Luther: Whether One may flee from a deadly plague

The following are my notes, then the whole transcript from Dr Martin Luther’s pamphlet “Whether One May flee from a deadly plague”. I would like to preface this by saying as a first responder for many years in a number of circumstances, you will want people to leave who are just going to hinder your rescue efforts. I think Dr Luther puts it well: “Since it is generally true of Christians that few are strong and many are weak, one simply cannot place the same burden upon everyone. A person who has a strong faith
can drink poison and suffer no harm, Mark 16 [:18], while one who has a weak faith would thereby drink to his death. Peter could walk upon the water because he was strong in faith. When he began to doubt and his faith weakened, he sank and almost drowned.3 When a strong man travels with a weak man, he must restrain himself so as not to walk at a speed proportionate to his strength lest he set a killing pace for his weak companion. Christ does not want his weak ones to be abandoned, as St. Paul teaches in Romans 15 [:1] and 1 Corinthians 12 [:22 ff.]. [editorial comment: Luther does not expect people to drink poison, or walk on water etc. He is using hyperbole to make a point – Driskell] There are many times when people just don’t belong there.

I do have reservations about some people who should be there, like Christian clergy, who use circumstances and hysteria as a reason not to be there to respond. People need the comfort and assurance of clergy in these times, this is when the Christian clergy person has to step up. As a Police Chaplain I had to step into many difficult situations, I couldn’t just decide to avoid anymore than having to go out in stormy weather to pull someone in in the Coast Guard. If a pastor or anyone does have compromised health, that does make a difference and maybe that person does need to not be there or be in the way.

Much of what I have heard though, and even before the current “crisis”, makes Christian churches out to be social clubs and pastors little more than social directors. That pastor is responsible to serve those in his charge and his community to the best that he can for the eternal souls of those people. We are there to strengthen and encourage those who would confess their sins, or their faith in Christ. We are there to be a reminder of that person’s eternal soul and its health. You can try and minimize the role of the pastor, but if it were your child, parent, or someone dear to you, I would bet you would be comforted that a pastor was there to minister to your loved one.

I completely understand that I might carry germs to someone else. I do not want anyone to die, I do not want anyone to be sick or infected. I get it! On the other hand, I cannot justify leaving someone alone in dealing with serious illness or death, that is what we are about as Christians and clergy. Christians and clergy have been confronting these kinds of crises for 2,000 years, I do not see why we would stop doing that now.

“Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death.4 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. However, where enough preachers are available in one locality and they agree to encourage the other clergy to leave in order not to expose themselves needlessly to danger, I do not consider such conduct sinful because spiritual services are provided for and because they would have been ready and willing to
stay if it had been necessary.” (p 2)

” In such cases we must respect the word of Christ, “I was sick and you did not visit me …” [Matt. 25:41–46]. According to this passage we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.7″ Over and over again Jesus tells us that we need to be there to serve. Again, it is for people capable and qualified. I understand there are a lot of people who don’t understand those who would run toward the fire then away from the fire. But those people should also know enough not to question, or lecture the person who is so trained and motivated. Those in public safety, and most in ministry understand these are the times when we are called to step up. I think the most recent example of failure to serve was Scot Peterson Broward County Deputy Sheriff. Former Deputy Peterson stayed outside while school children were being shot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018. He was charged with neglect, one law professor commented that “there’s no crime called refusing to die while there’s a mass – murder in your school”. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-florida-deputy-legal-analysis/sheriffs-deputy-charged-with-neglect-in-florida-school-shooting-has-strong-defense-legal-experts-idUSKCN1T62XS

That’s at least disingenuous if not straight dishonest. Public safety and clergy have responsibility to render as much service as they can in cooperation with any other responders.

“If someone is so strong in faith, however, that he can willingly suffer nakedness, hunger, and want without tempting God and not trying to escape, although he could do so, let him continue that way, but let him not condemn those who will not or cannot do the same.” (p 3) Absolutely! It is not my call to decide who should and shouldn’t. Some seem to be reminded of their duty, a deputy who is put somewhere to protect and doesn’t is neglectful. Others who may have other situations should not be called – out for their failure. But that goes both ways. Because someone does step up and responds to serve, they shouldn’t be criticized for their willingness to, possibly, move into harms way.

