While pastoring in Wittenberg in the mid 1520’s, Martin Luther received a letter from Rev. Dr. Johann Hess, a pastor in Breslau. His question to Luther: How should Christians respond to a plague in their city?
Luther’s response was a lengthy one that, due to some of his own circumstances, did not reach Dr. Hess for several months. You can read his entire letter here. In it, he highlighted a number of things that followers of Christ should do out of love for their neighbor. He also mentioned a number of things that they shouldn’t do out of that same love.
Luther said to consider a plague like it’s a fire that’s burning through your city, and that Christians must act in order to quench its flames. To not do so would be reckless. Regarding those who did not take the sickness seriously and thus alter their lifestyle, Luther said:
“…Indeed, such people behave as though a house were burning in the city and nobody were trying to put the fire out. Instead they give leeway to the flames so that the whole city is consumed, saying that if God so willed, he could save the city without water to quench the fire. No, my dear friends, that is no good. 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 put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way: ‘Very well, by God’s decree, the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. 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 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 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. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” (1)
- Luther’s Works Volume 43 pg 132 the letter “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess