The (Radical) Reformer’s Wife: Katharina Purst Hutter

In the study of women and the Protestant Reformation, the reformers’ wives loom large. For those magisterial reformers who had begun their careers as Roman Catholic priests or monks, the choice to marry was a deliberate rejection of Catholic dogma, and the women who married former priests and monks likewise made a choice that publicly confirmed their break with Rome. Of the women profiled in the Germany section of Roland Bainton’s 1971 Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy, fully half were reformers’ wives, and many of these women, particularly Katharina von Bora and Katharina Schütz Zell, have also been the subject of full-length biographical treatments.1

In early Anabaptism, pastors’ wives were less prominent. While Anabaptists likewise rejected clerical celibacy and some of the most prominent sixteenth-century Anabaptists—among them Michael Sattler and Menno Simons—were former monks and priests, the pressures of persecution often relegated marriage and family life to secondary theological concerns. Of the women whose stories were included in the 1996 volume Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, edited by C. Arnold Snyder and Linda Huebert Hecht, only a few were married to Anabaptist leaders (most notably Katharina Purst Hutter, Anna Scharnschlager, and Divara of Haarlem), and many were not married to Anabaptists at all.

The story of Katharina Purst Hutter (the wife of Jacob Hutter, founder of the communitarian Hutterite Anabaptists), however, offers an interesting comparison with that of more prominent magisterial reformers’ wives such as Katharina von Bora or Katharina Schütz Zell. Like her fellow Katharinas, she developed a strong faith of her own, even as the man who became her husband was instrumental in her conversion story. As Katharina Schütz had first been stirred by the preaching of Mathis Zell and Katharina von Bora by the writings of Martin Luther, so Katharina Purst first learned of the Anabaptist faith while working in South Tyrol in the household of Paul and Justina Gall, who hosted Jakob Hutter and other Anabaptist leaders.2 Katharina made a confession of faith and Hutter baptized her.3

Persecution, however, was a far more present reality for Katharina Purst Hutter than for her magisterial counterparts. While the Luthers and the Zells undoubtedly faced opposition, they also enjoyed the protection of Frederick the Wise and the Strasbourg city council respectively. Jakob and Katharina’s situation was not so secure. In 1533, authorities in the Tyrol arrested the Galls and all the members of their household, including Katharina. The Galls and Katharina recanted in exchange for release, only to flee to Moravia in hopes of finding a place to practice their faith more freely. Paul was captured and executed, but Justina and Katharina arrived safely in Moravia where they joined Hutter and his followers.4

Gedenktafel_Jakob_Hutter

A plaque at the Goldenes Dachl in Innsbruck, Austria, commemorating the execution of Jakob Hutter. Source: Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gedenktafel_Jakob_Hutter.jpg)

Katharina married Jakob Hutter two years later, in the spring of 1535, and the couple soon left Moravia and returned to the Tyrol, where they traveled from town to town visiting Anabaptists and making converts. Jakob, however, was too notorious to evade the authorities indefinitely and, in late November of 1535, he and Katharina were arrested in Klausen, at the house of a family named Stainer.5 After months of torture and interrogation, Jakob was burned at the stake in February 1536, but the authorities elected to keep Katharina alive despite the fact that she had not kept the terms of her previous release and had returned to Anabaptism after her recantation. The authorities sent for priests to convince her to return to the Catholic faith, but this time she refused to make even a pretense of recantation.6 In a statement made shortly after her arrest, Katharina explicitly rejected the mass, the Eucharist, the church building, and infant baptism as useless, abominations before God, and from the devil.7 Katharina escaped from prison in 1536 and evaded the authorities for two years, but, in 1538, she was arrested in the village of Schöneck and executed.8 Unlike her husband, no memorial plaque marks the site of her execution, but Katharina, like so many other sixteenth-century Anabaptist women, proved that she took her faith seriously enough to risk everything for it, without thought of recognition from anyone but God Himself.


  1. See, inter alia, Elsie Anne McKee, Katharina Schütz Zell: The Life and Thought of a Sixteenth-Century Reformer (Leiden: Brill, 1998); Ingelore Winter, Katharina von Bora: Ein Leben mit Martin Luther (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1990). On pastors’ wives in the Reformation more generally see Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer, From Priest’s Whore to Pastor’s Wife: Clerical Marriage and the Process of Reform in the Early German Reformation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2013). 
  2. Elfriede Lichdi, “Katharina Purst Hutter of Sterzing,” in Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press), 179. 
  3. Katharina Hutter, “Testimony of Katharina Hutter, Given before December 3, 1535, at Klausen (1535)” in Sources of South German/Austrian Anabaptism, edited by C. Arnold Snyder (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2001), 194; Grete Mecenseffy (Ed.), Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer, Österreich III Teil (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1983), 300. 
  4.   Lichdi, 179. 
  5.   Mecenseffy, 302. 
  6.   Mecenseffy, 323. 
  7.   Hutter, 195; Mecenseffy, 301. 
  8.   Werner Packull, Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments during the Reformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 256. 

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