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Why Did Luther Not Flee From the Deadly Plague?

Nathan Runham —

Martin Luther lived through the plague. He did so because he deliberately chose not to flee from it. Unlike the COVID-19 pandemic that we face today, the Bubonic plague that Luther endured was an epidemic.

This means, generally speaking, there were still places to escape and avoid the plague. Why then did Luther choose not to flee? The answer to this question is that our neighbours matter. This might seem fairly simplistic, but it is what drove Luther to risk his own life—and family—in order to serve his neighbours. In the midst of our COVID-19 pandemic today, we would benefit our neighbours greatly too, if we were to love them as we love ourselves. How then do we love our neighbours—in the midst of a pandemic? Based on Luther’s biblical understanding, and his own experience, he (and I) will give us practical advice to know when to help, why to help, and how to help.


Killer plagues are not unprecedented. The virus or bacteria that causes each particular disease might be novel—like COVID-19—but deadly epidemics and pandemics have cursed humans since the fall. Medieval Europe was scarred by the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) in the fourteenth century when at least twenty-five percent of its population was lost. The fifteenth-century also witnessed at least four more epidemics. Martin Luther himself, lived through three “pestilences” during his lifetime.[1]

The first plague to hit Luther in Wittenberg occurred on 2 August 1527.[2] Luther’s protector at the time, Elector John, sought to move him and the other Wittenberg professors to Jena for their protection.[3] Luther, however, chose to defy the order and refused to flee.[4] By August 19, seventeen days into the plague, there were already eighteen deaths in Wittenberg. For a small village, an average of at least one death a day must have been frightening. It is little wonder then that Luther’s friends also appealed for him to flee, because Luther was placing himself, his son, and his pregnant wife Katie, at terrible risk by staying in the plague-ridden Wittenberg.

The Wittenberg plague lasted about four to five months.[5] During this time Luther’s son John became sick. The wife of the Bürgermeister (mayor) died—almost in Luther’s own arms.[6] Moreover, the pregnant wife of Luther’s friend, George Rörer, died—as did their unborn child.[7] These events took a toll on Luther. He opened up about this trial in a letter he wrote to his friend Justus Jonas (10 November 1527), not too long before the plague began to decrease in Wittenberg:

I am concerned about the delivery of my wife, so greatly has the example of the Deacon’s [George Rörer] wife terrified me. But He who is mighty has done great things for me; and so the endurance of great things also is required of me. May my Christ, whom I have purely taught and confessed, be my rock and fortress. Amen. My little John cannot now send his greetings to you because of his illness, but he desires your prayers for him. Today is the twelfth day that he has eaten nothing; he has been somehow sustained only by liquids. Now he is beginning to eat a little bit. It is wonderful to see how this infant wants to be happy and strong as usual, but he cannot because he is too weak ... We hope for the end of the plague. Farewell, and give a kiss to your son and a hug to his mother, and remember us in your prayers.[8]

These early November weeks of the plague were definitely a difficult and bittersweet time for the Luther household. In the midst of all this affliction, the tenth anniversary of the posting of the Ninety-five Theses also passed. Some scholars have argued that it was during these weeks of plague-ridden death, risk, stress, and heartache, that Luther penned this majestic and comforting hymn Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God). Yet, it is true that the precise dating of this hymn is difficult to determine.[9] It could certainly fit with such a context as the plague.[10]In our day, it has already become a regular hymn of choice during the trials of our plague—COVID-19.

It was however, sometime before the plague struck Wittenberg that Johann Hess wrote to Luther with a question raised by clergy in Breslau: was it proper for Christians to flee such deadly plagues? Initially, Luther did not respond, probably due to ill health.[11] However, Hess again wrote to him. Thus, Luther began to reply by the end of July 1527, with his letter, Ob man vor dem Sterben fliehen möge (Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague).[12] Yet, it was only a matter of weeks before the plague struck Wittenberg, and quite understandably, this reply was interrupted.[13] When Luther did begin to write his reply again, he was a changed man.[14] He had now experienced the dreaded plague, and understood the risks, first-hand. It should be no surprise then, that during subsequent epidemics, not only his hymn (A Mighty Fortress), but also this letter has,enjoyed a wide circulation, particularly in times of pestilence.”[15]

When to Help

In the midst of a deadly plague, how do we know when to help our neighbours? This is made more challenging by the requirements of social distancing and infection control measures. On what do we base our decision? Before Luther clarifies what we could call his “criterion,” he first delineates between two types of people. The first group are those who stay in plague-ridden areas because they view the plague as God’s rightful punishment, and claim to stay on the basis of faith. These people hold to the fatalistic view of God’s judgement—doing nothing to help their neighbour. But Luther criticises this reasoning, by comparing it to a burning house where no-one rushes out to save those in the house, because they selfishly resolved it was God’s punishment.[16] “Ultimately,” Luther writes in view of this attitude, “such talk will lead to the point where we abbreviate the Lord’s Prayer and no longer pray, ‘deliver us from evil, Amen.’”[17]