Often people will criticize those who do have to deal with the ugliness of death. I’ve seen death in a variety of ways, it’s not pleasant. But then God reminds of the beauty of that soul, that for those in Christ how beautiful that person will be in the eternal resurrection. Even ugly old guys like me. When I am given that realization, God helps me overcome my fears and reservations and again helps me to serve:  “When anyone is overcome by horror and repugnance in the presence of a sick person he should take courage and strength in the firm assurance that it is the devil who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in his heart. He is such a bitter, knavish devil that he not only unceasingly tries to slay and kill, but also takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life. And so the devil would excrete us out of this life as he tries to make us despair of God, become unwilling and unprepared to die, and, under the stormy and dark sky of fear and anxiety, make us forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbor in his troubles. We would sin thereby against God and man; that would be the devil’s glory and delight. Because we know that it is the devil’s game to induce such fear and dread, we should in turn minimize it, take such courage as to spite and annoy him, and send those terrors right back to him. And we should arm ourselves with this answer to the devil:
“Get away, you devil, with your terrors! Just because you hate it, I’ll spite you by going the more quickly to help my sick neighbor. I’ll pay no attention to you: I’ve got two
heavy blows to use against you: the first one is that I know that helping my neighbor is a deed well-pleasing to God and all the angels; by this deed I do God’s will and render true service and obedience to him. All the more so because if you hate it so and are so strongly opposed to it, it must be particularly acceptable to God. I’d do this readily and gladly if I could please only one angel who might look with delight on it. But now that it pleases my Lord Jesus Christ and the whole heavenly host because it is the will and command of God, my Father, then how could any fear of you cause me to spoil such joy in heaven or such delight for my Lord? Or how could I, by flattering you, give you and your devils in hell reason to mock and laugh at me? No, you’ll not have the last word! If Christ shed his blood for me and died for me, why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for his sake and disregard this feeble plague? If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life.” (p 4) I always love Luther’s spirit, he knows where his strength comes from. In that strength he never caved in to public opinion, or those in authority who abused that authority.

“But whoever serves the sick for the sake of God’s gracious promise, though he may accept a suitable reward to which he is entitled, inasmuch as every laborer is worthy of his hire — whoever does so has the great assurance that he shall in turn be cared for. God himself shall be his attendant and his physician, too. What an attendant he is! What a physician! Friend, what are all the physicians, apothecaries, and attendants in comparison to God? Should that not encourage one to go and serve a sick person, even though he might have as many contagious boils on him as hairs on his body, and though he might be bent double carrying a hundred plague-ridden bodies!” This has been my experience! Many times when I’ve needed help, it unexpectedly arrives. I know God will care for me. I may die, but I have no doubt that I will be in His presence and will live my life in the perfect world of the eternal resurrection. Either way, it’s all good for me.

None of this should be interpreted to mean ‘be stupid’. There is a vast difference between faithfully serving, and being careless: “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 infect 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.” (p 6)

If you do not understand any of this, take it up in prayer and ask God to help you understand it. You cannot live in fear as a Christian. We are given the faith we need by God in order to trust His will. Do not presume to tell others who are qualified how to conduct themselves during these times. We have a lot of people in the world today who presume to know more than they do. I believe they are warning others out of love and care, but they are probably interfering with God’s will for that person. As Gamaliel warned that Sanhedrin in Acts 5:    : “33When the Council members heard this, they were enraged and wanted to put the apostles to death. 34But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a short time. 35“Men of Israel,” he said, “consider carefully what you are about to do to these men.… 38So in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone. Let them go! For if their purpose or endeavor is of human origin, it will fail. 39But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God.”…

Finally quoting Luther: “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.” (p 8)

The following is the entire text of Luther’s pamphlet:

