Martin Luther on Responsible Faith in the Midst of Plague

Photo by Adrien Olichon on

This pastoral passage was written for LRBC for 29 August 2021, during level 4 Lockdown.

There are two things that I appreciate about history.

The first is just how different life has been for people in different times and places to our own.

The second is just how similar life has been for people in different times and places to our own.

I like the differentness because it is fascinating, but value the sameness because in that sameness I can see how people have faced some of the same kinds of challenges and difficulties that we do today, albeit in a very different setting.

One such instance of this was put in front of me this week when a friend shared a post on Facebook that quoted a letter that Martin Luther wrote to a friend during the Bubonic plague of the 1500s.

Here’s what he said: “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I will fumigate, purify the air, administer medicine, and take medicine. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order to not become contaminated, and thus perchance inflict and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me. But, I have done what he has expected of me, and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely. This is a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy, and does not tempt God.

The whole letter that Luther wrote had much more than this, but from this excerpt we can see that he combines piety with practicality in the way he recommended and chose to respond to the plague.

The issue at debate in Luther’s Germany was not for or against lockdowns or vaccinations, but rather whether one should accept the plague as divine punishment and stay put to help others, or flee to the next town for safety. Luther could commend the concerns of both groups, but what we see in the quoted excerpt is a commendation that all should be willing to adopt.

No doubt there were many civilian-experts then as there are now, who knew what was the right course of action (there were even some who spurned the use of medicines, ‘social distancing’ and were deliberately careless around the infected, or who even deliberately infected others in hope that they might shed the disease from themselves!).

His recommendation is that one does what they can to take responsible care for themself and their neighbors, neither causing a problem nor shirking from assisting those in need. He also recommends a piety that looks to God for protection and accepts whatever may come, but also refrains from using faith as an excuse for loveless and reckless behavior.

We can be thankful for the different circumstances we live in – late medieval Germany was far from an ideal setting for living through a plague.

But we can also be reminded by what was similar – people need care, we must act with responsibility, and do all that we do before God knowing that ultimately our life is in his hands, and that he expects us to conduct the life that we live in such a way that loves our neighbor and loves him.