Lake Minnetonka author offers a rarely heard historical perspective in new book

‘Daughter of the Reformation’ tells of the life and times of Martin Luther’s wife Catharina

“Daughter of the Reformation: A Historical Perspective of the Life and Times of the Wife of Martin Luther” by Mary Helene Rasmussen Jackson
“Daughter of the Reformation: A Historical Perspective of the Life and Times of the Wife of Martin Luther” by Mary Helene Rasmussen Jackson

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The act would begin the Protestant Reformation, a religious, political and cultural upheaval in Catholic Europe that’s had a lasting impact on Western civilization. With the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation coming in 2017, Protestant churches, theologians and historians around the world will be looking back to the man who started it all.

But for the past three decades, one local author has been busy looking back to Luther’s wife, Catharina von Bora, for a new book “Daughter of the Reformation: A Historical Perspective of the Life and Times of the Wife of Martin Luther.”

Author Mary Helene Rasmussen Jackson, a longtime Lake Minnetonka resident who lived in Deephaven before moving to Woodland nine years ago, said her research into Catharina’s life began at her church three decades ago.

“I was asked by the Sunday school to do a little presentation on the wife of Martin Luther. … So, I started looking and really got hooked,” she said.

When the presentation was over, Jackson felt compelled to continue her research and would later find a way to combine her love of history, education and theater. She began writing and performing a four-act monologue on Catharina called “The Nun, the Maiden, the Wife and the Widow,” which she performed for dozens of different venues across several states.

“That was kind of the beginning of it,” Jackson remembered.

Ten years ago, Jackson said she began writing a book on Catharina. She traveled and combed through the libraries of colleges from Minnesota to Indiana, where retired pastors had hopefully donated their old theological books. Becoming more involved as a teacher in the Bloomington School District, Jackson said she took a break from writing until about three years ago when she picked up where she left off and began working to complete the book.

“After all of my piles of papers and notes, to have it in book form … It’s sort of surreal, Jackson said of “Daughter of the Reformation,” which was published by Huff Publishing Associates and released in June.

Mary Helene Rasmussen Jackson
Mary Helene Rasmussen Jackson

Jackson said the book is written from the point of view of what we know about the life and times of Luther’s wife. She said she hopes the book will introduce Catharina to a larger audience while opening a window into the often-forgotten facts of life in those times. Jackson said in her research, she learned everything about the people living in 16th-century Germany – from what they ate and what they wore to the beliefs they held.

While the book is heavily researched and based on historical facts of life in 1500s Germany, Jackson said she did add in a touch of historical fiction in trying to fill in the less documented times of the young woman’s life when she was a nun.

“I did create some dialogue just to let her live a little. … It’s all based on historical detail of what might have happened at that time,” Jackson said.

The author said she felt compelled to write a book on Luther’s wife because, like thousands of other women throughout history, Catharina has been virtually forgotten. Jackson said she wanted to create a document that told of a strong 16th-century woman with a strong sense of self-worth, considering her past years away from her family and a solitary life within a very strict convent.

Jackson said she also wanted to tell of the huge implications the Reformation had for women. She said at the time, women weren’t afforded many rights or opportunities for education. She also explained that when a man died, his widow was left with three things: a cane, a chair and a coat.

“That was it,” Jackson said. “The widow was meant to sit in the corner and watch the world go by. Her children and the estate went to the government to handle.”

But Martin Luther didn’t like lawyers, Jackson noted, so he wrote his own will, stating that his estate be left to Catharina and that she would continue to raise their children. When Luther died, the case went to court and Catharina won, setting a precedent for women everywhere.

Another product of the Reformation was the invention of the printing press, which resulted in creating more opportunity for people to learn how to read, whether rich or poor, man or woman, Jackson said.

“Most people know that the Reformation was this big deal that happened 500 years ago, but really don’t know what happened,” Jackson said. “It’s kind of a big word that people couldn’t talk to you for 30 seconds about because they don’t know what happened, so I guess I’m trying to fill that gap.”

A descendant of three generations of Norwegian preachers, Jackson grew up in seven different parsonages in the Midwest and attended Augustana Academy, a Lutheran high school in Canton, South Dakota. After high school Jackson came to Minnesota to study speech, education, and history at Concordia College in Moorhead. Jackson also became active in theater and debate while in college. Later, Jackson attended the University of California in San Diego to study the field of English as a second language (ESL).

Today Jackson, while retired from teaching full-time, offers ESL teaching and piano lessons from her home near Lake Minnetonka. Her four children and seven grandchildren all live nearby.

“Daughter of the Reformation” is available at huffpublishing.com/books and at Amazon.com.

Contact Jason Jenkins at [email protected]