Lessons from Martin Luther and the Bubonic Plague

People are struggling right now. Financial concerns are at the top of the list for many. For others, it’s the fear of catching the virus. A few are worried about a loved one who is already sick. Obviously, for more than a few, it’s toilet paper. Some of my friends who are young, healthy, and financially secure have expressed their primary concern this way: What should be my response as a Christian? What should I do?



The Historical Precedence

Historically, Christians have been familiar with pandemics. In the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries, plagues were a part of the rhythm of life, occurring about once every ten years. Just about every generation had experienced what would be considered a devastating plague. The Bubonic plague, for instance, had a fatality rate of 60 to 90 percent (compared to a 1 to 3 percent fatality rate for Covid-19).


The Christians of that era asked themselves some of the same hard questions we are asking ourselves today. One of the primary questions of that day was whether or not it was appropriate for a Christian to flee a town or village that was hit by the plague. In a day before large hospitals and antibiotics, ventilators and respirators, one of the few ways to survive was to flee. Villages would become “ghost towns,” leaving the infected to care for themselves and die alone.


Martin Luther and the Bubonic Plague

One of the more famous Christians to experience this phenomenon was the great reformer, Martin Luther. In 1527, the bubonic plague hit Wittenberg, Germany – the university town where Luther lived – prompting classes to be moved to an unaffected town. Everyone who could get out of the village was getting out. The Elector of Saxony, John the Steadfast, ordered Luther to leave. He refused. Along with his pregnant wife Katharina, Luther stayed in Wittenberg, opening his house as a ward for the sick.


In a letter to a friend, John Hess, who had asked him if a Christian should stay or leave, Luther explained both his reasons for staying and his views on the proper Christian response. Here are a few takeaways from that letter.


We love God by loving our neighbor.

Luther said that fleeing the plague was an appropriate response as long as those who were left behind were cared for. He chose to stay, but recognized that others needed to leave.

“No one should dare leave his neighbor unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them…. we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.”


We love our neighbor by caring for them. That can look very different depending on the circumstances. For instance, in the case of Covid-19, that means isolating to lessen the risk of spreading the disease. It can also mean picking up vital medicine or groceries for your neighbor. It means serving those who are in need while taking the appropriate precautions.


Romans 13:8 comes to mind: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”


We love God by clinging to Him.

Luther believed that the Bubonic plague could serve as a testing ground for his love of God. It’s easy to say that we depend on God when things are going great. However, it is in the extraordinary moments of life that we prove that dependence.


Psalm 63 seems appropriate:

“You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. 2 I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory … 6 On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. 7 Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. 8 I cling to you; your right hand upholds me. 9 Those who want to kill me will be destroyed; they will go down to the depths of the earth.”


We love God by praying for our leaders.

Luther believed that the community leaders had a divine calling to serve the people of the village. Their responsibility was even greater.

“Accordingly, all those in public office such as mayors, judges, and the like are under obligation to remain. This, too, is God’s word, which institutes secular authority and commands that town and country be ruled, protected, and preserved, as St. Paul teaches in Romans 13, “The governing authorities are God’s ministers for your own good.” 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 had much the same to say about the spiritual leaders of the community.

“Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death. We have a plain command from Christ, “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees” [John 10:11]. For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death.”


Leaders have an overarching responsibility to lead in these extraordinary times. And we have an overarching responsibility to support them and pray for them.


We love God by supporting our front-line warriors.

Luther also had a word for hospitals, which were few and far between in his day.

“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.”


Jesus spent a lot of time healing the sick. He said, I came for those who need a physician (Luke 5:31). It is not surprising then, that most hospitals can trace their history back to Christian beginnings.


Those who are researchers or health professionals should take courage in their divine calling to do good research, to seek truth and to care for the sick. Many in healthcare have taken oaths to help anyone in medical danger. It’s easy to take valiant oaths in times of ease. Hardship does not nullify these oaths, it only highlights their sacred, inviolable nature.


Our medical professionals and first-responders are the front-line heroes in this war. We must support them and pray for them.


Christian Measured Concern

Our response, then, should be one of measured concern. We are not numbered with those who panic. Jesus warned his disciples, “Do not be anxious about your life … Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 6:25, 10:28). Paul warned his friends, in a time of tumultuous persecution against Christians, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6).


Paul said, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). Power and love move us to concerned action. Some Bibles translate the word “sound mound,” as “disciplined.” A sound mind is a disicplined mind that takes the appropriate precautions to make that concerned action smart and measured.


Instead of panicking and stockpiling so many masks that there aren’t enough for healthcare workers, or so much water and toilet paper that others can’t find any, we should be asking: How can we help those in need?


Not everyone has the special medical training to participate on the front lines, but we all have a role to play. We are all called to be responsible citizens. We can do our part in society: in our jobs that help keep our economy going; in our families as parents, children or siblings; in the way we communicate, listen and respond to news; in the way we care for our neighbors, cities and communities.


Above all, we are called to pray!


COVID-19 reminds us that lasting security and happiness is not to be found in the present world but in the world to come. As Augustine put it:


“As ‘we are saved by hope’, so we are made happy by hope. Neither our salvation nor our beatitude is here present, but ‘we wait for it’ in the future, and we wait ‘with patience’, precisely because we are surrounded by evils which patience must endure until we come to where all good things are sources of inexpressible happiness and where there will be no longer anything to endure. Such is to be our salvation in the hereafter, such our final blessedness.”




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