During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, an old quote attributed to 16th-century German theologian Martin Luther rose to prominence online, especially among Christians, as millions of people walked through the disruption and the difficulties caused by the virus.
In memes, social media posts, and blog posts posted by various churches, roughly the same words were included, and the quote was generally described as deriving from a letter Luther wrote to Johan Hess, in the context of the black plague:
That is why I will ask God to protect us with mercy. Then I will smoke, I will help to purify the air, I will administer medicines and I will take them… If God wants to take me, he will surely find me, and I did what he expected of me. If my neighbor needs me, however, I will not avoid anyone or any place, but I will go freely.
– Martin Luther. “That we can escape a deadly plague?” “
This quote was accurate and has been rightly attributed to Luther, a key figure in the Protestant Reformation who died in 1546. As such, we publish a “Correct Attribution” note. However, the memes omitted parts of the same letter in which Luther warned Christians not to risk their own health and that of others unnecessarily or needlessly, stating that such behavior was morally equivalent to “suicide” and to a “murder”.
The original source for Luther’s thoughts on the bubonic plague that devastated Europe in the Middle Ages was his letter of 1527 to another leader of the Reformation.
That summer and that fall, according to a collection of Luther’s 1968 writings, the plague hit the German city of Wittenberg hard, the site of the university where Luther was chairman of the theological department.
300 kilometers east, in Breslau, now the city of Wrocław in present-day Poland, Luther’s fellow reformers questioned whether it was appropriate for Christians to flee a hotbed of bubonic plague. and wrote to Luther for advice. His response came in the form of an open letter to Johann Hess, a Reformation leader in Breslau.
The letter can be read in its German original, here, and an English translation by Carl Schindler can be read in full here. It was completed around November 1527 and turned into a widely distributed 14-page brochure.
In it, Luther encourages Christians who have a duty to protect others, such as sick relatives or neighbors, to stay and care for them. However, he advises anyone who does not have such responsibilities to flee from the plague, rather than tempt the wrath of God by exposing themselves to it unnecessarily.
Sections included in widely shared memes and online posts during COVID-19 can be found near the end of the letter. As translated by Schindler, Luther wrote:
You should think like this, “All right, by decree of God the enemy sent us poison and deadly giblet. That is why I will mercifully ask God to protect us. Then I will smoke, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I will avoid places and people where my presence is not necessary so as not to be contaminated and thus possibly infect and pollute others, and thus cause their death as a result of my negligence.
“If God wants to take me he will surely find me and I did what he expects of me and therefore I am not responsible for my own death or that of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I will not avoid the place or the person but will go freely, As stated above… ” [Emphasis is added].
Strikingly, the widely shared memes and online posts in 2020 and 2021 clearly omitted those passages from that section of Luther’s letter that cautioned Christians not to risk unnecessarily exposing themselves or themselves. other people with the plague.
For example, the memes omitted the sentence that states “I will avoid places and people where my presence is unnecessary so as not to be contaminated and thus possibly infect and pollute others.”
Whether deliberate or not, the result of these omissions was likely to leave the reader with the distorted impression that Luther’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic could have been to avoid social distancing, face masking and other mitigation strategies. In fact, earlier in the letter he bluntly condemned those who risklessly risk their health and the health of others, establishing a moral equivalence between “suicide” and “murder.” Luther wrote:
They are far too reckless and reckless, tempting God and ignoring anything that could thwart death and pestilence. They advise against the use of drugs; they do not avoid places and people infected with the plague, but scoff at it lightly and want to prove their independence. They say it’s God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them, he can do so without drugs or our vigilance. It is not to trust God but to tempt him. God created medicines and provided us with the intelligence to keep and take good care of our bodies so that we can live healthy lives.
If one does not use intelligence or medicine when he could do so without harming his neighbor, such a person injures his body and must be careful not to become a suicide in the sight of God. By the same reasoning, a person can give up eating and drinking, dressing and sheltering, and boldly proclaim his faith that if God wanted to save him from starvation and cold, he could do so without food and clothes. In fact, it would be suicide.
It is even more shameful for a person to not pay attention to their own body and protect it from the plague as best they can, and then infect and poison others who could have stayed alive. if he had taken care of his body the way he should have. He is thus responsible before God for the death of his neighbor and is a murderer on several occasions.