Lessons from history

While it’s new to us, the Coronavirus is not the world’s first deadly pestilence. One hundred years ago the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic infected one-third of the world’s population and claimed 50 million lives; more than 600,000 died in the United States alone. Even more devastating was the “Black Death,” which ravaged the Middle East and Europe in waves between the 14th and 17th centuries, claiming between 75 and 200 million lives.

In 1527, the city of Wittenburg in Saxony (a state within the Holy Roman Empire that is now part of Germany) was ravaged by one of these deadly eruptions. The city’s famous university closed, and many residents fled the town. Famed reformer Martin Luther was also urged to leave, but chose to stay. Other Reformed clergy, struggling to decide if they should stay, asked him for guidance.

Luther’s reply to one of these petitioners, the Reverend Doctor Hess, “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague,”  contains inspiring practical, moral, and spiritual wisdom that can lighten this hour of darkness—just as it did 500 years ago. (Citation at end of article) While we thank God for the miraculous advances of science, medicine, and technology, we still tremble when faced with confirmation of our mortality. Though we know we cannot run from Coronavirus we all struggle with concerns about our vulnerability. What should we do and how should we do it? So as you heed daily updates from the CDC (and vigorously wash your hands), let some of Luther’s counsel to Dr. Hess still your fears and soothe your soul.

Whether one may flee from a deadly plague

To the Reverend Doctor Johann Hess, pastor at Breslau, and to his fellow-servants of the gospel of Jesus Christ

Grace and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Your letter, sent to me at Wittenberg, was received some time ago. You wish to know whether it is proper for a Christian to run away from a deadly plague.

Therefore we here give you our opinion as far as God grants us to understand and perceive. This we would humbly submit to your judgment and to that of all devout Christians for them, as is proper, to come to their own decision and conclusion. Since the rumor of death is to be heard in these and many other parts also, we have permitted these instructions of ours to be printed because others might also want to make use of them.

Since it is generally true of Christians that few are strong and many are weak, one simply cannot place the same burden upon everyone … Christ does not want his weak ones to be abandoned, as St. Paul teaches in Romans [15:1] and 1 Corinthians [12:22 ff].

Duty of the clergy and church workers

Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death. We have a plain command from Christ, “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees.” [John 10:11] For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death.

Duty of public officials

Accordingly, all those in public office such as mayors, judges, and the like are under obligation to remain. This, too, is God’s word, which institutes secular authority and commands that town and country be ruled, protected, and preserved, as St. Paul teaches in Romans 13 [:4], “The governing authorities are God’s ministers for your own good.” … What applies to these two offices [church and state] should also apply to persons who stand in a relationship of service or duty toward one another.

Duty of families, medical practitioners, and law enforcement

Likewise, fathers and mothers are bound by God’s law to serve and help their children, and children their fathers and mothers. Likewise, paid public servants such as city physicians, city clerks and constables, or whatever their titles, should not flee unless they furnish capable substitutes who are acceptable to their employer.

The instinct of self-preservation

To flee from death and to save one’s life is a natural tendency, implanted by God … as St. Paul says in Ephesians 4 [5:29], “No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it.” It is even commanded that every man should as much as possible preserve body and life and not neglect them, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians [12:21–26] that God has so ordered the members of the body that each one cares and works for the other.

Personal responsibility and faith in God

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.

… Christ himself says, “As you did to one of the least, you did it to me.” [Matt. 25:40] When he speaks of the greatest commandment he says, “The other commandment is like unto it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Matt. 22:39] There you hear that the command to love your neighbor is equal to the greatest commandment to love God, and that what you do or fail to do for your neighbor means doing the same to God.

Others … 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 … if he (God) 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. If one makes no use of intelligence or medicine when he could do so without detriment to his neighbor, such a person injures his body and must beware lest he become a suicide in God’s eyes.

It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and to fail to protect it against the plague the best he is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death and is a murderer many times over.

Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help …

If the people in a city were to show themselves bold in their faith when a neighbor’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate.

Care of the soul

I regard it useful to add some brief instructions on how one should care and provide for the soul in time of death … First, [pastors] must admonish the people to attend church and listen to the sermon so that they learn through God’s word how to live and how to die.

Second, everyone should prepare in time and get ready for death by going to confession and taking the sacrament once every week or fortnight. He should become reconciled with his neighbor and make his will so that if the Lord knocks and he departs before a pastor or chaplain can arrive, he has provided for his soul, has left nothing undone, and has committed himself to God.

Persist in Prayer

In closing, we admonish and plead with you in Christ’s name to help us with your prayers to God so that we may do battle with word and precept against the real and spiritual pestilence of Satan in his wickedness with which he now poisons and defiles the world. … I hope that I’ve written enough in this pamphlet for those who can be saved so that — God be praised — many may thereby be snatched from their jaws and many more may be strengthened and confirmed in the truth. May Christ our Lord and Savior preserve us all in pure faith and fervent love, unspotted and pure until his day. Amen. Pray for me, a poor sinner.

—Martinus Luther

I leave you with the charge St. Paul gave to the early Christians about how to live in all circumstances.

From Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 119–38.

Rev. Michael A. DeArruda, B.S. Ed, M.Div, former Stated Clerk for the ECO Presbytery of Florida (Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians), Minister of the Word, AUPG (Anglican Union for the Propagation of the Gospel)