History of Faith in a Time of Plague
When the Black Death passed through Europe, coming across the Asian steppes and through trading ships in Constantinople, it visited Athens, the ports of Italy, and then north into the heart of Europe. In just one day, the infection could show signs of fever, delirium, speech disorders, and loss of consciousness. A healthy person could die within as little as three to ten days. Mortality statistics range as wide as 30–90% of populations devastated. When it struck, it touched every aspect of one’s life. Whole towns had disappeared. It profoundly impacted the culture of Europe, its art, literature, and folk customs.
In 1348, people watched helplessly as their family died. Where were they to place their faith? By 1359 the Black Death seemed to have passed. But it hadn’t gone away; it would pass in successive waves for another 400 years. Just 180 years after the initial outbreak, the epidemic came back through Germany and infected the new University town.
In August of 1527, the Plague struck Wittenberg powerfully, and many people fled the city in fear of their lives. Friends strongly urged the University professor and his pregnant wife to leave. His prince ordered him to depart immediately to save his own life. Virtually all of his students had left the city. He had suffered for the last year with dizzy spells and buzzing in his ears. That summer, he had a severe attack of cerebral anemia. And then came the bouts of great depression and despair. His wife was carrying their first daughter, and the townspeople called for them to flee. The 44-year-old professor argued that it was not wrong for a person to value their life so that they did not remain, but only so long as the sick had someone of greater faith than they themselves, who would care for them.
“Yes, no one should dare leave his neighbor unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them. In such cases we must respect the word of Christ, ‘I was sick and you did not visit me …’ Matt. 25:41–46. According to this passage we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.”
He and his wife Katharina opened their own house, a large converted former Augustinian monastery, as a ward for the infected, at the same time recognizing the opportunity to share the love of Christ to those who were days from their own death. They would treat the infected day in and day out, not knowing if they would also contract the Plague and succumb to death. They watched friends, neighbors, and family members die from the Plague. His mayor’s wife virtually died in his arms. Then their 16-month old son Hans contracted the Plague.
He recognized that the real Plague was the destruction of social relationships caused by fear of the disease.
The professor argued that it would be better for hospitals with trained staff to care for the sick, to whom the faithful should offer generous contributions. If they were not to be found:
“…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. Thus it is written in God’s word and command, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’
The Plague lasted only until November of that year. His son survived. His daughter Elisabeth, who just barely escaped the Plague, was born in December of 1527, only to die eight months later.
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly pow’rs, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth;
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
Luther wrote his hymn based on a passage from a book he frequently taught at the University, the Book of Psalms, Chapter 46:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble…
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Atop the Castle Church in Wittenberg, where Luther taught at the University, above the door where he nailed his 95 theses, where he preached for many years, and where his body now lies are these words wrapped around the high turret:
Ein feste burg ist unser Gott
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian