Zell, Katharina Schütz (c. 1497–1562)

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Zell, Katharina Schütz (c. 1497–1562)

Outstanding lay reformer in the early Protestant Reformation who wrote, preached, and spoke to teach her faith, welcomed refugees and everyone in need, and provided a remarkable model of women's leadership in the Christian Church. Name variations: Katherine, Catherina or Catherine Zell; Zell-Schütz or Zell-Schutz or Schuetz-Zell; Maister Mathis frauw; Katharina Schützin or Schützinn or Zellin or Zellen (in 16th-century Strassburg, women often used their birth surnames, or might be known by their husbands' names; thus, Zell published under both Schützin, the feminine of her father's name, and Zellin, the feminine of her husband's name). Pronunciation: Ka-ta-REE-na Schewtz Tzell. Born in 1497 or 1498 in Strassburg, then an autonomousGerman-speaking city-state under the lordship of the Holy Roman Empire, now Strasbourg, France; died in Strassburg on September 5, 1562; daughter of Jacob Schütz (a cabinetmaker) and Elisabeth (Gerster) Schütz; probably attended one of Strassburg's vernacular primary schools; married Matthew Zell, on December 3, 1523; children: two, who died young, one by 1527, the other probably by 1534.

Lived in Strassburg all her life, though traveled in Germany and Switzerland; most important events were conversion to Protestant teachings (probably 1521–22); marriage and establishment of one of the first Protestant parsonages (1523); pastoral work and writings; death of husband (1548); confessional controversies (1550s).

Selected writings:

Den leydenden Christglaubigen weybern der gemain zuo Kentzingen meinen mitschwestern in Christo Jesu zuo handen (To the Suffering … Women of Kentzingen), Katherina Schützin, 1524; Entschuldigung Katharina Schützinn für M. Matthes Zellen, jren Eegemahel (Apologia of Katharina Schütz for Her Husband, Master Matthew Zell), 1524; Von Christo Jesu unserem säligmacher … etlich Christliche und trostliche Lobgsäng (Some Christian and Consoling Songs of Praise about Our Savior Jesus Christ), booklets dated 1534, 1535, 1536; Ein Brieff an die gantze Burgerschafft der Statt Straszburg, von Katherina Zellin … Betreffend Herr Ludwigen Rabus (A Letter to … the City of Strassburg … Concerning Mr. Ludwig Rabus), 1557; Den Psalmen Miserere … bedacht, gebettet, und paraphrasirt von Katharina Zellin … sampt dem Vatter unser (The Psalm Miserere … with the Lord's Prayer), 1558. Manuscript writings: Klag red und Ermahnung (Lament and Admonition), 1548; various letters and will.

In the early summer of 1524, as the conflict between Protestants in the small German-speaking city of Kentzingen and their Roman Catholic rulers grew more intense, a group of Protestant men felt compelled to leave their families and flee with their pastor to the nearby city of Strassburg, where the new Protestant movement had a stronger hold. On the night the men reached Strassburg, about 80 took refuge in the town's leading Protestant parsonage, which was the home of Katharina and Matthew Zell, and over the next month Katharina continued to provide meals for 50 to 60 of the refugees after they had found more permanent shelter elsewhere.

Zell's concern was also for the welfare of the women and children left behind in Kentzingen, and toward the July she composed a long pastoral letter of consolation and encouragement, published under the title To the Suffering Believers in Christ, the Women of Kentzingen, Sisters With Me in Christ Jesus. The pamphlet recognizes the suffering of the women, praises them for their courage, and comforts them with passages from the Bible and expressions of admiration for their bearing witness to their faith. The writer assures them that their example will serve as encouragement to others.

The author of this remarkable document, Katharina Schütz Zell, had been born into a respected artisan household in the prosperous and important city-state of Strassburg, in 1497 or early 1498. Little is known about her childhood except that she was one of the middle children of a large family, and that she seems to have received good training in reading and writing. What is certain is that she grew up as a devout young girl, reared in a family where spiritual growth was encouraged. From the age of ten, as she wrote repeatedly, she was intensely involved in religious activities, such as attending Mass, doing good works, and talking with priests. She also gathered a number of her women friends together to share their experience of the struggle to earn assurance of salvation. Zell wrote later of being plagued during her youth with a sense of her own sinfulness; she felt that her soul was "sick unto death" because she could not be sure that God really accepted her, and she believed she had not done enough for him.

