It has been more than 500 years since German monk Martin Luther’s words went viral, thanks to what was then some cutting-edge technology.
In 1517, Luther’s famed 95 Theses helped spark the Protestant Reformation after they were distributed far and wide with the help of the printing press, the 16th century’s version of social media.
Now his advice from a later letter, written in the midst of a 1527 pandemic, once again is making the rounds.
Quotes from the letter appeared on social media as the COVID-19 pandemic upended life earlier this year.
Every once in a while, people actually pay attention to Luther’s words, said the Rev. Kurt Hendel, the Bernard, Fischer, Westberg Distinguished Ministry Professor Emeritus of Reformation History at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
And what the reformer had to say in his 1527 letter, later published as a treatise, is “strikingly relevant” today, said Hendel, who spoke at the Friday session.
Luther wrote that letter in the midst of an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Wittenberg, according to the professor emeritus. He was responding to a Lutheran leader in Breslau, who asked whether a Christian ought to leave a city in the midst of a plague outbreak for someplace safer.
In his treatise, Luther wrote:
“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. … See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”
Those who are responsible for the spiritual and physical well-being of others must not flee an outbreak, but rather stay and care for people in the midst of it, Luther advised.
However, they also must be careful not to make matters worse.
Just as Luther recommended that his readers take and administer medicine, Hendel recommended Christians follow today’s science. And just as Luther — in characteristically colorful language — called those who did not take care not to become infected or to infect others “murderers,” the professor emeritus encouraged Christians to wear face masks and to weigh what God was calling them to do in this moment.
“Love for neighbor is the ultimate criterion that Christians must use as they choose what to think and plan and do — not only during a time of pandemic, but in all times, in all aspects of their lives,” Hendel said.