The following letter is shared with permission of Fortress Press.
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.
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
Martinus Luther
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. I should have answered long ago, but God has
for some time disciplined and scourged me so severely that
I have been unable to do much reading or writing.1
Furthermore, it occurred to me that God, the merciful Father, has
endowed you so richly with wisdom and truth in Christ that
you yourself should be well qualified to decide this matter or
even weightier problems in his Spirit and grace without our
assistance.
But now that you keep on writing to me and have, so
to speak, humbled yourself in requesting our view on this
matter so that, as St. Paul repeatedly teaches, we may always
agree with one another and be of one mind [1 Cor. 1:10; 2 Cor.
13:11; Phil. 2:2]. 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.
To begin with, some people are of the firm opinion that
one need not and should not run away from a deadly plague.
Rather, since death is God’s punishment, which he sends
upon us for our sins, we must submit to God and with a true
and firm faith patiently await our punishment. They look
upon running away as an outright wrong and as lack of be1
On July 6, 1527, Luther suffered a severe attack of cerebral anemia, an illness from which he suffered repeatedly. The deep depression which followed
may be one reason for the mild tone of the first portion of this pamphlet.
lief in God. Others take the position that one may properly
flee, particularly if one holds no public office.
I cannot censure the former for their excellent decision. They uphold a good cause, namely, a strong faith in
God, and deserve commendation because they desire every
Christian to hold to a strong, firm faith. It takes more than a
milk2
faith to await a death before which most of the saints
themselves have been and still are in dread. Who would not
acclaim these earnest people to whom death is a little thing?
They willingly accept God’s chastisement, doing so without
tempting God, as we shall hear later on.
Since it is generally true of Christians that few are strong
and many are weak, one simply cannot place the same
burden upon everyone. A person who has a strong faith
can drink poison and suffer no harm, Mark 16 [:18], while
one who has a weak faith would thereby drink to his death.
Peter could walk upon the water because he was strong in
faith. When he began to doubt and his faith weakened, he
sank and almost drowned.3
When a strong man travels with
a weak man, he must restrain himself so as not to walk at a
speed proportionate to his strength lest he set a killing pace
for his weak companion. Christ does not want his weak ones
to be abandoned, as St. Paul teaches in Romans 15 [:1] and
1 Corinthians 12 [:22 ff.]. To put it briefly and concisely,
running away from death may happen in one of two ways.
First, it may happen in disobedience to God’s word and command. For instance, in the case of a man who is imprisoned
for the sake of God’s word and who, to escape death, denies
and repudiates God’s word. In such a situation everyone has
Christ’s plain mandate and command not to flee but rather
2
See 1 Cor. 3:2.
3
Cf. Matt. 14:30.
to suffer death, as he says, “Whoever denies me before men,
I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” and “Do
not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,”
Matthew 10 [:28, 33].
Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as
preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before
the peril of death.4
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. However,
where enough preachers are available in one locality and
they agree to encourage the other clergy to leave in order not
to expose themselves needlessly to danger, I do not consider
such conduct sinful because spiritual services are provided
for and because they would have been ready and willing to
stay if it had been necessary. We read that St. Athanasius5
fled from his church that his life might be spared because
many others were there to administer his office. Similarly,
the brethren in Damascus lowered Paul in a basket over the
wall to make it possible for him to escape, Acts 9 [:25]. And
also in Acts 19 [:30] Paul allowed himself to be kept from
risking danger in the marketplace because it was not essential for him to do so.
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.”
To abandon an entire community which one has been called
to govern and to leave it without official or government,
exposed to all kinds of danger such as fires, murder, riots,
and every imaginable disaster is a great sin. It is the kind of
disaster the devil would like to instigate wherever there is no
law and order. St. Paul says, “Anyone who does not provide
for his own family denies the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” [1 Tim. 5:8]. On the other hand, if in great weakness
they flee but provide capable substitutes to make sure that
the community is well governed and protected, as we previously indicated, and if they continually and carefully supervise them [i.e., the substitutes], all that would be proper.
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. A servant should not
leave his master nor a maid her mistress except with the
knowledge and permission of master or mistress. Again,
4
Elector John wrote Luther and urged him and the professors at the university to leave on account of the plague and go to Jena. Luther, Bugenhagen,
and two chaplains, however, stayed on at Wittenberg.
5
Augustine in MPL 30, 1017.
a master should not desert his servant or a lady her maid
unless suitable provision for their care has been made
somewhere. In all these matters it is a divine command
that servants and maids should render obedience and by
the same token masters and ladies should take care of their
servants.6
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.
In the case of children who are orphaned, guardians or
close friends are under obligation either to stay with them
or to arrange diligently for other nursing care for their sick
friends. Yes, no one should dare leave his neighbor unless
there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead
and nurse them. In such cases we must respect the word
of Christ, “I was sick and you did not visit me …” [Matt.
25:41–46]. According to this passage we are bound to each
other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his
distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself
would like to be helped.7
Where no such emergency exists and where enough
