We’re going to look at faith in times of plague. We’re going back to the year 1527 and to Martin Luther. He, of course, is no stranger to 5 Minutes in Church History. Luther lived through a plague and wrote about it. In November 1527, Luther published a little pamphlet titled, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” Now the plague he was talking about was the bubonic plague. This is the Black Death.
In the years around 1350, the plague was so devastating to Europe that it took about a third of the population. The plague receded, but then it recurred centuries later, and one of those recurrences came to Wittenberg in the summer of 1527. By November, Luther decided to write his pamphlet. It’s full of all kinds of practical advice on how to respond. Luther even talks about the building of hospitals, and how hospitals should be built in such a way as to protect the medical staff as they serve those who are suffering from a 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.”
There we see Luther offering practical advice on how to respond, taking medicine and so forth, and being careful. In fact, we see Luther practicing what we would call today social distancing.
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.”
Luther is outlining for us what faith in God looks like in a time of plague. He says it’s not brash; it’s not foolhardy. We do look before we cross the street. My neighborhood street doesn’t get much traffic, but I still look when I cross it. But if I were to cross a four-lane highway, I’d probably look a bit more carefully. And so we have to be extra careful in these times as we exercise our faith—that we not do it brashly or in a foolhardy way. But nevertheless, we realize in these times of plague, as Luther is advising his congregation and advising us through this pamphlet that has survived through the centuries, that we are to trust in God.
So there is Martin Luther reminding us that in times of plague we trust in God. We pray mercifully for His protection and His protection for us all.