The second group are those who believe it is proper to flee provided they do not hold public office. Luther allows that there may be times when people flee—not to disobey God—but due to differing levels of faith. However, Luther also notes that there are some who flee in disobedience to the Word of God. For Luther, this would be like someone giving up on their confession of Christ in order to escape prison and punishment.[18]

Luther writes that pastors, in particular, should remain steadfast in the face of death as a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep—even though the hireling flees (John 10:11–12).[19] Why should pastors stay? Luther answers,

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.[20]

It is not just pastors, however, who are held to this high account, but also those who hold public office.[21]

Luther now identifies the criterion that allows for both preachers, and those in public office, to flee. The criterion being, that there must be enough preachers and public officials left behind to help provide their respective services.[22] In other words, we can flee only when our neighbour is going to be afforded the care that they need—in our absence.[23] This same criterion then, Luther applies to all persons who owe service or duty to one another. This amounts to “loving thy neighbour 101” for Luther.[24]

Fleeing is not necessarily a bad thing, however. In fact, Luther admits that the desire to flee death is a “natural tendency.” He then cites examples from Scripture of men who fled, like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Uriah, Elijah and Moses. “All of them fled from death when it was possible and saved their lives…” he observes, but here is the crux, “…yet without depriving their neighbors of anything but first meeting their obligations toward them.”[25] Set out here then, is the basic criterion for all people on when we can flee, or when we must help. Does our fleeing deprive our neighbour of essential services?

Luther then concludes with a practical example of how we might consider when to help our neighbour:

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 [from responsibility], 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.”[26]

It is important to remember, that during COVID-19, we still have neighbours. If these neighbours are out of sight, they are probably out of mind. The temptation for us is to “flee” from the responsibility to our neighbours, under the guise of our own isolation. How do we know what our neighbours’ needs are if we have no contact with them? In order to ascertain that they have the care they need, we must maintain, or initiate, regular contact with them—now! But we must be mindful of how to make this contact safely.

Why to Help

At this point in his letter, Luther’s writing is interrupted, probably because of the arrival of the plague in Wittenberg.[27] The rest of the letter is written after the plague had hit, and here, Luther begins to analyse motives, to clarify why we help our neighbour. He writes:

A man who will not help or support others unless he can do so without affecting his safety or his property will never help his neighbor … No neighbor can live alongside another without risk to his safety, property, wife, or child … 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 …[28]

It might have been expected in this section written during the raging plague, that Luther might tone down some of his uncomfortably strong rhetoric. Rather it seems, this first-hand experience of the Wittenberg plague has in fact confirmed and substantiated his criterion to stay, despite the risk to Katie, their unborn child, the sickness of John, and the death of friends. His own monastery home had become a hospital for the sick.[29] This might explain why Luther suggested that able governments should maintain the hospitals, with Christians to help.[30] Where there are no hospitals, “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.”[31] But whatever the case, Luther practiced what he preached. We cannot flee the plague if it means fleeing our responsibility to our neighbour.

In a general sense, Luther does indeed view this plague as God’s punishment. Yet, not without its benefits. After all, it is not brought on just to chastise us, but 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.[32]

Moreover, we can even join the fight against the Devil by staying to help and love our neighbour![33] However, we need to check our motives. If someone stays to help—but for personal gain—this person “should not be surprised if eventually he is infected, disfigured, or even dies before he comes into possession of that estate or inheritance.”[34] Conversely, the person who cares for the sick because of love for their neighbour can have confidence that “God himself shall be his attendant and his physician, too. [If he were to get sick] What an attendant he is! What a physician!”[35]

Thus, Luther reaffirms the right motive:

…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.[36]

However, it is one thing to neglect our neighbours, but it is another thing to be “too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague.”[37] By this, Luther means disdaining the use of medicine, not avoiding people and places infected by the plague, and making a joke of the situation.[38] If harm comes to us because we neglect the use of intelligence or medicine, we are failing to rightly care for ourselves. Moreover, if we get sick due to our own negligence and then pass it on to our neighbours, we are hardly acting towards them in love. Luther wants us to see that our actions have consequences for our neighbours.[39] Worse than this, however, are those who wilfully and deliberately go around infecting others—or in our own day, deliberately coughing or spitting on health care workers. What should happen to them? Luther, uncomfortably for our ears today, calls for capital punishment.[40] Luther sums up our responsibility and urges us to re-centre our motives—why we help—in 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.[41]

Following the Lord’s command to love our neighbour will carry some cost to us. It may not be through the risk of catching COVID-19, but through the investment of our time and finance. If we love our neighbour, we will check on them; even if it means spending time on the phone, or going to the grocery store to purchase supplies for them. We do this not to gain from it personally but out of gratitude for what God, in Christ, has done for us.

