A Forgotten Secret of the West’s Economic Success

A secret of the West’s amazing progress is a sixteenth-century nun. She ran away from her nunnery and became a wife, a mother, an entrepreneur, a model and a mentor. That made her the mother of the modern economy of the people, for the people, and by the people.

This nun, who disavowed her vows of celibacy and poverty, in order to obey the Bible, took with her the best of what had been closed behind the cloister. Outwardly she took nothing except the clothes she was wearing. The wealth that she carried and gave to the world had been instilled in her heart and mind. Her name was Katherine von Bora.

Like many medieval nuns, Katherine was born in a nobleman’s family. Breaking vow of poverty made it possible for her to make enough money to buy back her family estate.

A penniless Katherine married a monk, Martin Luther. He was a university professor who received zero salary and a best-selling author who took no royalties. Luther taught because the head of his order of monks ordered him to do so. Katherine’s first official act as a wife was to throw out his rotten mattress—a sack filled with straw. No one had ever turned it upside down so that it could be aired. Katherine wasn’t changing just a mattress. She initiated the change that sociologist Max Weber discussed in his classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

The newly married nun and monk had no money to buy a house. Therefore the local prince, the patron of Luther’s university, gave them the permission to live in the almost empty monastery. After the others left he signed the property over to them.

But how was Katie to maintain a large house . . . even after her husband started getting a small salary? She turned her home into a paying guest-house for university students. That turned her family kitchen into a cafeteria, feeding 30 to 40 people every day, including international guests. How do you feed so many people?

Thankfully, the nunnery had taught Katie to grow her own fruit and vegetables. Then she turned her home into an animal farm, just like a nunnery. The money she saved was invested in a second, third, and fourth plot of land. One had a creek flowing through it. Katie turned it into a fish-pond!

By 1542, the Luthers owned more real-estate in Wittenberg than any other citizen. As soon as she bought land, Katie began developing it. Farms needed buildings for agriculture as well as housing her employees, so Katie became a builder, too.

Back then, cities did not provide clean drinking water. Cows did not yield much milk. It was reserved for children and patients. For clean drinks, Katie ran a brewery. One can still buy “Luther Beer” in Wittenberg.

Everyone would have applauded Katie had she spent all that energy in building up a nunnery or a monastery. But she was building-up a private business. She was the owner and the chief executive officer of a medium-size business. Was she serving God or money?

Max Weber couldn’t quote Katherine, because she did not write on paper. She wrote the principles of modern economics every day, but in the hearts of Europe’s future pastors and leaders. For five hundred years Roman Catholic priests had not been marrying. That made her home Europe’s first parsonage (vicarage).

Universities, monasteries, and nunneries had been teaching all sorts of good things but the students who lodged and boarded in Katherine’s household were in her private, family-run “monastery.” They turned her living room into a post-dinner seminar room where her husband, other professors, and international guests could go beyond Medieval Christianity and see subjects such as economy through the Jewish eyes, say, through the lens of Proverbs 31.

The boys would ask Dr. Luther tough questions and take notes. Mrs. Luther would be there as often as she could. These discussions applied the Bible to everyday life, including the economic life of ordinary families. They were published as Martin Luther’s Table Talks. They enabled scholars such as Max Weber to understand how Luther’s exposition of the Bible (and the implicit defense of his wife’s economic enterprise) created Europe’s spirit of capitalism.

Many reform movements had blessed the Medieval Church. Every one of them had condemned the church for being too wealthy. By “reform” medieval spirituality meant renouncing wealth and choosing poverty.

Katherine’s husband could have become history’s first multi-millionaire author (in today’s terms). His German New Testament alone went through 400 editions during his life-time. But he did not take royalties from his “best-sellers.” He remained an ascetic, complaining about his wife’s ever-growing business.

Katherine, on the other hand, became an entrepreneur comparable to a medieval abbess or abbot. Luther’s study of the Bible assured him that God requires her to multiply her talents. Jesus had assured us that when we seek God’s kingdom, economic blessings follow. The husband’s Bible study kept up with his wife’s businesses, even if his emotions failed to keep pace with her moves.

Martin Luther saw her business as her “calling.” She had to borrow and invest other people’s money. That required her to be a careful accountant and a tough manager, negotiator, and buyer. She was given two talents:

(1) Unusual training in a nunnery which would not have been available to a girl growing up in a normal home. A nobleman’s daughter would have lived with farming, animals, brewery, building projects etc., but normally she would not have been a worker or a manager. Katherine was trained to live and work in a community. Being a nun meant waking up before sunrise for the first prayer and going to bed around midnight. This work ethic came into Western monasteries from St. Benedictine’s study of the Bible. It was St. Paul who had taught that whoever does not work should not eat. Nunnery instilled into Katherine a biblical work-culture as a habit.

