THE BUBONIC PLAGUE struck Wittenberg, Germany, in August of 1527. This disease was horrific: in a single day, an infected person could show signs of delirium, fever, speech disorders, and loss of consciousness. Soon after, he/she would break out in large boils that infected the bloodstream and rapidly led to death. The mortality rate was extremely high.
Martin Luther and his wife Katharina, who was pregnant at the time, were urged to flee the city. However, they chose to stay in order to minister to the sick and dying. When asked by Christians in another city for advice, Luther wrote a pamphlet titled “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague”. It combines faith and realism in a way that is powerfully relevant to our present coronavirus crisis.
Luther wisely counseled his readers to utilize medicine and intelligence “to guard and to take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.” He declared, “I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it.” He also practiced what we today call “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 as a result of my negligence.”
But he added this important caveat: “If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely.” He understood the urgency of sharing the gospel so as to lead the sick to saving faith before they died and to minister to believers in their final days.
Luther also urged everyone to be prepared for either life or death. How? By listening to the sermon and attending the sacraments. Martin Luther says, “First, one must admonish the people to attend church and listen to the sermon so that they may learn through God’s word how to live and how to die.” Accordingly, he conducted daily services during the crisis. Yet he made it clear that he respected the decisions of others who might disagree with him when he wrote:
“We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.” ~Martin Luther, 1527