Martin Luther on the Plague

Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, 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.

Martin Luther, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” (1527)

This weekend we celebrate Reformation Sunday, a day on which Lutherans commemorate the start of the Protestant Reformation, inspired by the writings and teaching of Martin Luther.

Luther left no shortage of writings for future generations to study and ponder, but one piece that seems especially appropriate for our consideration this year is his essay, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” The Bubonic plague ravaged Europe in the mid-1300s and reappeared in 1527. One local pastor reached out to Martin Luther with an earnest question: Is it appropriate for a Christian to run away from a plague?

Martin Luther replied with an essay that still seems relevant 500 years later. In Luther’s day, as in our own, there were many who trusted in God’s protection but failed to take responsible action. Luther wrote that those who lean on faith but ignore the expertise of those gifted by God with skills for science and medicine “are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.”

Luther encourages people to take practical measures to protect themselves and others from the disease and urges them to listen to the experts: “I leave it to the doctors of medicine and others with greater experience than mine in such matters.”

Luther’s advice to Christians facing a plague in 1527 remains good counsel for us today.

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