Martin Luther and His Incredible Response to the Black Plague

Martin Luther and His Incredible Response to the Black Plague March 5, 2020

Any number of reactions happen when one hears the name of Martin Luther mentioned. For some, they picture Martin Luther approaching the Wittenberg Castle Church door with heroic boldness in order to nail his 95 Theses to the door and spark the Protestant Reformation (whether historically accurate or not). For others, they think of his stand at the Diet of Worms before Charles V, where he said when asked to recant, “I cannot and will not recant of anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.” Others still recall his spirited denunciation of the papacy, his feuds with the devil himself, or even how he handled disagreements with memorialists such as Ulrich Zwingli.

One of the things most people’s minds don’t immediately think of, partly because it isn’t discussed all that much, is when the Plague came to Wittenberg. The Bubonic Plague was a particularly nasty disease, spread primarily through the bites of fleas carried by small rodents—though it was also airborne, and could be spread by handling the infected. When people think of the plague, they typically think of the Black Death of 1347 simply because of the staggering death toll—yet the plague itself has popped up at numerous points in history, with at least three major epidemics. The plague was particularly violent; in just one day the infected could show signs of fever, delirium, speech disorders, and loss of consciousness. Shortly thereafter, they would break out in large boils, which infected the bloodstream and rapidly lead to their demise (often as a result of sepsis). To give an idea: a healthy individual could contract the plague and die within as little as three to ten days. The likelihood of survival was incredibly low, depending on various conditions—but suffice it to say, even at the best odds (70%) it was nothing to be trifled with.

In August of 1527 the plague struck Wittenberg and numerous people fled in fear of their lives. Martin Luther and his wife Katharina, who was pregnant at the time, remained in their beloved city in order to treat the infected. Despite the calls for him to flee Wittenberg with his family, Luther’s mind was set on helping the infected. He inevitably came to the conclusion that it was not inherently wrong for one to so value their life that they did not remain, but only so long as the sick had someone of greater faith than they to care for them. He balanced this position with the conviction that this one of greater faith ought not condemn the one of weaker faith who fled.

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.

In other words, Martin Luther maintained that there was an obligation to help those who contracted the plague, but so long as they were helped, it was a matter of conscience if one remained to aide in this great task. He argued that it would be better for hospitals with trained staff to care for the sick, wherein each Christian should offer generous contributions—yet if one were not to be found, “…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, ‘So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.’” So strong were his convictions on the matter that he said anyone who was overcome by horror and repugnance in the presence of the infected ought to recognize the intrinsic, spiritual warfare taking place—that Satan himself was filling their minds to drive them to anxiety, fear, and worst of all, “…to forget and lose Christ, our light and life…”

What is unique to Martin Luther is that all of these words were backed by his willingness to actually follow his own advice. Not only did he and Katharina open their own home as a ward to the infected, but he recognized the opportunity to preach Christ to those literally days away from death. His mindset was not that they wait until the last minute, where the delirious and barely cognizant individual desires to, “…stuff the sacrament down their throats as if into a bread bag,” simply because they were accustomed to the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, the administration of the Lord’s Supper was to be done for those in the faith and not just for those who ask for it, falsely believing it to be of atoning significance. In those final hours of life, those who could not or would not confess the faith would not be given the consolation of the sacraments. While one might think this cold of Martin Luther, it must be recognized of those who ministered in Wittenberg that they were, “…guiltless because we have not been slothful in preaching, teaching, exhortation, consolation, visitation, or in anything else that pertains to our ministry and office.”

Though the plague only lasted in Wittenberg until November of 1527, the events had a lasting impact upon his life. Death was not merely in the presence of Martin and Katharina, but an intimate acquaintance they knew all too well. They would treat the infected day in and day out, not knowing if they would also contract the plague and succumb to death. They witnessed friends, neighbors, and family members die of the plague. Each of them abided in faith to service of those who had nowhere else to turn—and yet for both Martin and Katie, their life was one that knew constant opposition and hardship. Less than five years prior to the plague breaking out in Wittenberg, Martin Luther had been officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church and still faced a barrage of attacks, including the constant threat of death.

In the same year the plague broke out, Rome was under the siege of the mutinous troops of Charles V, which held massive repercussions for Germans. Luther’s daughter Elisabeth, who just barely escaped the plague, was born in December of 1527, only to die eight months later. Christians holding to Lutheran doctrine were being summarily martyred or sent into exile with no provisions. They truly knew what it meant to not know if they would be alive when they woke, let alone make it through the evening as they slept. They certainly understood, with full force, what it meant to ask the Lord to give them their daily bread—and Luther, being the one whom they rallied behind, saw all of this unfold as a result of his teaching.

