For a thousand years, the single, celibate life had been upheld as the Christian ideal. Sex, though grudgingly permitted inside marriage, was not to be enjoyed. As Jerome declared in the fourth century, “Anyone who is too passionate a lover with his own wife is himself an adulterer.”

Then came Luther.

Luther elevated marriage and family life; in one scholar’s words, he “placed the home at the center of the universe.” His teaching and practice were so radical, so long-lasting, some scholars have argued that other than the church “the home was the only sphere of life which the Reformation profoundly affected.”

In this excerpt from Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution (Doubleday, 1992), Dr. Steven Ozment introduces Luther’s views on women, sex, marriage, divorce, and children. If Luther’s ideas seem tame today, it is only because so many people have accepted them.

When we think of Martin Luther, we understandably think first of the monk and theologian who wanted to reform the church, a great man of God seemingly obsessed with sin and the Devil and lost in otherworldly pursuits. But the monk and the theologian who wrote the 95 Theses was also a husband and the father of six children.

While still a celibate priest, Luther wrote extensively on marriage. He portrayed marriage as an institution as much in crisis as the church and no less in need of reform. He described marriage as “universally in awful disrepute,” with peddlers everywhere selling “pagan books that treat of nothing but the depravity of womankind and the unhappiness of the estate of marriage.”

Luther was a leading defender of the dignity of women and the goodness of marriage. He is well-known for his jesting comments, “Women have narrow shoulders and wide hips. Therefore ...

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