Celebrating Mother's Day, Luther-style
Martin Luther could regard any day as Mother’s Day. The value he placed on the maternal vocation stood in sharp contrast to the views of his contemporaries. The Roman Church had barred its clergy from marriage and its procreative fruit. Women were thought holier if they became nuns rather than wives or mothers. Martin Luther fought against this idea for much of his life. He wrote (quoted in Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks, 123):
The godless world is moved neither by God’s ordinance nor by the sweet nature of little children who are produced in marriage; it sees only the shortcomings and hardships in marriage—it does not see the great treasure and benefit that is in it.
Luther valued motherhood highly, recognizing its origin in the very design of God’s creation. “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) was, in Luther’s estimation, “more than a command, namely, a divine ordinance which is not our prerogative to hinder or ignore” (Luther’s Works, 45:17). In brief, God created women for motherhood (Luther’s Works, 5:355):
The saintly women desire nothing else than the natural fruit of their bodies. For by nature woman has been created for the purpose of bearing children. Therefore she has breasts; she has arms for the purpose of nourishing, cherishing, and carrying her offspring. It was the intention of the Creator that women should bear children and that men should beget them.
Luther frequently celebrated the blessings of children and the wonderful calling of motherhood.
This quotation from Luther is just as jarring today as it was in the sixteenth century. In Luther’s day, church authorities had despised motherhood and privileged celibacy. Today, society has transformed motherhood from a badge of honor to a symbol of disgrace. Sure, Hallmark still sells plenty of Mother’s Day cards, but just as this celebration can be neatly scheduled on the calendar, so also motherhood must fit the schedule of one’s busy lifestyle, rather than vice versa. Our “pro-choice” world insists that true womanhood requires the ability to choose against motherhood. But if motherhood is to be a choice, shouldn’t it be God who does the choosing? After all, it is God who puts to death and brings to life (Deuteronomy 32:39), and it is God who opens and closes wombs (Genesis 29:31, 30:22).
Luther frequently celebrated the blessings of children and the wonderful calling of motherhood. For example (quoted in Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks, 183):
A pregnant woman is a divine work, giving birth, etc. Marriage is the fount of the entire human race, and nevertheless this sacred origin of life is concealed and held in contempt, such that it has the reputation of being a fleshly, worldly way of life. If all the leaves in the meadow of Torgau were to speak in tongues, they could not adequately preach the praise of marriage or the turpitude of celibacy.
Along with this, Luther makes the point that giving birth is not enough; parents must also raise those children. “But it is not enough that a child is born…for heathens also bring forth children. A person has to raise children to the service, praise, and honor of God” (quoted in Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks, 91). Well does Luther understand the responsibility of Christian parents (Luther’s Works, 45:46):
But the greatest good in married life, that which makes all suffering and labor worth while, is that God grants offspring and commands that they be brought up to worship and serve Him. In all the world this is the noblest and most precious work, because to God there can be nothing dearer than the salvation of souls. ... Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel. In short, there is no greater or nobler authority on earth than that of parents over their children, for this authority is both spiritual and temporal.
Luther also acknowledged the hardships of marriage and procreation. He was not ignorant of the difficulty, in this sin-saturated world. Couples would have a hard time living together. Husbands would have a difficult time being the loving heads, while wives would have a difficult time submitting to their husbands. As Luther warned (quoted in Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks, 183):
The devil always finds a pretext to be against this estate, for he sees both the original sin and the unhappiness, trouble, and toil that are ascribed to it. He can use these two things well, and wants to make marital life more difficult for everyone or even destroy it. For that reason we must lift this estate even higher, praise and honor it even more, adorn and embellish it, just as God Himself does.
Luther understood that it was through marriage that God blesses all the institutions of the earth, and that it was through marital procreation that children should be born, and the church would prosper. If the devil were to destroy motherhood, he would achieve a great victory against the church. There would be fewer children being born, and fewer being raised in God’s Word, which would mean fewer pastors, teachers, and missionaries. There would also be fewer men who knew how to care for women and children with compassion and sensitivity, since those men themselves would never have been raised by a mother.
Whether you are a mother or not, surely you know of someone who is. Whether today is Mother’s Day or not, remember that any day can be. Offer your encouragement and support. You’ll find plenty of suggestions for that in Holy Scripture and the writings of the man who worked so earnestly to restore the church to its biblical foundation, Martin Luther.
- Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955-present.
- Karant-Nunn, Susan C., and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, eds. Luther on Women: A Sourcebook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Mr. Emil B. Huntington is a Lutheran writer who lives in southwestern Wisconsin. His hobbies center around his wife and children, their adventures in home schooling, and their hope to leave a Christian legacy for future generations.