Lockdowns and Luther, and other wisdom on pestilence

Christians from the past have wisdom for us.

Luther’s sermon “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague” comes from a time when removing oneself was the main way to avoid disease. (He was writing at a time when the plague was an epidemic – that is there were places to go where there was no disease, unlike a pandemic where a disease is widespread.)

Luther gives this advice which reasonably translates into our time of social distancing, masks and vaccination. “If in the Old Testament God himself ordered lepers to be banished from the community and compelled to live outside the city to prevent contamination [Leviticus 13–14], we must do the same with this dangerous pestilence so that anyone who becomes infected will stay away from other persons, or allow himself to be taken away and given speedy help with medicine.”

But he also addresses a class or “weak Christians.”

“To begin with, some people are of the firm opinion that one need not and should not run away from a deadly plague. Rather, since death is God’s punishment, which he sends upon us for our sins, we must submit to God and with a true and firm faith patiently await our punishment.”

Perhaps that is similar to the “Jesus blood is our vaccine” sign we saw at recent demos. Luther careful to point that the conscience of all should be respected.

For Luther, the duty towards the sick neighbour is the reason to stay.  But otherwise “To flee from death and to save one’s life is a natural tendency, implanted by God and not forbidden unless it be against God and neighbour, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 4 [5:29], “No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it.” He goes on to give many Scriptural examples of people getting out of the way of danger.

Another part of his sermon speaks to us. Whatever we do, we can never eliminate risk. The chief remedy against the plague in his day was to flee but that was uncertain. “If a man is free, however, and can escape, let him commend himself and say, ‘Lord God,I am weak and fearful. Therefore I am running away from evil and am doing what I can to protect myself against it. I am nevertheless in thy hands in this danger as in any other which might overtake me. Thy will be done.'”

Taking prudent care of one’s body, including taking advantage of what medicine is available is also the subject of English puritan Thomas Watson (c. 1620 – 1686) in his Body of Divinity.

“Thou shalt not hurt thy own body.  One may be guilty of self-murder…  Indirectly and occasionally, as: First, When a man thrusts himself into danger which he might prevent; as if a company of archers were shooting, and one
should go and stand in the place where the arrows fly, if the arrow did kill him, he is accessory to his own death.

“In the law, God would have the leper shut up, to keep others from being infected. Lev. 23:4.  Now, if any would be so presumptuous as to go into the leper, and get the plague of leprosy, he might thank himself; he occasioned his own death.

“Secondly, A person may be in some sense guilty of his own death, by neglecting the use of means.  If sick, and use no physic, if he has received a wound and will not apply balsam, he hastens his own death.  God appointed Hezekiah to lay a ” lump of figs upon the boil,” Isa. 38:21.  If he had not used the lump of figs, he had been the cause of his own death.”

On social distancing

An example from Edinburgh – George Wishart was a forerunner of John Knox:

“A contemporary chronicler informs us that in August 1545 a fatal pestilence visited all the burghs of Scotland…  He [Wishart] was urged to resume his public ministrations, but as those who attended the sick or exhibited symptoms of ailment were carefully avoided, there was difficulty in arranging matters.

Wishart proposed to preach from the East Port, the sick and suspected being accommodated without, and those in health within the walls.  The proposal was accepted, and the preacher discoursed from the 20th verse of the 107th Psalm: ”He sent His Word and healed them.”

Charles Rogers, Life of George Wishart, the Scottish Martyr...  (Edinburgh, 1876), pp. 24-25

A more famous example is Eyam, the village that sacrificed themselves to the plague, isolating themselves so it did not spread to others.

“During the bubonic plague outbreak of 1665-6, the inhabitants of Eyam quarantined themselves, in a famous act of self-sacrifice, to prevent the spread of the plague. Villagers would come to place money in six holes drilled into the top of the boundary stone to pay for food and medicine left by their anxious neighbours,” The Guardian recounts.

“By the end of the outbreak, more than a quarter of the village’s population of almost 1,000 were dead. The plague, however, was contained.”

It was an act of Christian charity. William Mompesson (1639 – 7 March 1709) was the local Anglican minister, who with other local pastors led the isolation of the village. Mompesson filled the hollows in the boundary stone where coins were left to pay for food delivered from outside, to prevent transmission. It was his form of contactless delivery.

On doing Church differently

Eternity has quoted Baxter previously to the effect that Government restrictions on church gatherings in pestilence should be followed provided they treat churches in the same way as other gatherings.

But here is a great example of being flexible. Instead of church gatherings a poster (in an age when printing was new technology.)

” When the grievous plague began at London, I printed a half-sheet (to stick on a wall) for the use of the ignorant and ungodly who were sick, or in danger of the sickness: (for the godly I thought had less need, and would read those large books, which are plentifully among us). 

And I the rather did it, because many well-winded people that are about the sick, that are ignorant and unprepared, and know not what to say to them, may not only read so short a paper to them, but see there in what method such persons are to be dealt with in such a case of extremity, that they may themselves enlarge as they see cause.”

Short Instructions for the Sick: Especially who by Contagion, or otherwise, are deprived of the Presence of a Faithful Pastor  (London, 1665)