Martin Luther on those who do not take precautions during a plague: “They are responsible before God for their neighbors death and a murderer many times over.”

What did Martin Luther think about those who act irresponsibly during public health crisis? Below is a piece by Mark Schwehn, Professor of Humanities in Christ College, the Honors College of Valparaiso University. Schwehn is perhaps best known as the founder of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso and the author of Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation (Oxford, 1993), Everyone a Teacher (Notre Dame, 2000) and with Dorothy C. Bass Leading Lives That Matter (Eerdmans, 2005, 2020). Enjoy! -JF

What should we say to those Protestants who, in the name of God and their own understanding of Christian freedom, choose to ignore or distort medical advice, to question science, to refuse to take what are thought to be elementary precautions, and who thereby endanger their neighbors? The founder of the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther had a simple answer to this question. Such people should be told in no uncertain terms that they are bound for hell and damnation.

The quotation below is taken directly from a pastoral letter written by Martin Luther in 1527 in response to a request from a Lutheran pastor about how Christians should respond in a time of bubonic plague. The outbreak of the plague reached Wittenberg in 1527, where Luther remained while others fled in order to minister to the physical and spiritual health of those afflicted with plague. He invited several townspeople into his home to care for them at great risk to himself and his family. His only son Hans contracted by plague but survived. His pregnant wife Katie gave birth to a daughter Elizabeth who died after eight months, doubtless weakened by exposure in utero to plague or by her mother’s stress and fatigue.

Luther insists throughout his letter that pastors, health care workers, and civil magistrates whose vocations require care for the suffering must not abandon their posts. And he is highly critical of those who flee unless they have made adequate provision for their replacements. He reserves his harshest words, however, for those fellow Wittenburg citizens who act irresponsibly.

Others [those who take no precautions] 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 afflicted with the plague, but instead lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. . . . 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 they make no use of intelligence or medicine when they could do so without detriment to their neighbors such people injure their bodies and must beware lest they become a suicide in God’s eyes. By the same reasoning they might forgo eating and drinking, clothing and shelter, and boldly proclaim their faith that if God wanted to preserve them from starvation and cold, he could do so without food and clothing. Actually that would be suicide. It is even more shameful for them to pay no heed to their own bodies and to fail to protect them against the plague the best they are able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if they had taken care of their bodies as they should have. They are thus responsible before God for their neighbors death and a murderer many times over Indeed, such people behave as though a house were burning in the city and nobody was 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. (SOURCE: Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Osward, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 119-138).

Luther did not refer to suicide lightly, since it was then regarded by Christians as an unforgivable sin. In sum, he would regard many Protestants today as nothing less than murderers and suicides. In other words the founder of the Protestant Reformation would today have been much, much harder on Christians who refused to wear masks or maintain social distance or avoid large gatherings than anyone in the CDC or the Democratic Party