—the manly courage of Abraham. But basically—I mean, obviously, Mary was a woman of faith. But it’s interesting that, you know, it’s not—not so much a Roman idea, but actually it’s a very Protestant idea: Abraham, a man of faith and our ancestor in that sense. And it’s fascinating that right early on in the Reformation, you get this letter from a woman to a group of women, and she’s saying, “Actually, the example to follow is Abraham.” So gender wasn’t an issue; it was actually that, you know, this really obvious example of a person of faith.


TP: So, back to Katherine Zell and Jane Tooher in just a moment. In the meantime, three quick things I want to tell you about.

First of all, if you’re enjoying the podcast, please subscribe: just go to iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, click “subscribe” and you’ll get all the episodes delivered to your device. While you’re there, leave us a review and a rating. For some weird algorithmic reason that I don’t understand, the more ratings and reviews that are there on the site, the higher it rises up in the rankings and the search results, and so on, the more people will see and hear about the Centre for Christian Living podcast, and the more people will listen and subscribe. So if you can leave us a review or a rating, that helps everyone enormously.

And the third thing to tell you about, of course, are our book specials for this episode. I’ve got four books to tell you about very briefly, written by four daughters of the Reformation—four evangelical Reformed women who’ve written four outstanding books that you can benefit from. The first, most appropriately, is one you’ve heard about before: it’s Kirsten Birkett’s little book, The Essence of the Reformation—a fine, brief, concise and warm-hearted summary of what the Reformation was really about: the key figures, the key personalities, the key historical
movements and the key doctrines. Kirsten Birkett’s Essence of the Reformation—an excellent Reformation book for this Reformation year.

The second one is God’s Good Design by Claire Smith. It’s really about the subject we discussed earlier—complementarianism—that is, the relationship between men and women, and how we understand the differences between men and women in God’s good design. In Claire’s typical fashion, it’s very clearly written, it’s very easy to read, it’s very lucid, and it unpacks all the significant Bible passages that relate to this subject. It’s really an indispensable book if you want to think through the issues of men and women and how they relate. That’s God’s Good Design by Claire Smith.

The third book is by Lee Carter: it’s called Letters to Emma, and it’s the story of Lee’s journey of grief, following the death of her husband Paul. It’s a very moving and beautifully written book, and it helps you to understand not only what it’s like to go through this kind of grief, which is a wonderful thing to understand in order to help others and in order to be prepared for grief ourselves. But it’s also an outstanding testimony to the faithfulness of God in Christ in these moments of grief. It’s a wonderfully written little book: Letters to Emma by Lee Carter. I think you’ll enjoy it. And it would make a very good gift.

And the fourth book is Together Through the Storm by Sally Sims, a practical guide to Christian care. This is really a book about what some people call “pastoral care”—that is, looking after and encouraging and comforting and taking care of people when life gets tough. And Sally’s written a book that is full of biblical encouragement as to what it means to really care for someone in a Christian way, and lots of practical advice as well about how to do that, gained through many years of experience.

So those four books are all available, as usual, at the special Matthias
Media site, matthiasmedia.com.au/ccl. And you can go there and get all those books in time for Christmas.

But back to Jane Tooher and the story of Katherine Zell. Katherine and Matthew’s marriage was a very happy and fruitful one. But it ended in 1548 when Matthew died. And at his funeral, Katherine took the somewhat unusual step of stepping forward to speak.

JT: So Katherine spoke and she wasn’t expecting to speak, but she did speak, and we have a record of that, which is brilliant. But what comes out really really clearly, which is a key thing in the Reformation, we see this—we saw this with Martin Luther as well, and he had died before Matthew Zell—is that Katherine actually, in her eulogy, she says a number of things, but one thing she talks about is the details of Matthew’s death, and it comes out clearly to us that she does this because she wants to make clear to her hearers that Matthew died what was known in the Reformation as a “good” death. And Martin Luther died a “good” death. And what that means is that there’s—they didn’t call a priest, you know: there’s no last rites and intercession of the saints, and things like that. It was just her and Matthew at their home, and he died and he—they were just praying to God.

So that was what was known as a “good” death, and they wanted those—so, Martin Luther’s good death got published—a description of that—and also Matthew Zell’s did as well. And so the hearers at the funeral, but also other people in Strasbourg and more broadly would have seen this good death, and that’s a real vindication of the Protestant cause—that actually, in the end, they didn’t give up. It was still justification by faith. And so she explains that—you could read it and think, “Why is she going into all these details about they thought he was going to die and then he didn’t die, and they were praying and then he, you know, the next night, he did die. He got the pains again.” But it makes complete sense when you realise, actually, that’s a good death. And there’s a woodcut: you can see it in the British Museum. There’s other copies as well—of Matthew Zell’s good death.

So that’s one thing that she does in her eulogy. Her eulogy is quite long. She also—she basically summarises what Matt—she exhorts the congregation. So Martin Bucer has preached, he did the funeral, he’s the man that also married them as well. So he’s there at the beginning and at the end of their marriage partnership. He preaches, but Katherine makes it clear that she’s not preaching. But she wants to say a word.

