Christians have always, rightfully so, expected guidance from ministers regarding the proper response to unusual trials and emergencies. The Christians in Wittenberg in 1527 likewise looked to their pastor Luther for guidance on how to deal with the reoccurrence of The Great Bubonic Plague that had killed millions of people a couple hundred years earlier. Here are some excerpts from Luther’s advise to the Christians living in that city. The full letter can be read here.
REMEMBER GOD’S GRACE AND PEACE
Grace and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
FULFIL YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES
Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must … 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. Accordingly, all those in public office such as mayors, judges, and the like are under obligation to remain. A servant should not leave his master nor a maid her mistress except with the knowledge and permission of master or mistress. Again, 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. 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.
MAKE NECESSARY ARRANGEMENTS AND STAND FIRM IN FAITH AND IN LOVE
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 indicat-ed) 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.
SERVE THE SUFFERING
Whoever serves the sick for the sake of God’s gracious promise … has the great assurance that he shall in turn be cared for. God himself shall be his attendant and his physician, too. … 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.
SENSIBLY PROTECT YOURSELF FOR THE SAKE OF GOD, OTHERS, AND SELF
Others… 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. … 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. … It is … 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. … 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.
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.