people are available for nursing and taking care of the sick,
and where, voluntarily or by orders, those who are weak in
faith make provision so that there is no need for additional helpers, or where the sick do not want them and have
refused their services, I judge that they have an equal choice
either to flee or to remain. If someone is sufficiently bold
and strong in his faith, let him stay in God’s name; that is
certainly no sin. If someone is weak and fearful, let him flee
in God’s name as long as he does not neglect his duty toward
his neighbor but has made adequate provision for others to
provide nursing care. To flee from death and to save one’s
life is a natural tendency, implanted by God and not forbidden unless it be against God and neighbor, 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.
It is not forbidden but rather commanded that by the
sweat of our brow we should seek our daily food, clothing,
and all we need and avoid destruction and disaster whenever
we can, as long as we do so without detracting from our love
and duty toward our neighbor. How much more appropriate
it is therefore to seek to preserve life and avoid death if this
can be done without harm to our neighbor, inasmuch as life
is more than food and clothing, as Christ himself says in
6
Cf. Eph. 6:5–9.
7
Cf. Matt. 7:12.
Matthew 5 [6:25]. If someone is so strong in faith, however,
that he can willingly suffer nakedness, hunger, and want
without tempting God and not trying to escape, although
he could do so, let him continue that way, but let him not
condemn those who will not or cannot do the same.
Examples in Holy Scripture abundantly prove that to
flee from death is not wrong in itself. Abraham was a great
saint but he feared death and escaped it by pretending that
his wife, Sarah, was his sister.8
Because he did so without neglecting or adversely affecting his neighbor, it was not counted as a sin against him. His son, Isaac, did likewise.9
Jacob
also fled from his brother Esau to avoid death at his hands.10
Likewise, David fled from Saul, and from Absalom.11 The
prophet Uriah escaped from King Jehoiakim and fled into
Egypt.12 The valiant prophet, Elijah, 1 Kings 19 [:3], had
destroyed all the prophets of Baal by his great faith, but afterward, when Queen Jezebel threatened him, he became afraid
and fled into the desert. Before that, Moses fled into the land
of Midian when the king searched for him in Egypt.13 Many
others have done likewise. All of them fled from death when
it was possible and saved their lives, yet without depriving
their neighbors of anything but first meeting their obligations toward them.
Yes, you may reply, but these examples do not refer to
dying by pestilence but to death under persecution. Answer:
Death is death, no matter how it occurs. According to Holy
Scripture God sent his four scourges: pestilence, famine,
sword, and wild beasts.14 If it is permissible to flee from one
or the other in clear conscience, why not from all four? Our
examples demonstrate how the holy fathers escaped from
the sword; it is quite evident that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
fled from the other scourge, namely, hunger and death, when
they went to Egypt to escape famine, as we are told in Genesis [40–47]. Likewise, why should one not run away from
wild beasts? I hear people say, “If war or the Turks come, one
should not flee from his village or town but stay and await
God’s punishment by the sword.” That is quite true; let him
who has a strong faith wait for his death, but he should not
condemn those who take flight.
By such reasoning, when a house is on fire, no one
should run outside or rush to help because such a fire is also
a punishment from God. Anyone who falls into deep water
dare not save himself by swimming but must surrender to
the water as to a divine punishment. Very well, do so if you
can but do not tempt God, and allow others to do as much
8
Gen. 12:13.
9
Gen. 26:7.
10 Cf. Gen. 27:43–45.
11 Cf. 1 Sam. 19:10–17; 2 Sam. 15:14.
12 Jer. 26:21.
13 Cf. Exod. 2:15.
14 Cf. Ezek. 14:21.
as they are capable of doing. Likewise, if someone breaks a
leg, is wounded or bitten, he should not seek medical aid but
say, “It is God’s punishment. I shall bear it until it heals by
itself.” Freezing weather and winter are also God’s punishment and can cause death. Why run to get inside or near a
fire? Be strong and stay outside until it becomes warm again.
We should then need no apothecaries or drugs or physicians
because all illnesses are punishment from God. Hunger and
thirst are also great punishments and torture. Why do you
eat and drink instead of letting yourself be punished until
hunger and thirst stop of themselves? Ultimately such talk
will lead to the point where we abbreviate the Lord’s Prayer
and no longer pray, “deliver us from evil, Amen,” since we
would have to stop praying to be saved from hell and stop
seeking to escape it. It, too, is God’s punishment as is every
kind of evil. Where would all this end?
From what has been said we derive this guidance: We
must pray against every form of evil and guard against it to
the best of our ability in order not to act contrary to God, as
was previously explained. If it be God’s will that evil come
upon us and destroy us, none of our precautions will help
us. Everybody must take this to heart: first of all, if he feels
bound to remain where death rages in order to serve his
neighbor, let him commend himself to God and say, “Lord,
I am in thy hands; thou hast kept me here; thy will be done.
I am thy lowly creature. Thou canst kill me or preserve me
in this pestilence in the same way as if I were in fire, water,
drought, or any other danger.” If a man is free, however, and
can escape, let him commend himself and say, “Lord God,
I am weak and fearful. Therefore I am running away from
evil and am doing what I can to protect myself against it. I
am nevertheless in thy hands in this danger as in any other
which might overtake me. Thy will be done. My flight alone
will not succeed of itself because calamity and harm are
everywhere. Moreover, the devil never sleeps. He is a murderer from the beginning [John 8:44] and tries everywhere to
instigate murder and misfortune.”15
In the same way we must and we owe it to our neighbor
to accord him the same treatment in other troubles and
perils, also. If his house is on fire, love compels me to run
to help him extinguish the flames. If there are enough other
people around to put the fire out, I may either go home or
remain to help. If he falls into the water or into a pit I dare
not turn away but must hurry to help him as best I can. If