How to Help

Luther concludes this letter to John Hess with some important instructions, which seem to have been attached at a later date.[42] They probably stem from lessons learned from the Wittenberg plague and are addressed as an open letter to all. Knowing when, and why we should help, Luther now provides us with, “how one should care and provide for the soul in time of death.” [43]

First, people need the Word. Thus, Luther says we must admonish people to “attend church and listen to the sermon, so that they learn through God’s word how to live and how to die.”[44] Luther would later teach, after the plague had subsided, that,

There is no plague worse for the church than a peace in which the Word of the Spirit and its diligent use are lacking. For the purpose of obtaining the true peace, however, we need nothing but the Word.[45]

However, those who have rejected the Word while in health should demonstrate, “remorse and repentance with great earnestness, tears, and lamentation.” That is, if they desire the sacrament, or want to be considered a Christian.[46]

Second, people need spiritual preparation. They should confess, take the sacrament, and reconcile with their neighbour before they die. There is no guarantee a pastor will be able to visit before death, thus:

Those who have been careless and negligent in these matters 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.[47]

Third, people need to be diligent to call a pastor early. It is evident Luther must have had experiences like this in Wittenberg:

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.[48]

Thus, we can see Luther’s very pastoral and practical intent as he concludes this letter. His practical instructions may seem a little blunt, but nonetheless, it should remind us of what is at stake in a plague, or in our COVID-19 pandemic: the Seele (soul). In the comfort of life, particularly in the West, the Church often spends her time and energy on things that will not last. And sadly, it might even take a pandemic to remind us of what is really important. Something which made Luther, the Seelsorger (soul carer, i.e. pastor), decide not to flee—despite the risks!

Our neighbours are thus important, because they have a soul. COVID-19 will force many to question the meaning and purpose of life. This means we should use our opportunities to comfort believers with the Word, and to proclaim the Word to our unbelieving neighbours. We can do this online, on the phone, or over the fence. We can even put people in touch with pastors, and online church services. Whatever the medium available to us—even if it is the “old fashioned” pen, paper, and letterbox drop—let us use this time of trial for the glory of God.


We must end where we started with the question, why did Luther not flee from a deadly plague? First, because to do so, Luther would have deprived his neighbours. Second, because he was motivated by God’s command to love our neighbour. Third, because Luther, the Seelsorger, knew the importance of providing pastoral care to dying souls. This is why Luther did not flee.

Today, we are living in a different context, however, we still have neighbours. We might be isolated from them, but we cannot flee our responsibility to them. With the development of medical science and technology, we also have the ability to provide care to these neighbours at a distance. We may not need to have hospitals in our own homes, but we can ensure our neighbours are not deprived of contact, love, and the Word—spoken, read, prayed, and preached, whether from 2 meters, or 1000 kilometres away. In all this, may we stand firm on the fact that: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott! (A Mighty Fortress is our God!). Luther concludes his letter with these words and prayer; may it also be ours today:

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.[49]

Rev. Nathan Runham is a former RAAF Nursing Officer, now RAAF Chaplain and an ordained Presbyterian minister. Currently, he is a PhD candidate (part-time) with PTC Melbourne, and his research area is Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation and the 'theologian of the cross.'

[1] In 1542 Luther writes, “I have now lived through three pestilences and have visited several persons who suffered from this sickness.” Martin Luther, Luther's Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955–72), 54:434. (Hereafter cited as LW)

[2] LW 43:115.

[3] Only Bugenhagen stayed with Luther, whereas Jonas and Melanchthon took their families and fled the plague. See, Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (New York: Rendom House, 2017), 307. Luther writes in Nov 1517, “Pomer [Bugenhagen] sends greetings; he is my only companion, since all others have gone because of fear of the plague.” LW 49:179.

[4] Worthing writes, “The university was closed and nearly all its students fled the town, along with any healthy citizens who had the financial means to do so.” Mark Worthing, Martin Luther: A Wild Boar in the Lord's Vineyard (Northcote: Morning Star, 2017), 89.

