Katharina Schütz Zell

Biography Sketch of Katharina Schütz Zell

by Molly Swanson

wibrandisrosenblattSummary of Life

1497/8: Born in Strasbourg, a town on the French/German border.

1505: Katharina dedicated herself to “religious matters” at the age of 7.[1]

1508: At age 10 Katharina dedicated herself to the church in celibacy and good works.

1509: Strasbourg clergy ally with Roman curia.

1518: At the age of 20 Martin Luther’s pamphlets begin to circulate in Strasbourg;                             Priest Matthew Zell takes charge of the town’s cathedral parish.

1521: Katharina converted to the Gospel by Luther and Zell’s teachings

1532: Martin Bucer arrives in Strasbourg; Matthew Zell and Katharina Schütz married                              on 3 December.

1524-1558: Katharina’s works are published.

1548: Matthew Zell died January 10; Katharina gave her Lament/exhortation

1562: Katharina dies in Strasbourg.

Influence and recognition:

Moral Reform: In her early years Katharina struggled with the assurance of salvation. She grew up under the preaching of Geiler von Kayserberg until his death in 1510. Geiler, being in his last years, was diligently focused on the moral reform of the clergy, and his sermons reflected it. Count William von Holstein took Geiler’s place as bishop in 1506 and kept the same focus on moral reform, but was overpowered in 1509 when the Strasbourg clergy allied with the Roman curia. Under Pope Julius there was no need for morals among clergy provided they paid the yearly taxes. Katharina was still very young, but the air of tension throughout Strasbourg could not go unnoticed.

Medieval theology: With the alliance of the Strasbourg clergy and the Roman curia the immorality of the clergy grew steadily worse. This also brought the theology of the pope closer to the people of Strasbourg with Sacraments of penance and Mass being the key means of grace. This caused Christians to struggle with their assurance of salvation. Though Katharina was devout in her younger years, she nevertheless could not find any peace in her salvation.

Luther: Katharina deeply identified with Luther’s theological crises of personal peace before God. Luther’s message of salvation as a gift from Christ, detached from any human work, opened the meaning of Scripture to her and gave her the confidence to search scripture for herself and rejoice in her position as a child of God.

Matthew Zell: It was under Zell’s position as preacher in Strasbourg that Katharina came to understand the Gospel. Zell brought with him the teachings of Luther; Zell claimed not to be teaching Luther, but viewed him as a better guide to understanding scripture that the tradition of the Pope. Highly influenced by Luther, Zell brought the gospel of liberation from works to Strasbourg, which Katharina fervently clung to.


  • Katharine was one of the first women to marry a pastor, and certainly the first respected woman in her city to marry none other than the most prominent priest in Strasbourg; This came even before the marriage of Martin Luther. Shortly after her marriage she published her “Apologia for Master Matthew Zell” which was a scriptural defense of clerical marriage. It was focused toward lay citizens such as herself and posed as a public defense of her faith and her actions.
  • Though Katharina did receive some challenges as a pamphleteer during her time, but the little town on Strasbourg provided a generous amount of protection for her, which allowed her writing to travel outside the little town. Martin Luther received a personal copy of Katharina’s first published work “Letters to the suffering women…”
  • Citizens and refugees that sought shelter from the persecution of the Pope and his followers. In 1524 the Zell’s took in more than 80 protestant refugees from the town over who felt compelled to leave as the Roman Catholic rulers grew more intense. Katharina provided meals and shelter for the men during the following month until the men had found permanent shelter.

Katharine was known for her motherly heart directed toward the lay people, the displaced, and those who were negatively viewed.