there are others to do it, I am released. If I see that he is
hungry or thirsty, I cannot ignore him but must offer food
and drink, not considering whether I would risk impoverishing myself by doing so. A man who will not help or support
others unless he can do so without affecting his safety or his
15 At this point Luther interrupted his writing. He resumed it no later than
early September, as a reference in a sermon on September 15 or 21 indicates.
The second part of the pamphlet reflects the plague’s arrival in Wittenberg.
property will never help his neighbor. He will always reckon
with the possibility that doing so will bring some disadvantage
and damage, danger and loss. No neighbor can live alongside
another without risk to his safety, property, wife, or child. He
must run the risk that fire or some other accident will start in
the neighbor’s house and destroy him bodily or deprive him of
his goods, wife, children, and all he has.
Anyone who does not do that for his neighbor, but
forsakes him and leaves him to his misfortune, becomes
a murderer in the sight of God, as St. John states in his
epistles, “Whoever does not love his brother is a murderer,”
and again, “If anyone has the world’s goods, and sees his
brother in need [yet closes his heart against him], how does
God’s love abide in him?” [1 John 3:15, 17]. That is also one
of the sins which God attributed to the city of Sodom when
he speaks through the prophet Ezekiel [16:49], “Behold, this
was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters
had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not
aid the poor and needy.” Christ, therefore, will condemn
them as murderers on the Last Day when he will say, “I was
sick and you did not visit me” [Matt. 25:43]. If that shall be
the judgment upon those who have failed to visit the sick
and needy or to offer them relief, what will become of those
who abandoned them and let them lie there like dogs and
pigs? Yes, how will they fare who rob the poor of the little
they have and plague them in all kinds of ways? That is what
the tyrants do to the poor who accept the gospel. But let that
be; they have their condemnation.
It would be well, where there is such an efficient government in cities and states, to maintain municipal homes and
hospitals staffed with people to take care of the sick so that
patients from private homes can be sent there — as was the
intent and purpose of our forefathers with so many pious bequests, hospices, hospitals, and infirmaries so that it should
not be necessary for every citizen to maintain a hospital in
his own home. That would indeed be a fine, commendable,
and Christian arrangement to which everyone should offer
generous help and contributions, particularly the government. Where there are no such institutions — and they exist
in only a few places — we must give hospital care and be
nurses for one another in any extremity or risk the loss of
salvation and the grace of God. Thus it is written in God’s
word and command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and
in Matthew 7 [:12], “So whatever you wish that men would
do to you, do so to them.”
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 (as previously indicated) so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one
another. First, we can be sure that God’s punishment has
come upon us, not only to chastise us for our sins but also
to test our faith and love — our faith in that we may see and
experience how we should act toward God; our love in that
we may recognize how we should act toward our neighbor. I
am of the opinion that all the epidemics, like any plague, are
spread among the people by evil spirits who poison the air or
exhale a pestilential breath which puts a deadly poison into
the flesh. Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment
to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbor,
risking our lives in this manner as St. John teaches, “If Christ
laid down his life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for
the brethren” [1 John 3:16].
When anyone is overcome by horror and repugnance
in the presence of a sick person he should take courage and
strength in the firm assurance that it is the devil who stirs up
such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in his heart. He is such a
bitter, knavish devil that he not only unceasingly tries to slay
and kill, but also takes delight in making us deathly afraid,
worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying
as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life.
And so the devil would excrete us out of this life as he tries
to make us despair of God, become unwilling and unprepared to die, and, under the stormy and dark sky of fear
and anxiety, make us forget and lose Christ, our light and
life, and desert our neighbor in his troubles. We would sin
thereby against God and man; that would be the devil’s glory
and delight. Because we know that it is the devil’s game to
induce such fear and dread, we should in turn minimize it,
take such courage as to spite and annoy him, and send those
terrors right back to him. And we should arm ourselves with
this answer to the devil:
“Get away, you devil, with your terrors! Just because
you hate it, I’ll spite you by going the more quickly to help
my sick neighbor. I’ll pay no attention to you: I’ve got two
heavy blows to use against you: the first one is that I know
that helping my neighbor is a deed well-pleasing to God
and all the angels; by this deed I do God’s will and render
true service and obedience to him. All the more so because
if you hate it so and are so strongly opposed to it, it must be
particularly acceptable to God. I’d do this readily and gladly
if I could please only one angel who might look with delight
on it. But now that it pleases my Lord Jesus Christ and the
whole heavenly host because it is the will and command of
God, my Father, then how could any fear of you cause me
to spoil such joy in heaven or such delight for my Lord? Or
how could I, by flattering you, give you and your devils in
hell reason to mock and laugh at me? No, you’ll not have the
last word! If Christ shed his blood for me and died for me,
why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for
his sake and disregard this feeble plague? If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give
life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater
medicine. Should not my dear Christ, with his precepts, his
kindness, and all his encouragement, be more important in
my spirit than you, roguish devil, with your false terrors in
my weak flesh? God forbid! Get away, devil. Here is Christ