[5] Luther expresses hope in a letter to Justus Jonas in Dec 1527 that the plague is subsiding, “I wish you could come here just to walk with me through town, so that you could see that the plague did no harm, thanks be to God. Only two are left in the hospital, and they are convalescing well. Neither the doctor nor the deacons are busy with sick people in town, which of course is a definite sign that the plague has ceased.” LW 49:181.

[6] LW 43:115.

[7] LW 43:115–16.

[8] LW 49:173–75. Although Luther’s daughter Elizabeth arrived safely in December, sadly she died in August 1528. See, LW 49:181, 203.

[9] See the discussion in Andreas Loewe and Katherine R. Firth, “Martin Luther’s ‘Mighty Fortress,’” Lutheran Quarterly 32, no. 2 (2018): 128–29.

[10] LW 49:175, fn. 26; cf. Georg Scriba, “The 16th Century Plague and the Present Aids Pandemic: A Comparison of Martin Luther's Reaction to the Plague and the Hiv/Aids Pandemic in Southern Africa Today,’ Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 126 (2006), 73.

[11] In a letter dated 13 Jul 1517, Luther writes to Nicholas Hausmann, “I have had a severe fainting spell, so that even now my head compels me to abstain from reading and writing.” LW 49:169.

[12] Or literally, “…flee from Death”. The “deadly plague” is inserted for context. LW 43:119–138. See also, Martin Luther, D. Martin Luthers Werke (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883-), 23:323–386.

[13] There is a break in the script that probably occurred late July or early August. Luther did not recommence writing until September. LW 43:125, fn. 15. As a result of the plague, Luther’s newly commenced lectures on Isaiah were also paused. See, LW 16:ix. Instead, Luther expounded the letter of 1 John to those who remained, a letter that “…can buoy up afflicted hearts” which is quite appropriate given the circumstances. LW 30:xi, 219.

[14] Scriba suggests, “His response was more academic before the Plague ravaged Wittenberg, and then became more spiritual and pastoral after the Plague had engulfed his own town.” See Scriba, “The 16th Century Plague,” 70.

[15] LW 43:117.

[16] LW 43:124–25.

[17] LW 43:125.

[18] LW 43:120–21.

[19] Luther said in his 1 John lectures during the plague, “For just as Christ laid down His life and the apostles laid down their lives, so we, too, should lay down our lives, namely, for the strengthening of the faith of the brethren. There are also other occasions, as, for example, when there is a pestilence. Then preachers should remain, in order that they may lay down their lives for the brethren.” LW 30:277–78.

[20] LW 43:121.

[21] “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.” LW 43:121.

[22] LW 43:121–22.

[23] LW 43:122.

[24] See Matt 25:41–46. “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.” LW 43:123.

[25] LW 43:123–24.

[26] LW 43:125.

[27] We should note that the year 1527 was probably one of the most difficult years in Luther’s life. See the translator’s introduction to Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper for the discussion. LW 37:155.

[28] LW 43:126.

[29] Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, 307.

[30] LW 43:126.

[31] Luther continues, “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.’” LW 43:127.

[32] LW 43:127.

[33] In fact, Luther identifies “two blows” to use against the Devil, “thefirst one is that I know that helping my neighbor is a deed well-pleasing to God and all the angels…”, and the second blow is, “God’s mighty promise by which he encourages those who minister to the needy. He says in Psalm 41, ‘Blessed is he who considers the poor.’” LW 43:128.

[34] LW 43:129.

[35] LW 43:129.

[36]LW 43:131. See also, Matthew 22:39.

[37] LW 43:131. It is hard to reconcile Luther’s own advice here, with Roper’s initial scepticism regarding Luther’s motives for staying: “Luther’s decision to remain in Wittenberg was bold, but also revealed a reckless disregard for his own safety and that of his family. It may have been a residue of his wish for martyrdom, or, perhaps, another example of the remarkable courage that enabled him not to shirk what he felt to be his pastoral responsibility to his flock.” Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, 307–308.

[38] Luther continues, “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.” LW 43:131.

[39] Anderson writes, “Luther regards those who reject disease prevention as people courting suicide, just as though they refused to eat. Worse, such people may also infect others in the process, making their actions murderous.” Per Anderson, “Reading Luther on Plague in a Technological Age,” Word & World 13, no. 3 (1993), 280.

[40] Apparently, one of the motives for wilfully spreading the disease was related to a medieval superstition that one could rid them self of the disease if they infected others. See, LW 43:133.

[41] LW 43:131–32.

[42] LW 43:134, fn.16.

[43] LW 43:134.

[44] LW 43:134. Of course, this goes against social distancing laws. Yet, it can still be fulfilled in our situation, through the use of online church services.

[45] LW 16:342.

[46] LW 43:134.

[47] LW 43:134–35.

[48] LW 43:135.

[49] LW 43:138.