When Katharina was about 20, the religious ideas of the German monk Martin Luther, published in German as well as Latin, began to circulate among the pious public in her region. Like Katharina, Luther had struggled with the spiritual problem of not being able to feel assured of his salvation. After years of studying and teaching the Bible, he finally came to the conviction that he not only could not save himself, but that he was not supposed to. He saw the initiative to be in God's hands, and saw God as the giver of mercy to those who trust in Christ, as opposed to themselves. This idea, called justification by faith alone through grace, essentially means that if people recognize their own sinfulness and trust that Jesus Christ has done everything necessary to save them, God accepts them as if they were as holy as Christ. Luther taught that God's acceptance is the gift of grace, which no one can earn; but the experience of having received grace sets the believer free from worry, and results, out of the receiver's sheer gratitude, in joyous service to God. Luther believed that this gospel (good news) is what the Bible is all about, but he also concluded that the message had become distorted by the church through the accumulation of unnecessary requirements and rules. People who prayed through the saints and did good works to earn God's approval, rather than trusting directly Christ, were seen as the ones who ended up in despair, as Luther and Katharina Schütz had done.

As Luther's ideas gained ground among the clergy, one pastor who began to preach the same message was Matthew Zell, the leading priest in Strassburg. From 1521 onwards, his stirring ministry attracted a large following, especially among the poorer classes of the city, and one who was drawn to his "Lutheran" message was Katharina Schütz. In the published pamphlets of Luther, as well as the teachings of her minister, she found a peace she had never known before. As she wrote much later, in A Letter to … Strassburg, she felt that she "had been drawn up out of the depths of the earth, indeed out of grim bitter hell, into the dear sweet heaven." Trusting Christ alone as her Savior, she now understood the Bible in a new way, and reached the conviction that Christ had called her, like the apostle Peter, to be a "fisher of people." Before long, she was ready to devote her life to this call.

One rule of the medieval church that Luther and Protestant followers like Zell had come to view as opposed to Biblical teaching was the celibacy of priests. As monks and priests began not only to preach against older ideas of salvation, but also to marry, and to declare their wedding vows as an affirmation of their Protestant faith, the church was split into factions like never before. To the ordinary people of the early 16th century, the marriage of priests became one of the most visible expressions of the new understanding of Christian faith, rejected by those who saw the act as blasphemy, but also welcomed by many. When Katharina Schütz became the first respectable Strassburg woman to marry a priest, the vows that affirmed her Biblical convictions also aroused considerable unpleasant notoriety and even slander. Not long after the marriage, she wrote a letter to the bishop, as a number of male reformers in Strassburg had done, in defense of clerical marriage. In February 1524, the city council forbade publication of the brief treatise, but some months later the Apologia of Katharina Schütz for Her Husband, Master Matthew Zell, a Pastor and Servant of the Word of God in Strassburg, Because of the Great Lies About Him appeared in print. The apologia is a lively declaration of the Biblical passages in support for marriage among the clergy, as well as a defense of the religious convictions that had motivated her and Matthew. The position was not different from that taken by other Protestants, but the city council was trying to pacify the bishop at the time, and the treatise fanned the flames of controversy. The fact that the writer was a woman probably added further to the annoyance of the council.

In this period of early Protestant Reformation, the life of a pastor's family was a pioneering experience in many ways. Katharina and Matthew Zell established a remarkable partnership in ministry, working closely together. They shared the pastoral activities of welcoming refugees and traveling reformers, aiding the needy and displaced, and visiting the sick and imprisoned or dying. The ministry of hospitality exemplified in their reception of the refugees from Kentzingen continued throughout the marriage, and was carried on vigorously during the years of Zell's solo ministry after she was widowed.

During her husband's lifetime, Zell shared in the work of his teaching and preaching to an unusual degree. Many people, mostly ordinary citizens of Strassburg, came to her for counsel and comfort, and she drew on her own religious study and experience to reach out to them. Her primary concerns were for the women and the poor of the city, but she also counseled men, including leaders of society as well as followers.