The constant companion of uncertainty, death, persecution, and pain multiplied the sorrows of German protestants, yet history records that it was sometime between the years of 1527-1529 that the reformer penned the great hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. The hymn by Luther became an anthem to German protestants—and it is no wonder why when we see the sheer amount of political, social, natural, and spiritual instability surrounding them on every front. Though space does not allow for a full exposition of the text, Martin Luther based his hymn on Psalm 46, which undoubtedly reflects the reality that God’s people can confidently rest in His protection in the midst of all forms of chaos.

Luther understood that whether you are a Christian or not, every individual faces the reality of natural disasters and political unrest. Part and parcel to living in a broken and sin-ridden world is the regular experience of sin’s consequences, even if we don’t contribute the brokenness of our world to it. We cannot escape it; we build entire industries to counteract the decay that each day brings. We have infrastructures set up behind the scenes of everyday life because we know the potential for the unexpected calamity to strike. We formulate backup plans, safety nets, or whatever else you’d like to call them—all because we are finite beings who know no other life than one of constant deterioration and failure. What is interesting in this is that despite knowing all of this, we rarely contemplate the significance of these things. This is our “normal” even though it was never intended to be.

He recognized it is the unwise man who doesn’t plan for hardships in this life, and by this I do not mean that he calculates how much he can stash away in case of disaster. There is simple wisdom in planning ahead—yet what of those times when ruin comes without warning? At best, man has a backup plan—yet what if the backup plan fails? What if disaster strikes before we can mitigate the disaster altogether? To deny that this is a plausible outcome is to deny reality. One cannot plan for cancer, the spread of disease, nor a sudden catastrophic accident, yet no more can a man adequately plan against the forces of nature or of men. The raw power and destruction of natural events is incredible, one which no man can contain even at the height of his strength. Likewise, the means by which sinful men and over-reaching governments can wreak havoc on entire groups of people can be positively frightening.

We tend to ignore such things simply because we always believe we have more time and we have a false sense of security. We avoid contemplating the sobriety of death because an earnest reflection of this nature forces us to deal with the existential question of what comes next. Far too often, sober thoughts on eternal matters come only when they are thrust upon us. Modern men are reactionary creatures, trusting that the fail-safes of their government will save them—that is until they sense a realized threat, to which their default reaction is one of panic. Few have the resolve to stand strong when the storms of life come, and those who stand without Christ are swept away in the floodwaters because the foundation they built upon is shifting sand (Matt. 7:24-27). They prepared for the immediate temporal matters, yet they did not prepare for those weightier matters of eternal significance.

The reality is that no amount of stockpiled provisions will save you when impending doom is upon you. No amount of financial security, the peace of mind the insurance broker sold you on, nor the aspirations of a sunny beach on some post-retirement vacation, shall be of comfort when you clutch your chest as your heart gives out. No hope of this earth will console you when death pursues you, like it invariably will one fateful day. It is the fool who lives without regard to these things. He neglects the very means by which unrivaled peace and stability can be known, which is Christ Himself, who through His Word, makes wise the simple and causes them to live in safety and be at ease (Pro. 1:33; Ps. 19:7). The fool spurns wisdom until the day disaster overwhelms them like a whirlwind, only to find that when they cry out for wisdom, wisdom is nowhere to be found (Pro. 1:20-32). Yet the one who believes and trusts in the Lord will not be put to shame (Rom. 10:11).

Perhaps we can more clearly sum all of this up in another statement from Martin Luther, “We need to hear the gospel every day, because we forget it every day.” Far too often, the dangers and circumstances of this life can extinguish the flame of our faith and drive us into a veritable frenzy rather than resting in Christ. Not only does the gospel remind us that God has forgiven us, but He will also raise us up on the last day, which in turn reminds us there will actually be a last day. We will only endure hardship, suffering, disease, and political turmoil for so long. One day, our Mighty King will return to claim His bride and usher us into an age of unparalleled peace and prosperity. Yet for our consolation now, He is the God who remains in front of His people, leading the battle-charge against our greatest adversaries. He not only protects us and dwells among us, He goes before us as our Breaker.

This ultimately means that you can know that though foes might wage war upon the kingdoms of this earth, with a mere word, the Lord has power to destroy the whole Earth. Regardless of the continual attacks and disparaging lies of Satan, we can rest in knowing that God has placed him on a leash and he cannot step outside of God’s will. Even as we face our great enemy, death, we can be reminded that Christ has defeated death itself, and secured our redemption through His resurrection, which is the first fruits of our own resurrection. We can rest confidently in the fact that He will raise us with Christ and bring us into eternal rest. No promise that God has made will return void; every single one of them will be fulfilled and we will be in His glorious presence if we are in Christ.

