Martin Luther’s ministry During the “Black Death” Plague

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Europe in the 16th century was still facing the threat of the most serious plague, the Black Death (the Black Death broke out in the 14th century, spread throughout Europe, lasted for a few centuries and killed about 75 million people). Martin Luther not only initiated disaster relief works, but also wrote articles suggesting that the clergies and public officials should hold fast to their positions and to carry out disaster relief works.

1. Advocating correct
understanding on
seeking medical treatments

Martin Luther advocated proactive medical treatments, i.e. seeing a doctor and taking medicine to cure the patients, the medical staff and even healthy people. At that time, people were conservative and employed charms and prayers as healing therapies. His view was thus scientific and advanced.

In 1527, the plague hit the little town of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther was staying (Germany experienced the worst plague between 1462 -1465). A large number of citizens as well as some of Luther’s friends died. The University was moved to Jena. The symptoms of this plague included headaches, colds, blisters, breathing difficulties, extreme fatigue and even shock. Luther and Johannes Bugenhagen stayed back to take care of patients; he converted his residence (i.e. the Augustinian Monastery) into a temporary hospital. His wife, Katharina von Bora, took care of the patients. All of these patients recovered.

2. Luther and plague
relief work at
Wittenberg

During the plague, he wrote to his friends seeking for help. He personally helped in the disaster relief work; he reported to the government the situation at Wittenberg and the condition of the patients. His actions helped to reduce fears and speculations of the Wittenberg plague. When the situation improved he called the people to come back. During that time Luther also conducted funeral services.

Luther not only served the patients selflessly he also became the leader of the city’s plague control center.

3. Guidelines for
Christians fighting
the epidemic

In his letter “Whether one may flee from a deadly plague” Luther stated two key arguments. The first argument was that clergies and public officials must take part in disaster relief especially the clergy. When people were most scared and needed comfort and companionship they had to be there even it could be life threatening.

Secondly, a certain group of people had to shoulder their “responsibilities” at this difficult time and stayed back to take care of the patients. They were: servants not leave their masters; parents not leave their children; doctors, government officials and salaried people not leave their posts (unless someone replaces them). And they had to help their neighbors when necessary.

But some could flee. Where there was no need for additional helpers or where the sick did not want them, one could decide to stay back or to leave, Luther wrote.

The other instructions by Luther were: in the face of crisis and sufferings all must work hard and not to blame each other; to give relief and to show the great love of Christ; to avoid fanatical and radical display of their faith and thus rejecting all medical assistance and to trust God. He said that all these came about because of God’s mercy. The Lord Jesus has defeated death; death is now the way to eternal life, and Christians have to face it bravely — even if it is a deadly disease.

As we face the threat of the COVID-19, Martin Luther’s teaching on fighting epidemic is still the effective “medical-treatment-asset” for us today.

Written by Rev Jonathan Wong
Translated by KT Chew
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