Since I was ten years old I have been a mother of the church.

—Katharina Schütz Zell

Much of Zell's work was oral but sometimes she found time to put her teaching into writing. In 1532, in response to two women of the city of Spire, who asked for help in "living according to God's will," she wrote an exposition of the Lord's Prayer. A quarter-century later, in 1558, she published this text, along with meditations on the Psalms which she had written for her own comfort at a time of great sorrow, possibly the deaths of her children. She dedicated the collection to an elderly friend, a former magistrate of Strassburg, who was afflicted with what that age called "leprosy." The lengthy title, typical of the period, is revealing: The Psalm Miserere [51], Meditated on and Prayed with King David, and Paraphrased by Katharina Zell, the Bereaved Wife of the Blessed [Late] Master Matthew Zell, Together with the Lord's Prayer and Its Exposition, Sent to the Christian Man Juncker [Nobleman] Felix Armbruster, to Comfort Him in His Illness, and Printed for the Sake of Other Anxious Hearts and Consciences Troubled by Sins. Zell believed that God both rebukes and comforts, and she took suffering seriously as correction. But according to her scriptural knowledge, as found in 2 Corinthians 1:6, she also interpreted suffering as a means of showing people how to console and empathize with each other, by sharing the comfort given to them by God in their trials.

One of the key concerns of this period of the Reformation was the correct way to worship God. The central issue was theological: one must worship only God, not the saints, or church laws, or human abilities. A second issue was the practical expression of worship, involving the Sunday liturgy as well as everyday piety. After years of preaching the new ideas to the people, Matthew Zell and other male reformers in Strassburg began to reshape the public liturgy; Katharina, meanwhile, found a new role in giving new forms of devotional expression to the daily practice of the new faith. As a lay person born into the poorer ranks of society, she understood the importance of music in popular piety, and she set about revising some of the songs that had come to seem morally scandalous even to late medieval moral reformers, and were now heard by Protestant ears as theologically wrong.

In 1534, Zell began the publication of a hymnbook, issued in four small, inexpensive booklets, the first of which was entitled Some Christian and Consoling Songs of Praise about Our Savior Jesus Christ: His Incarnation, Birth, Circumcision, and so forth. The songs were primarily for family and private devotions, for parents to teach their children, and for ordinary Christians to sing as they went about their daily work. The idea of ordinary people expressing their faith through song was not unique, but the collection is striking for its imagery of women's work as a balance to the primarily masculine imagery that was dominant among male reformers. In the songbook's preface, along with the mention of farmers and artisans who praise God as they go about their jobs, there are mothers soothing their fretful babies, and kitchen maids singing hymns while they wash dishes.

In the late 1540s, Matthew Zell died during a severely trying time for the Protestant movement, which was undergoing open military conflict as well as spiritual suppression. The death of her husband was a terrible personal loss, but did not turn Zell from her ministry. At Matthew's funeral, she gave an impromptu sermon—a most unusual thing for a woman to do at the time, but the act was met with favorable commentary by several of her contemporaries. A surviving text, Lament and Admonition of Katharina Zell to the People at the Grave of Master Matthew Zell, which may have been written down later, demonstrates both her sorrow and her faith, as she called on Matthew's students and congregation to remember and be true to his teaching.

The period of political reversal for Protestants, known as the Interim, was also a great sorrow to Zell. In Strassburg, Roman Catholic worship and power regained dominance over the city, although Protestants managed to worship according to their own convictions in a few smaller churches. At the end of the 1550s, the Protestant majority regained control of Strassburg, but Protestant teachings were by this time becoming increasingly narrow in their focus. In the years of her widowhood, Zell's solo ministry was lived out in the context of this growing intra-Protestant conflict, which was at odds with her own more ecumenical outlook. The chief point of theology on which she chose to focus was the confession of Jesus Christ as the sole Savior, and she was willing to accept disagreements on issues she considered secondary, such as church order.