And she wasn’t expecting to say a word, she said, but now she feels compelled to. And she exhorts the congregation to not forget what Matthew, their shepherd, has taught them. And what she does is she really basically summarises the gospel, and does this kind of biblical theology, really, of, yeah, of the gospel, and then she talks about his good death, and then it—towards the end of her eulogy, she really exhorts the young people who are listening, and the reason why she does that is because Matthew was really really worried that the next generation basically were going to lose the gospel—forget the Reformation teachings, and that Strasbourg would be lost. And sadly within a very short time after Matthew’s death, a lot of the churches had Roman clergy in them.

So things changed very very quickly. And people like Martin Bucer, they ended up getting thrown out of Strasbourg, and under the kindness of Thomas Cranmer, he found refuge in England.

TP: So in your reading and research into Katherine and her life, what has stood out for you most about her as a Christian?

JT: What’s stood out for me most in Katherine’s life, of her being a Christian—being a Christian woman—well, being a Christian generally, I guess is that she made most of the situation that God had placed her in. So she had a good, but basic education. And she used that. She got married. They had two children. They sadly died. But she wasn’t defined by that. But she found herself in a very unique situation, being married to a high profile Reformer in contact with a lot of other high profile Reformers—Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, Luther and others. And she learned from them. And she wasn’t afraid to engage with them—like, she challenged Luther at points, we’ve got record of that, where she disagreed with him. And she’s just very open and honest.

So I feel like even at times when you read Katherine and you feel like, maybe, you might disagree with her, I feel like you can trust her, because she is saying what she thinks. She had a real concern for Christian brotherly sisterly love, and at times, her, like Luther and Bucer and others, disagreed because of theological importance, so she seemed to emphasise more love. But you can still see where she’s coming from—a great Christian piety and a concern for Christian brothers and sisters.

And her making the most of her situation is also seen in the fact that she writes a lot of letters. She writes letters basically for the sake of other people, and for—to help them keep growing as Christians. We see that with the suffering women. We see that also with her being concerned that people are returning to the Roman church, and having confused ideas about sexuality in marriage.

But we also see it in other things like, there was this hymn book, and she recognised that songs are a brilliant way to teach people theological and biblical truths. And it was a—quite a large hymn book, and she thought, “Well, actually that’s—that’s actually quite expensive for people to buy.” So she edited it and made it into five smaller hymn books so it was easier, cheaper for people to buy. And so things like that: she used the resources around her and she made sure other people got those resources. So got hymn books, got these letters, which were public letters. And, yeah, she wasn’t afraid to say what she thought.

So, yeah, she would have been a fascinating woman to meet. I mean, in a sense, when you read her letters, you feel like you’re meeting her. You feel like you’re getting inside her head. And so, I guess, she’s been a challenge and an encouragement to make the most of the situation that God has placed me in.

And also just be a woman of integrity, because, sure, she doesn’t get everything right, but she says what she thinks, and she tries—this comes out again and again in her letters—she keeps coming back to God’s word, and she’s—she’s obviously soaked in God’s word, because she references and uses it, has allusions to it all throughout her letters. So she’s not just disagreeing with the bishop for the sake of it, and there’s no argument there; her argument keeps coming back to Scripture, and she challenges some of the papists—some of the Romans—basically saying to them, “You can’t show me where clerical marriage, for example, is wrong in Scripture”. So she—yeah, she comforts and encourages people with Scripture, and she also exposes the false teachers with their lack of using Scripture.

TP: We started off our conversation by just chatting briefly about the Priscilla and Aquila Centre, and men and women being different and complementary in God’s design. What is it about Katherine as a woman in particular that you think helps you to live as a woman—a Christian woman?

JT: Well, I think she definitely rejoices in being a woman. I don’t think there’s any evidence that she’s trying to be someone that she’s not. She’s not trying to be a man. She recognises throughout different parts in some of her letters—recognised God’s good order in men and women—but recognises their partnership together as well, and the role that women have in that. And we see that clearly, also, in the letter to the suffering women.

And so I guess what encourages me with her writings is that she recognises God’s good order in marriage and in the church, and in life, in ministry and working together. And she recognises partnership between men and women, and teaching others God’s truth, and in getting the gospel out, and, in her case, the Reformed teaching.


TP: Well, that’s about it for episode 11 of the Centre for Christian Living podcast. Please get in touch and let us know what you think. We love to hear from you. You can email us at ccl@moore.edu.au, and ask any questions or give us some feedback. We really do like to hear from our listeners.

You can also check out our website, which is similar: ccl.moore.edu.au. You’ll find lots of material there: you’ll find video and audio and text from our past public events on a whole range of topics. And you’ll find some details—coming soon, anyway—about our public events for next year in 2018.

I’m Tony Payne. ’Bye for now.



1 Jane Tooher, “Katherine Zell: The varied ministries of one Reformation woman”, Celebrating the Reformation: Its legacy and continuing relevance, edited by Mark D Thompson, Colin Bale and Edward Loane, Apollos, 2017, pp. 161-182.

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