Church Culture Life Theology

What would Luther do in an Ebola epidemic?

I often like to ask myself how various important historical figures would respond to the events and values of our world today. Would Adam Smith really hold fast to a market economy guided by the “invisible hand” when millions of children die every year from disease and starvation? How would Churchill deal with the growing threat that ISIS poses to religious freedom and global security? These are interesting questions that we should think about, especially since history can often shed some light on current day crises. “The world is on fire” — as the popular phrase goes. As people of faith, how should we respond?

We recognize the suffering (and fear) in West Africa as Ebola spreads with little sign of slowing. The world community has to act, and it has to act now. No doubt we have the resources, but its organizing those resources effectively and efficaciously that needs to work. Thankfully, countries like the United States, Canada and others have stepped up funding to lead the global effort in combating this heinous disease. Some have died on the front lines caring for the sick — and we should ask God to bless these people who have put others before themselves.

What should Christians be doing to help? We can sit back and let governments and medical professionals take on the disease through on-the-ground isolation centres, experimental vaccines, education and all other modern interventions that we hope will end the spread of Ebola. We can — and should — pray that these efforts work. We should give financially to organizations whose workers are risking their lives to care for the sick and and to help stop the virus from spreading.

If these efforts should fail, God help us, how should we respond to a creeping Ebola epidemic in other areas of the world? Personally, I don’t know how I would (or should) respond if it were to surface more close to home. Maybe I would move my family to the countryside; get as far away as possible from major urban centres. I would probably listen to what the government and health care professionals tell me I should do. And that almost certainly would not, I don’t think, include turning my house into a hospital or volunteering on the front lines to care for the sick and help contain the outbreak. I don’t know what I would do. I don’t have a theology of epidemic. Do you?

It’s in times like these — when the world is on fire and we don’t know what to do — that we can study those who have gone before us and learn what they would do as Christian leaders in similar situations.

You may know the story of Martin Luther. It was August 2, 1527. The Reformation was well established and moving like wild fire throughout Germany and parts of Europe. But it wasn’t the only thing moving like wildfire at that time. On that day, the bubonic plague struck Wittenberg, where Martin Luther lived and worked as a pastor and professor.

The suffering that this sickness caused was dreadful and left a “deep emotional imprint” on Europe (Wiencke 1968, 115). On the first day of being infected by the plague, a person would experience a fever, rapid pulse, delirium and in extreme cases, speech disorders and a loss of consciousness (Wiencke 1968, 115). On the second day, large black boils would appear on a person’s body, usually on the neck or under the armpits.

What would happen in many cases is that these boils would infect the blood stream through a person’s lymph glands, and in a matter of hours could cause death. It’s estimated that the mortality rate during these epidemics could be as high as ninety percent (Wiencke 1968, 115). The fear that this caused in Germany led many people to flee for safety, leaving the sick alienated and helpless. What a terrible situation people had to face.

Luther was ordered to leave by Elector John Frederick, along with other university professors, but unlike most, he decided to stay behind to serve the sick and afraid residents of his town. In Wittenberg that year, nineteen people died of the plague; one died literally in Luther’s arms (Wiencke 1968, 116). Luther opened his house to the sick, including a whole family of another clergyman whose pregnant wife sadly lost her life along with her baby as well (Wiencke 1968, 116). He literally transformed his house into a hospital, knowing that at any moment, he too could become sick and have to face death.

In one of his letters speaking about his experience, Luther said that there were “battles without and terrors within” (Luther 1968, 116). He was afraid. Deeply afraid. So, why did Luther choose to stay behind, putting his own life in danger, to serve the sick while most fled for fear of death? In an open letter to John Hess, Luther states that pastors, being in “spiritual ministry,” were to be like the good shepherd, whom Jesus said, ‘lays down his life for the sheep’ (rather than fleeing like the hired hand – John 10:11) during times of danger and distress (Luther 1968, 121).

For Luther, caring for the sick and dying was about selfless service, rooted in Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross, which caused him to stay behind and care for the sick during the plague.

“For when people are dying,” writes Luther, “they most need spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences…” (Luther 1968, 121).


All quotes taken from: Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works: Devotional Writings II. Edited by Gustav K. Wiencke. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1968.

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