(2) She was given land with a house. Using her first talent—her training as a nun—she multiplied her land and houses. This made her, according to Jesus, a good and faithful servant.

Katherine was making money but she was not merely running another money-making business. The real talent that Martin and Katherine Luther multiplied was the university students that God entrusted to them.

Luther did not teach for money — neither at the university, nor at home. As a couple, in their home, they produced a new breed of theologians, pastors and national leaders that changed our world. No university classroom or dorm could have taught the students what they learned from the Luther-couple as their mentors.

For example, a recent British/USA Handbook of Human Resource Management in Tourism and Hospitality Industries reminds its readers that the success of their business will depend on following Martin Luther’s teaching about investing in improving or multiplying the quality of a business’ most important resource—its personnel.

For 450 years, Martin and Katherine Luther defined what a family, especially a pastor’s family, should be. Only during our generation has that model begun to break down. It is amazing that the secular business world continues to learn from them anyway.

You Shall Create . . . Not Steal or Covet

Political correctness ignores the fact that the German economy is different from Ukraine’s; Finland is far more productive than Greece; there is a world of difference between North and South American economies. It is intellectual blindness to say that religious ideas made no difference.

Had Martin Luther followed the Buddha as his guru, he would have remained a religious ascetic. He would have begged for his food. Luther followed the Bible. That changed our world. The Bible condemned laziness as sin. God’s Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet” meant that people must create wealth. The Commandment, “You shall not steal,” meant that every person had an inalienable right to his property: he owns what he inherits and what he creates. The state was responsible for protecting a citizen’s property. It had no right to confiscate it arbitrarily. The family, the church, and the school were responsible for producing citizens that would not steal, but applaud a neighbor’s industrious work.

Post WWII Russia was an empire, the USA was a nation. The nation beat the empire. If imperialism had been the secret of Europe’s economic development, Spain would have remained economically stronger than Germany. For Germany was under the Spanish empire in Katherine’s day.

One has to read Martin Luther’s Larger Catechism to understand the force that transformed the German character which won over Spain. This is not to say that no Spanish, Hindu, or Buddhist saints had ever said what Luther taught. For ages, the Jews had practiced the economic ideas that Luther taught. Others, such as the Heidelberg Catechism, improved upon Luther’s. My point is that Martin Luther unleashed in Europe the power of the Bible’s ideas to transform the economy. Every Lutheran child had to memorize the Shorter Catechism. Pastors had to internalize and teach the Larger Catechism. That teaching changed culture. For the catechism taught that a servant (or housemaid) “steals” when she does not put best effort and care in the work assigned to her. A skilled mechanic “steals” when he does not do a proper job for which he is being paid. Without understanding Luther’s Catechism one cannot understand why the label “Made in Germany” stands for quality, while “Made in Bangladesh” makes a customer cautious.

Luther begins the Catechism by insisting that a pastor is a thief when he takes a salary but does not buy books and study them in order to “feed” good knowledge to his sheep.

Economic theories are important, but it is ignorance to ignore that national economies were transformed by the church that taught the command to work diligently for six days and to gather together on the Sabbath to rest, to worship, and to sit under the authority of God’s word.

Worship includes an opportunity to listen to the Holy Spirit who examines our lives, our work, our words, and our relationships. The Holy Spirit uses the word of God to convict people. He gives the gift of repentance and the assurance of forgiveness and the power to start afresh.

Preachers do for the economy what professors cannot do. I grew up in North India. The land and climate were perfect for all kinds of vegetables and fruit. This could have created vibrant agro-industries. My father came from the vegetable-growing caste. Yet, for two thousand years, my forefathers barely grew fruit and vegetables. I returned to my family farm after my studies and marriage and learned that as much as 75 percent of our districts vegetable was imported from as far away as 900 km. Why didn’t they grow them locally? Well, to grow vegetables and fruit was to invite upper-caste men to come in broad daylight to help themselves to a farmer’s produce. If a man left his wife to protect his farm, she would be raped.

Had Katie lived in the Soviet Union, she would have had no motivation to buy lands and develop them. Atheism does not believe that “You shall not steal” is God’s command. Therefore, it gives to the rulers the power to take your land, not just your mangoes and tomatoes.

Vishal Mangalwadi

(Excerpt from the chapter “Economy of the People, by the People, for the People” in Vishal Mangalwadi’s forthcoming book, This Book Changed Everything: The Bible’s Amazing Impact on Our World, SoughtAfterMedia, 2019)


[1] As a monk he had the right to live and eat in the Augustinian monastery. He received 9 gulden a year for preaching in the City Church in Guttenberg. The university gave him no salary, until after he was married.
[2] Matthew 25:20
[3] Ronald J. Burke, Julia Christensen Hughes, eds., Handbook of Human Resource Management in Tourism and Hospitality Industries (Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, Mass., USA: Edward Elgar, 2018),156
[4] Exodus 20:17
[5] Exodus 20:15

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