  • Katharina had a strong reformed Lutheran leaning.
    • Christ is the sole savior. There are no human works needed for/able to bring about justification.
    • Moral uprightness is nevertheless a call of the Christian and an outpouring of faith.
    • She opposed the medieval death rites:
      • Man has an obligation to do as much as possible to add to his salvation
      • No one can be completely assured of salvation until death.
      • Man has free will to choose God, but that choice still only leads to a hope that God will forgive.
      • Prayers to the saints on behalf of the dying.
      • Obligation to confess every sin
      • Sacrament of extreme unction.
      • Purgatory
  • Katharina believed that Christ is the only mediator who does not forgive mechanically nor gives grace on account of holy rituals and objects. Christ is the sole savior who gives faith as a confirmed gift, which needs no help from man’s works.
  • Katharina believed clergy could be married. This she showed with her actions, as well as with her words, writing a defense for her position, against that of the medieval church.
  • She believed that she was responsible, after and with no reference to salvation, to live out kingdom work and moral uprightness with her abilities and skills. She never wanted to be a pastor, but supported her husband and worked in theological and ecclesial pursuit beside him.
  • This included lay people into the work of the Kingdom. She did not believe, with the medieval church, that holiness was just for the clergy, but believed that she could search the scriptures herself – that all lay people, under right supervision and with correct teaching, could read the scriptures for themselves.
  • In her eulogy given at her husband’s funeral she likened herself to Mary Madeline, the apostle of apostles, who did not ask but was called to proclaim the gospel. Her situation in life gave her a platform and she took that space and ability to proclaim the gospel. She wanted to include the rest of the lay people into this practical theology of working with the means that you have.


Types: Katharina wrote letters in the form of booklets and correspondence, treatises, a hymnbook that she translated into German, scriptural meditations, songs, and a sermon.

Major Works:

  • Letter to the suffering women of the Community of Kentzingen, who believe in Christ, sisters with me in Jesus Christ. (1524)
  • Katharina Schütz’s Apologia For Master Matthew Zell, Her Husband, Who is a pastor and servant of the Word of God in Strasbourg, because of the great lies invented about him. (1524)
  • Hymnbook of the Bohemian Brethren. (1531)
  • Some Christian and Comforting Songs of Praise about Jesus Christ our Savior (1534-6)
  • Lament and Exhortation of Katharina Zell to the People at the Grave of Master Matthew Zell. (January 11, 1548)
  • A Letter to the Whole Citizenship of the city of Strasbourg from Katharina Zell, Widow of the (Now Blessed) Matthew Zell, The Former and First Preacher of the Gospel in This City, Concerning Mr. Ludwig Rabus, Now a Preacher of the City of Ulm, Together With Two Letters: Hers and His. May Many Read These and Judge Without Favor or Hate But Alone Take to Heart the Truth. Also a Healthy Answer to Each Article of His Letter. (March 1558)
  • The Misere Psalm Meditated, Prayed, and Paraphrased with King David by Katharina Zell, The Blessed Matthew Zell’s Widow. Together with the Our Father with its Explanation, Sent to the Christian Man Sir Felix Armbruster for Comfort in His Illness, and Published for the Sake of Afflicted Consciences that are Troubled by Sins. Some Sayings from the Psalms and Prophets. (August 1558)

Secondary Works:

  • Zell, Katharina. Church mother the writings of a Protestant reformer in sixteenth-century Germany. Translated by Elsie Anne. McKee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  • McKee, Elsie Anne. Katharina Schütz Zell the Life and Thought of a Sixteenth-century Reformer. Vol. 1. Leiden: Brill, 1999
  • Stjerna, Kirsi. Women and the Reformation. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Pub., 2009.four
  • McKee, Elsie Anne. Reforming Popular Piety in Sixteenth-century Strasbourg: Katharina Schütz Zell and Her Hymnbook. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Theological Seminary, 1994.


  • McKee, Elsie Anne. Katharina Schütz Zell. 1. Leiden: Brill, 1999.
  • McKee, Elsie Anne. Katharina Schütz Zell. 2. Leiden: Brill, 1999.
  • “PIERRE VIRET HISTORICAL SITES.” The Pierre Viret Association – USA. http://www.pierreviret.org/map-strasbourg.php.

[1] The council of Cologne regarded 7 years old as the youngest age for confirmation. This is a claim that Katharina made herself. She may have been referring to that confirmation, when the basics of faith would have been taught to her by her godparents and she would have received the Holy Spirit by the laying on hands by a bishop. See McKee, Vol.1, p. 13.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s