Luther with the plague sufferers

Today we will look at an incident in the life of Martin Luther that, until our present pandemic, constituted only a footnote in Christian history. It involved a plague striking Wittenberg in 1527 where Luther lived and ministered.

Some 180 years earlier Europe had been decimated by the Black Death, commonly believed today to be the bubonic plague. Between 1347 and 1351 it is estimated that 35-65% of Europe’s population DIED as a result of this pandemic. It came from Asia where it had already killed untold numbers in China and India. More details about the Black Plague can be gained from the Wikipedia article and from this History Channel article. But this plague was not done after its initial surge. Additional outbreaks continued in every generation at least until the 17th Century (some even say the 19th). These additional outbreaks were not as widespread but were still both feared and deadly. One such outbreak happened in and around Wittenberg in Germany in late 1527.

At the outbreak in Wittenberg, the city and university were emptied of people as many fled for safer areas. However, Martin Luther and wife Katarina chose to stay and minister to the sick and dying. During this period Luther even wrote a letter to another minister, which was then expanded into a printed pamphlet or tract entitled, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” An English translation of its text can be found here. and another here.

Justin Taylor, writing in a blog post on the Gospel Coalition website summarizes some of Luther’s words as follows:

  • In this tract, Luther began by addressing those with the strong conviction that one should never flee because the plague is God’s judgment for our sins, and Christians should stand humbly and accept his will in repentance. While Luther considered such views praiseworthy, he acknowledged that not everyone is equally strong in the faith. Luther also asserted that it should be obvious that people with leadership roles (like pastors, mayors, judges, and physicians) should remain in the community until the crisis has passed.”
  • Concerning one’s demeanor, Luther made it plain that fear of death was the Devil’s work, and that no Christian should yield to it. Christ’s resurrection should make all Christians fearless in the face of the grave. Yet Luther allowed that some are stronger in this faith than others, and may choose to go boldly into the fire of deadly danger, expecting great reward from the Lord for their service, while others are weaker and flee in the normal way.”
  • Luther said Christians who trust God and minister directly to the dying should not fear boils and infection, for in the end, caring for the sick is like caring for Christ. Jesus said, “I was sick, and you cared for me” (Matt. 25:36). John wrote that Christ laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for others (1 John 3:16).”
  • Luther strongly urged those in the presence of the dying to pour into them the Word of God, teaching them both how to live and also how to die in faith. Anyone who is dying in unbelief should be urgently warned to repent while there’s still time, but they should call for a pastor while they can still understand his words.”

Dr. Stephen Nichols of the 5 Minutes in Church History podcast, also spoke in his April 15, 2020 broadcast about Luther’s stand in the face of the plague:

  • “There’s a lot that we can learn from Luther’s pamphlet, and much we should pay attention to, especially one particular paragraph toward the end: ‘Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us.’ Praying for God’s merciful protection of us all is a great place to start. ‘Then I shall fumigate.’ He says he will fumigate his house. He’ll fumigate the yard. He’ll fumigate the street. Now, I’m not sure what fumigating looked like in the sixteenth century, but whatever it was, Luther was advocating for it.”He goes on to say that he will ‘help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. 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.'”
  • Luther goes on to say, ‘If God should wish to take me, He will surely find me and 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, as stated above.’ Again, we see Luther following the regulations, but also recognizing that he needs to put love of neighbor first. And then Luther ends with this: ‘See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.'”

Martin and Katarina Luther survived the plague while in faith ministering to both those who died and those who survived along with them. He advocated for hospitals (still a rarity at that time) be opened to care for the sick, and that a cemetery be dedicated outside the city where those who died could be buried with dignity and remembered by those who loved them. It seems that God blessed both the faith and courage of the Luthers when both their community and their church family needed them most.

Our image is an 1847 engraving by Gustav Koenig entitled, “Martin Luther with Plague Victims.” It appeared in Koenig’s book, The Life of Luther in Forty-Eight Historical Engravings (published 1857), and which is currently available in digital form from the New York Public Library.