and here am I, his servant in this work. Let Christ prevail!
Amen.”
The second blow against the devil is God’s mighty
promise by which he encourages those who minister to
the needy. He says in Psalm 41 [:1–3], “Blessed is he who
considers the poor. The Lord will deliver him in the day of
trouble. The Lord will protect him and keep him alive; the
Lord will bless him on earth and not give him up to the will
of his enemies. The Lord will sustain him on his sickbed.
In his illness he will heal all his infirmities.” Are not these
glorious and mighty promises of God heaped up upon those
who minister to the needy? What should terrorize us or
frighten us away from such great and divine comfort? The
service we can render to the needy is indeed such a small
thing in comparison with God’s promises and rewards that
St. Paul says to Timothy, “Godliness is of value in every way,
and it holds promise both for the present life and for the life
to come” [1 Tim. 4:8]. Godliness is nothing else but service
to God. Service to God is indeed service to our neighbor. It
is proved by experience that those who nurse the sick with
love, devotion, and sincerity are generally protected. Though
they are poisoned, they are not harmed. As the psalm says,
“in his illness you heal all his infirmities” [Ps. 41:3], that is,
you change his bed of sickness into a bed of health. A person
who attends a patient because of greed, or with the expectation of an inheritance or some personal advantage in such
services, should not be surprised if eventually he is infected,
disfigured, or even dies before he comes into possession of
that estate or inheritance.
But whoever serves the sick for the sake of God’s gracious
promise, though he may accept a suitable reward to which
he is entitled, inasmuch as every laborer is worthy of his
hire — whoever does so has the great assurance that he shall
in turn be cared for. God himself shall be his attendant and
his physician, too. What an attendant he is! What a physician! Friend, what are all the physicians, apothecaries, and
attendants in comparison to God? Should that not encourage one to go and serve a sick person, even though he might
have as many contagious boils on him as hairs on his body,
and though he might be bent double carrying a hundred
plague-ridden bodies! What do all kinds of pestilence or
devils mean over against God, who binds and obliges himself
to be our attendant and physician? Shame and more shame
on you, you out-and-out unbeliever, for despising such great
comfort and letting yourself become more frightened by
some small boil or some uncertain danger than emboldened
by such sure and faithful promises of God! What would it
avail you if all physicians and the entire world were at your
service, but God were not present? Again, what harm could
overtake you if the whole world were to desert you and no
physician would remain with you, but God would abide
with you with his assurance? Do you not know that you are
surrounded as by thousands of angels who watch over you
in such a way that you can indeed trample upon the plague,
as it is written in Psalm 91 [:11–13], “He has given his angels
charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands
they will bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread upon the lion and the adder, and trample the
young lion and the serpent under foot.”
Therefore, dear friends, let us not become so desperate as
to desert our own whom we are duty-bound to help and flee
in such a cowardly way from the terror of the devil, or allow
him the joy of mocking us and vexing and distressing God
and all his angels. For it is certainly true that he who despises
such great promises and commands of God and leaves his
own people destitute, violates all of God’s laws and is guilty
of the murder of his neighbor whom he abandons. I fear that
in such a case God’s promise will be reversed and changed
into horrible threats and the psalm [41] will then read this
way against them: “Accursed is he who does not provide for
the needy but escapes and forsakes them. The Lord in turn
will not spare him in evil days but will flee from him and
desert him, The Lord will not preserve him and keep him
alive and will not prosper him on earth but will deliver him
into the hands of his enemies. The Lord will not refresh him
on his sickbed nor take him from the couch of his illness.”
For “the measure you give will be the measure you get”
[Matt. 7:2]. Nothing else can come of it. It is terrible to hear
this, more terrible to be waiting for this to happen, most
terrible to experience it. What else can happen if God withdraws his hand and forsakes us except sheer devilment and
every kind of evil? It cannot be otherwise if, against God’s
command, one abandons his neighbor. This fate will surely
overtake anyone of this sort, unless he sincerely repents.
This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who
were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous
and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone
would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but
everyone would come running. And yet they don’t hear what
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. If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very
well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to him
and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him, not
outwardly but in his word. If you do not wish or care to serve
your neighbor you can be sure that if Christ lay there instead
you would not do so either and would let him lie there.
Those are nothing but illusions on your part which puff
you up with vain pride, namely, that you would really serve
Christ if he were there in person. Those are nothing but
lies; whoever wants to serve Christ in person would surely
serve his neighbor as well. This is said as an admonition and
encouragement against fear and a disgraceful flight to which
the devil would tempt us so that we would disregard God’s
command in our dealings with our neighbor and so we
would fall into sin on the left hand.
Others sin on the right hand. They 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.
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. By the same reasoning a person might forego eating and drinking, clothing and shelter, and boldly proclaim
his faith that if God wanted to preserve him from starvation
and cold, he could do so without food and clothing. Actually that would be suicide. 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. 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 infect 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.
