Although the current pandemic is something that is unprecedented in most of our lifetimes, Christians have lived and ministered amid various epidemics throughout world history. One of the best known of these was the Bubonic Plague, or the “Black Death,” which decimated around one-third of Europe’s population in the Late Middle Ages after its initial outbreak in 1348. Occasional outbreaks of the plague continued throughout the remainder of the Late Middle Ages, and into the Early Modern Period. This also includes the period of the Reformation during the sixteenth century.
Although chiefly known as one of the great Reformers of the sixteenth century, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was also a professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg as well as a pastor in that city. In both of these roles, Luther experienced the Bubonic Plague and its devastating effects first-hand. In September, 1527, the plague struck Wittenberg. A few months before the outbreak, Luther had started a letter to a nearby pastor giving him advice on how Christians should respond to a plague (Here it is interesting note that Luther began writing this letter sometime shortly after he recovered from a serious illness). The Reformer composed the second part of this letter, which makes up the main part of it, after the plague’s arrival in Wittenberg. This letter grew into a small treatise, Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague. Throughout this work, Luther gives Christians some very practical advice as to how to remain faithful in the face of such a disease, and its ongoing effect.
The driving principle of Luther’s advice is that during an epidemic, a Christian never stops serving Christ. A Christian serves Christ by loving his/her neighbor as him/herself. He states this idea within the larger context of how Christians should view epidemics in relation to God’s providence: “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…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 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 neighbor.”1 In short, an epidemic is the general result of the world’s fallen condition, which God uses as discipline in the lives of his people in order to test and strengthen their faith. At the same time this severe testing of faith affords it the opportunity to express itself in love towards one’s neighbor. This need to express a tested faith through love to one’s neighbor is further based on the fact that as Christians we are “mutually bound together.” We are joined together by virtue of our union with Christ. Furthermore, as Christians, we exhibit this faith through love to all our neighbors at this time as we are able. An essential aspect of this is taking the proper precautions to protect oneself so that he/she maybe of maximum service to our neighbor.
Throughout the remainder of this treatise, Luther commends the role of government in providing hospitals for victims of the plague as the community’s overall expression of love for its citizens as well as private hostels for the same purpose in the absence of such hospitals. He also urges Christians to take the prescribe medicine available to them to decrease their chances of catching the virus as well as “fumigate,” and “help purify the air.” Interestingly, he strongly advises people to practice a type of “social distancing”: “I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death by my negligence.”2 Show love for your neighbor by taking measures that will preserve his/her life.
As Christians living during a pandemic at the beginning of the 2020s, the counsel we can take from this advice given by a pastor who lived with a plague this important thought: During this time, let’s all of us as Christians use this time in which our faith is being tested to show that faith in loving others as we intentionally seek opportunities to serve them while observing those guidelines that protect them and ourselves.
Therefore, during this time, let’s bear in mind “that the command to love your neighbor is equal to the greatest commandment to love God, and what you do or fail to do for your neighbor means doing the same to God.”
Vice President of Academic Affairs
1Timothy Lull, ed. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1989), 744. 2Lull, ed. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 749.