Yet secondly, we can confidently rest in His protection in the midst of chaos because we know He is a deeply personal God. Martin Luther saw the undeniable reality that Psalm 46 displays: God is in the midst of His people. How much greater then is the nearness of God displayed through Christ, who came to dwell in the flesh among His people? The God of this universe, who can melt the earth by the authority of his Word, who displays His raw power in the elements and will put an end to all war, came in the form of an infant and lived among His people. At just the right time, as with the rising of the sun in the East, He came to our aid against our most dangerous adversaries: sin, death, and Satan. We know that once again, He will arrive at just the right time to make an end of all chaos.

For the German protestants in Luther’s day, the God in sovereign control of all natural, political, and spiritual chaos was in their midst and they recognized this. They could find in Him their ultimate source of peace and stability, in spite of natural and political unrest—in spite of seeing their loved ones die of the plague—and so too can we. On this side of redemptive history, we have the fullness of God’s revelation to us, and so we should ultimately understand this in light of the work of Christ. It is no small coincidence that the means of peace and stability in this life is God Himself, seeing as this truth is the same for our spiritual peace and stability.

It is also of no small significance that confiding in our own strength and striving would be losing, as this same principle applies with respect to our own standing before God. In all things, whether natural, political, or spiritual, we can confidently rest in God’s protection in the midst of chaos. We can legitimately trust that God is in our midst and will protect us from harm. We tend to forget that beautifully simple truth as the minutia of life whisks our minds to something of lesser significance, or even as the very real dangers of a sinful and broken world overwhelm us. Ultimately though, we can confidently rest in Him, not only because of the fact that He is God, but that He is our God. Whatever evils might come our way; we can confidently trust in God’s protection because Christ solved our greatest need by humbling Himself in taking the form of man, so that He might die on the cross on our behalf and accomplish our redemption. The God-man came and dwelt among us and now His Spirit resides within us, yet one great day He will go before us and vanquish every foe.


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  • Snoring

    Interesting reading

    • Christian

      Martin Luther is responsible for the Holocaust and Climate Change. He hates Jews and Critical Thinking

      • Dylan Yes

        And Coronavirus, too…

        I’m nothing close to Lutheran, and certainly Luther was off-the-mark on many things. But blaming him for things as disparate as the Holocaust and purported “climate change” is ludicrous.

        It also has nothing at all to do with the gist of this essay.

        Your “critical thinking” comment drips with irony!

        • RPlavo .

          His emphasis on personal individualism certainly led to the Enlightenment and beyond to arrogant Americanism: I can say, do, have what I want! Sound familiar?

          • Lise Sharkey

            crackpot comment

      • Snoring

        Of course he was. LOL

  • IamGrimalkin

    Well yes, this was a rather good stance for Luther to take, but I think it would be helpful if Christians were to stop pretending Luther was the best thing ever.

    Luther had a lot of good points to him, but he also had a lot of bad points to him as well.

    He was historically important because he had the luck to be the first person of of Protestant-ish leanings to be able to take advantage of the printing press (unlike e.g. the Lollardy before him), but that doesn’t suddenly grant him the privilege of being held up as an example for all christians to follow.

    • Dylan Yes

      This essay didn’t [hold up Luther] “as an example for all [C]hristians to follow.” Where did you even get that notion?

      • IamGrimalkin

        Meh, it’s a general trend I see in a lot online protestant articles. What gave me a little bit of this impression with this article was how it only brought up exclusively positive things (or things the author sees as positive) in Luther’s life and also phrases like “What is unique to Martin Luther…”

        Maybe it doesn’t actually apply here and I’m projecting what I’ve seen elsewhere, but regardless the general principle still holds.

    • MJBubba

      Well, Luther was pretty good. It would do you good to study Luther.
      He would have been first in line to agree that he “had a lot of bad points.”
      The fact that he survived his original protest may have been luck, but his thinking is still worthy of reading. He lived and preached boldly and did indeed provide an example for Christians to follow.
      He remained in a town tormented by Plague, to feed and tend and comfort the sick and dying, at personal risk. How many of us can walk in those steps?

    • Lise Sharkey

      I dont believe in ‘luck’ as a believer

  • Sharon Wible

    This is one of the most hopeful articles I’ve ever read. Thank you.

  • Lise Sharkey

    excellent article, thank you