Moreover, he who has contracted the disease and recovered should keep away from others and not admit them into
his presence unless it be necessary. Though one should aid
him in his time of need, as previously pointed out, he in turn
should, after his recovery, so act toward others that no one
becomes unnecessarily endangered on his account and so
cause another’s death. “Whoever loves danger,” says the wise
man, “will perish by it” [Ecclus. 3:26]. 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. But
if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their
plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions
but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and
many will die. On both counts this is a grievous offense to
God and to man — here it is tempting God; there it is bringing man into despair. Then the one who flees, the devil will
pursue; the one who stays behind, the devil will hold captive
so that no one escapes him.
Some are even worse than that. They keep it secret that
they have the disease and go among others in the belief that
by contaminating and poisoning others they can rid themselves of the plague and so recover. With this idea they enter
streets and homes, trying to saddle children or servants
with the disease and thus save themselves. I certainly believe
that this is the devil’s doing, who helps turn the wheel of
fate to make this happen. I have been told that some are
so incredibly vicious that they circulate among people and
enter homes because they are sorry that the plague has not
reached that far and wish to carry it in, as though it were a
prank like putting lice into fur garments or flies into someone’s living room. I do not know whether I should believe
this; if it is true, I do not know whether we Germans are not
really devils instead of human beings. It must be admitted
that there are some extremely coarse and wicked people.
The devil is never idle. My advice is that if any such persons
are discovered, the judge should take them by the ear and
turn them over to Master Jack, the hangman, as outright
and deliberate murderers. What else are such people but
assassins in our town? Here and there an assassin will jab a
knife through someone and no one can find the culprit. So
these folk infect a child here, a woman there, and can never
be caught. They go on laughing as though they had accomplished something. Where this is the case, it would be better
to live among wild beasts than with such murderers. I do
not know how to preach to such killers. They pay no heed. I
appeal to the authorities to take charge and turn them over
to the help and advice not of physicians, but of Master Jack,
the hangman.
If in the Old Testament God himself ordered lepers to be
banished from the community and compelled to live outside
the city to prevent contamination [Leviticus 13–14], we must
do the same with this dangerous pestilence so that anyone
who becomes infected will stay away from other persons, or
allow himself to be taken away and given speedy help with
medicine. Under such circumstances it is our duty to assist
such a person and not forsake him in his plight, as I have
repeatedly pointed out before. Then the poison is stopped
in time, which benefits not only the individual but also the
whole community, which might be contaminated if one
person is permitted to infect others. Our plague here in Wittenberg has been caused by nothing but filth. The air, thank
God, is still clean and pure, but some few have been contaminated because of the laziness or recklessness of some. So the
devil enjoys himself at the terror and flight which he causes
among us. May God thwart him! Amen.
This is what we think and conclude on this subject of
fleeing from death by the plague. If you are of a different
opinion, may God enlighten you. Amen.16
Because this letter will go out in print for people to read,
I regard it useful to add some brief instructions on how one
should care and provide for the soul in time of death. We
have done this orally from the pulpit, and still do so every
day in fulfilment of the ministry to which we have been
called as pastors.
First, one 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. It must be noted that those
who are so uncouth and wicked as to despise God’s word
while they are in good health should be left unattended
when they are sick unless they demonstrate their remorse
and repentance with great earnestness, tears, and lamentation. A person who wants to live like a heathen or a dog and
does not publicly repent should not expect us to administer
the sacrament to him or have us count him a Christian. Let
him die as he has lived because we shall not throw pearls
before swine nor give to dogs what is holy [Matt. 7:6]. Sad to
say, there are many churlish, hardened ruffians who do not
care for their souls when they live or when they die. They
simply lie down and die like unthinking hulks.
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. When there are many
fatalities and only two or three pastors on duty, it is impossible to visit everyone, to give instruction, and to teach each
one what a Christian ought to know in the anguish of death.
Those who have been careless and negligent in these matters
16 The following section was added later by Luther.
must account for themselves. That is their own fault. After
all, we cannot set up a private pulpit and altar daily at their
bedside simply because they have despised the public pulpit
and altar to which God has summoned and called them.
Third, if someone wants the chaplain or pastor to come,
let the sick person send word in time to call him and let
him do so early enough while he is still in his right mind
before the illness overwhelms the patient. The reason I say
this is that some are so negligent that they make no request
and send no message until the soul is perched for flight on
the tip of their tongues17 and they are no longer rational
or able to speak. Then we are told, “Dear Sir, say the very
best you can to him,” etc. But earlier, when the illness first
began, they wanted no visit from the pastor, but would say,
“Oh, there’s no need. I hope he’ll get better.” What should a
diligent pastor do with such people who neglect both body
and soul? They live and die like beasts in the field. They want
us to teach them the gospel at the last minute and administer
the sacrament to them as they were accustomed to it under
the papacy when nobody asked whether they believed or
understood the gospel but just stuffed the sacrament down
their throats as if into a bread bag.
This won’t do. If someone cannot talk or indicate by a
sign that he believes, understands, and desires the sacrament