By the mid-16th century, however, church order had become a divisive issue for many, who made it the determining factor in whether groups were accepted in fellowship. To the rising generation of church leaders in Strassburg, who were bent on complete conformity, Katharina was viewed as a troublemaker, and even a heretic, for befriending and encouraging dissenters. The controversy centered on the difference of opinions between her and the young pastor Ludwig Rabus, who had been Matthew Zell's assistant, and then his successor, and whom Katharina had regarded as a foster son. When Rabus began to preach against certain reformers of the first generation, notably Huldrych Zwingli of Zürich and Caspar Schwenckfeld from Silesia, as heretics, Zell wrote as well as spoke out in their defense. Then Rabus left Strassburg to take another position, in the city of Ulm, without obtaining permission of the Strassburg authorities or taking leave of his congregation, and further embittered his relationship with his former mentor. In 1557, Zell wrote an apologia for herself and the first generation reformers, addressed to the city of Strassburg, entitled, A Letter to the Whole Citizenship of the City of Strassburg, from Katherina Zell … concerning Ludwig Rabus.

This Letter, which is Zell's longest work, includes her annotated correspondence with Rabus. It is the work of a good amateur historian, who is gifted with a wry sense of humor as well as a fluent pen, and it gives remarkable documentation of the early Reformation in Strassburg. In response to Rabus' claim that he left Strassburg because the city failed to fight vigorously against the Roman Catholics and others perceived as heretics, Zell implies that he might have been making excuses for moving to a more prestigious position, since there were also Catholics in his new home at Ulm. She acknowledges that the Catholics in Ulm only had a "corner," and those in Strassburg controlled the cathedral, but asks if Rabus thinks that God has become old to see in the corners, but only notices what happens in the cathedral.

Zell remained active in her later years, despite frequent illnesses. Among her civic-religious concerns were abuses at the city hospital, which she badgered the city council into trying to reform. She also continued her counseling and charitable activities, taking in refugees, foster children, and needy relatives. In the last year of her life, her pastoral work included preaching at the burials of two women whom city clergy considered to be heretics because they were followers of Schwenckfeld. Prosecution for these acts was dropped because of her own final illness, but the resulting tension remained to cloud her own funeral. Her burial was organized by old family friends, expressing the fondness of the ordinary people of Strassburg for their beloved "mother in the church."


Primary materials, related to the author's research in preparation of two forthcoming works, a biography of Katharina Zell, and a critical edition of works by Zell, tentatively titled: Katharina Schütz Zell: The Life and Thought of a Sixteenth Century Reformer, and The Writings of Katharina Schütz Zell, a First Generation Protestant Reformer.

McKee, Elsie Anne. "Katharina Schütz Zell: A Protestant Reformer," in Church History from an Ecumenical Perspective. Ed. by Charles Brockwell and Timothy Wengert. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

——. "The Defense of Schwenckfeld, Zwingli, and the Baptists, by Katharina Schütz Zell," in Reformiertes Erbe: Festschrift für Gottfried W. Locher zu seinem 80. Geburtstag. Ed. by Heiko A. Oberman, Ernst Saxer, Alfred Schindler, Heinzpeter Stucki. Zürich: TVZ, 1992. Band 1, pp. 245–264.

suggested reading:

Bainton, Roland H. "Katherine Zell," in Medievalia et Humanistica n.s. 1 (1970), pp. 3–28 (reprinted without the text of sources in Roland H. Bainton, Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy. Boston, MA: Beacon, 1971, pp. 55–76).

Hobbs, R. Gerald. "Katherina Schuetz-Zell," in Portraits in Spirituality. Vancouver, B.C.: Vancouver School of Theology, 1989, pp. 37–53.


The repository of the largest number of KSZ's works is the Zentralbibliothek of the University and Canton of Zürich, Switzerland. A full bibliography of KSZ's writings and many references to her are found in:

Lienhard, Marc. "Catherine Zell, née Schütz." Bibliotheca Dissidentium: Répertoire des non-conformistes religieux des seizième et dix-septième siècles. Ed. by André Séguenny. Baden-Baden: Editions Valentin Koerner, 1980. Tome 1, pp. 97–125.

Elsie Anne McKee , Archibald Alexander Professor of Reformation Studies and the History of Worship, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey