Martin Luther was at Wittenburg, 56 miles SW of Berlin, when the plague arrived in August, 1527. Luther and other teachers were enjoined to leave, but he refused, although his son fell sick, the wives of two friends died and the monastery where he had his home was turned into a hospital. Before the plague struck, Johann Hess, a follower of Luther, had written to him to ask whether it was proper for Christians to flee such deadly plagues. This was a question that had also long been raised in the Islamic world (see posts by Miss Tully, Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi and Ibn al-Wardi). Luther’s response is, in some respects, curiously similar to that of the Muslim theologians. In spite of his virulent anti-Semitism, in the following letter, Luther does not blame the Jews for the epidemic, as had been the case on a number of occasions in the Middle Ages (this was partly, no doubt, because they dealt in furs and used clothing, although the mechanism of transmission was not understood), but sees it in the first instance as the punishment for sin, facilitated by the carelessness of man. He postulates that whether or not it is right to flee depends largely on one’s presence being required by individuals or the community.
Your letter, sent to me at Wittenberg, was received some time ago. You wish to know whether it is proper for a Christian to run away from a deadly plague. I should have answered long ago, but God has for some time disciplined and scourged me so severely that I have been unable to do much reading or writing……..
To begin with, some people are of the firm opinion that one need not and should not run away from a deadly plague. Rather, since death is God’s punishment, which he sends upon us for our sins, we must submit to God and with a true and firm faith patiently await our punishment. They look upon running away as an outright wrong and as lack of belief in God. Others take the position that one may properly flee, particularly if one holds no public office…..….all those in public office such as mayors, judges, and the like are under obligation to remain……To abandon an entire community which one has been called to govern and to leave it without official or government, exposed to all kinds of danger such as fires, murder, riots, and every imaginable disaster is a great sin.
He enumerates the people who are morally obliged to stay, adding:
Yes, no one should dare leave his neighbour unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them…..
Where no such emergency exists and where enough people are available for nursing and taking care of the sick, and where, voluntarily or by orders, those who are weak in faith make provision so that there is no need for additional helpers, or where the sick do not want them and have refused their services, I judge that they have an equal choice either to flee or to remain. If someone is sufficiently bold and strong in his faith, let him stay in God’s name; that is certainly no sin. If someone is weak and fearful, let him flee in God’s name as long as he does not neglect his duty toward his neighbour but has made adequate provision for others to provide nursing care……
It would be well, where there is such an efficient government in cities and states, to maintain municipal homes and hospitals staffed with people to take care of the sick so that patients from private homes can be sent there — as was the intent and purpose of our forefathers with so many pious bequests, hospices, hospitals, and infirmaries so that it should not be necessary for every citizen to maintain a hospital in his own home. That would indeed be a fine, commendable, and Christian arrangement to which everyone should offer generous help and contributions, particularly the government. Where there are no such institutions — and they exist in only a few places — we must give hospital care and be nurses for one another in any extremity or risk the loss of salvation and the grace of God ..…..
Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together (as previously indicated) so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another. First, we can be sure that God’s punishment has come upon us, not only to chastise us for our sins but also to test our faith and love — our faith in that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love in that we may recognize how we should act toward our neighbour.
I am of the opinion that all the epidemics, like any plague, are spread among the people by evil spirits who poison the air or exhale a pestilential breath which puts a deadly poison into the flesh. Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbour, risking our lives in this manner as St. John teaches…..
This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running….
Those are nothing but lies; whoever wants to serve Christ in person would surely serve his neighbour as well. This is said as an admonition and encouragement against fear and a disgraceful flight to which the devil would tempt us so that we would disregard God’s command in our dealings with our neighbour and so we would fall into sin on the left hand.
Others sin on the right hand. They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health..…
Moreover, he who has contracted the disease and recovered should keep away from others and not admit them into his presence unless it be necessary. Though one should aid him in his time of need, as previously pointed out, he in turn should, after his recovery, so act toward others that no one becomes unnecessarily endangered on his account and so cause another’s death……if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbours in their plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die….
Some are even worse than that. They keep it secret that they have the disease and go among others in the belief that by contaminating and poisoning others they can rid themselves of the plague and so recover….. My advice is that if any such persons are discovered, the judge should take them by the ear and turn them over to Master Jack, the hangman, as outright and deliberate murderers.
If in the Old Testament God himself ordered lepers to be banished from the community and compelled to live outside the city to prevent contamination [Leviticus 13–14], we must do the same with this dangerous pestilence so that anyone who becomes infected will stay away from other persons, or allow himself to be taken away and given speedy help with medicine. Under such circumstances it is our duty to assist such a person and not forsake him in his plight, as I have repeatedly pointed out before. Then the poison is stopped in time, which benefits not only the individual but also the whole community, which might be contaminated if one person is permitted to infect others. Our plague here in Wittenberg has been caused by nothing but filth. The air, thank God, is still clean and pure, but some few have been contaminated because of the laziness or recklessness of some. So the devil enjoys himself at the terror and flight which he causes among us. May God thwart him! Amen.
The long letter ends with advice on preparation of the soul at such times and a disquisition on the need for proper places of burial.
From Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 119–38. On-line at https://blogs.lcms.org
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