Bubonic Plague was an ongoing epidemic that sickened and killed many in Europe and beyond beginning in the mid-fourteenth century and continuing in the days of Martin Luther's sixteenth-century Germany. The pneumonic form of the disease was particularly dangerous because it entered the lungs and was spread by coughing. When this happened the fatality rate was nearly 100%.
Martin Luther's treatise on whether one may flee when plague strikes was prompted by a request from the clergy of Breslau, who wondered whether a Christian could flee home and labors on account of the plague. Luther's pragmatic response focused on a Christian's responsibility to care for the sick and to use the means God gives to limit the plague's destruction. He lauded those who can face the plague without fear of death, but he emphasized that those with "weak faith" can flee in good conscience as long as they are not needed to care for someone or to maintain a public service. Luther used the occasion for the treatise to talk about the need for hospitals and public cemeteries outside the city center.
Anna Marie Johnson introduces Luther's treatise and provides insightful annotations to help the reader understand Luther's text and his sixteenth century context. The parallels to the recent Covid pandemic and other epidemic diseases are striking. Though science and medicine have advanced greatly today, questions of ethical responsibilities are still with us, and Christians continue to wonder what faithful responses to pandemic should be.