— particularly if he has wilfully neglected it — we will not
give it to him just anytime he asks for it. We have been commanded not to offer the holy sacrament to unbelievers but
rather to believers who can state and confess their faith. Let
the others alone in their unbelief; we are guiltless because
we have not been slothful in preaching, teaching, exhortation, consolation, visitation, or in anything else that pertains
to our ministry and office. This, in brief, is our instruction
and what we practice here. We do not write this for you in
Breslau, because Christ is with you and without our aid he
will amply instruct you and supply your needs with his own
ointment. To him be praise and honor together with God the
Father and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.18
Because we have come upon the subject of death, I cannot refrain from saying something about burials. First of all,
I leave it to the doctors of medicine and others with greater
experience than mine in such matters to decide whether it
is dangerous to maintain cemeteries within the city limits. I
do not know and do not claim to understand whether vapors
and mists arise out of graves to pollute the air. If this were
so my previously stated warnings constitute ample reason
to locate cemeteries outside the city. As we have learned, all
of us have the responsibility of warding off this poison to
the best of our ability because God has commanded us to
17 According to popular belief the soul left the body at death through the
mouth.
18 What follows up to the concluding paragraph is a further insert written
on a separate page which Luther evidently added before the pamphlet was
published.
care for the body, to protect and nurse it so that we are not
exposed needlessly. In an emergency, however, we must be
bold enough to risk our health if that is necessary. Thus we
should be ready for both — to live and to die according to
God’s will. For “none of us lives to himself and none of us
dies to himself,” as St. Paul says, Romans 15 [14:7].
It is very well known that the custom in antiquity, both
among Jews and pagans, among saints and sinners, was to
bury the dead outside the city. Those people were just as
prudent as we claim to be ourselves. This is also evident in
St. Luke’s Gospel, when Christ raised from the dead the widow’s son at the gates of Nain (for the text [Luke 7:12] states,
“He was being carried out of the city to the grave and a large
crowd from the city was with her”). In that country it was
the practice to bury the dead outside the town.
Christs tomb, also, was prepared outside the city. Abraham, too, bought a burial plot in the field of Ephron near the
double cave19 where all the patriarchs wished to be buried.
The Latin therefore employs the term efferi, that is, “to carry
out,” by which we mean “carry to the grave.” They not only
carried the dead out but also burned them to powder to keep
the air as pure as possible.
My advice, therefore, is to follow these examples and to
bury the dead outside the town. Not only necessity but piety
and decency should induce us to provide a public burial
ground outside the town, that is, our town of Wittenberg.
A cemetery rightfully ought to be a fine quiet place,
removed from all other localities, to which one can go and
reverently meditate upon death, the Last Judgment, the
resurrection, and say one’s prayers. Such a place should
properly be a decent, hallowed place, to be entered with trepidation and reverence because doubtlessly some saints rest
there. It might even be arranged to have religious pictures
and portraits painted on the walls.
But our cemetery, what is it like? Four or five alleys, two
or three marketplaces, with the result that no place in the
whole town is busier or noisier than the cemetery. People
and cattle roam over it at any time, night and day. Everyone
has a door or pathway to it from his house and all sorts of
things take place there, probably even some that are not fit to
be mentioned. This totally destroys respect and reverence for
the graves, and people think no more about walking across
it than if it were a burial ground for executed criminals. Not
even the Turk would dishonor the place the way we do. And
yet a cemetery should inspire us to devout thoughts, to the
contemplation of death and the resurrection, and to respect
for the saints who rest there. How can that be done at such a
common place through which everyone must walk and into
which every man’s door opens? If a cemetery is to have some
19 Gen. 23:9 (Luther’s German translation). Ancient Hebrew burial caves
usually had a second chamber into which the bones of previous burials were
placed to make room for new interments.
dignity, I would rather be put to rest in the Elbe or in the forest. If a graveyard were located at a quiet, remote spot where
no one could make a path through it, it would be a spiritual,
proper, and holy sight and could be so arranged that it would
inspire devotion in those who go there. That would be my
advice. Follow it, who so wishes. If anyone knows better, let
him go ahead. I am no man’s master.
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. That is, particularly against
those who blaspheme the sacrament, though there are other
sectarians also. Satan is infuriated and perhaps he feels that
the day of Christ is at hand. That is why he raves so fiercely
and tries through the enthusiasts20 to rob us of the Savior,
Jesus Christ. Under the papacy Satan was simply “flesh” so
that even a monk’s cap had to be regarded as sacred. Now
he is nothing more than sheer “spirit” and Christ’s flesh and
word are no longer supposed to mean anything. They made
an answer to my treatise21 long ago, but I am surprised that
it has not yet reached me at Wittenberg.22 [When it does] I
shall, God willing, answer them once again and let the matter drop. I can see that they will only become worse. They are
like a bedbug which itself has a foul smell, but the harder you
rub to crush it, the more it stinks. 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.
20 I.e., the Schwärmer, who stressed a “spiritual” use of the sacrament. Cf.
That These Words of Christ, “This Is My Body,” etc., Still Stand Firm Against
the Fanatics (1527). LW 37, 3–150, especially p. 18, n. 14.
21 The treatise mentioned in note 20.
22 This statement helps in dating the end of this letter. The communication, a
diatribe by Zwingli, arrived November 11, 1527.

1 thought on “Luther: Whether One may flee from a deadly plague

  1. Pingback: How the Christian Church should respond to support people in times of crisis. | Pastor Jim Driskell

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