Thursday, September 5, 2013

Remembering Albert Schweitzer

One of the outstanding persons of the twentieth century died 48 years ago yesterday. That was Albert Schweitzer, who passed away at the age of 90.
Schweitzer was born in 1875 in a town that had been part of France until the region was annexed by Germany four years earlier. By 1900 he had become a noted organist, had completed his doctor of philosophy degree, and was a Lutheran minister and seminary professor.
In 1904, though, Schweitzer felt God’s call to become a missionary to Africa. But he decided that in order to serve best in the jungles of Africa he should become a doctor, so he entered medical school. Upon completion of his medical training, but before leaving Europe, he then had to raise money to equip a clinic.
Finally, on Good Friday in 1913, Dr. Albert and his wife Helene, a nurse, set sail for Africa. They immediately began their medical work in Lambaréné, a small outpost in what was then known as French Equatorial Africa and now as the country Gabon. They soon were overwhelmed with patients.
It was not long, though, before World War I began. Since the Schweitzers were German citizens, they were seen as enemies of the French, who ruled the country to which they had gone. So they were placed under house arrest, and then in 1917 were moved to an internment camp in France.
By the time the war ended in 1918, their mission in Lambaréné had been destroyed and they were heavily in debt for medicines and supplies ordered for an African hospital that no longer existed.
During his first years in Africa, Schweitzer began to emphasize “reverence for life,” which became one of his “trademarks.” That emphasis is similar to a central idea in Buddhism, and there is even a Buddhist temple in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, that bears Schweitzer’s name. June and I enjoyed visiting there several years ago.
In 1924 Schweitzer journeyed back to Africa and started from scratch once again. This time his work flourished—and gradually became known around the world. Dr. Albert became so well known and his emphasis on reverence for life so admired that in 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Worldwide attention and acclaim led some to look for flaws in Schweitzer, and, indeed, there did seem to be some. In the 1950s he was accused, perhaps rightfully, of being paternalistic, colonialistic and even racist in his attitude towards Africans.
Still, those who leveled such criticisms had not labored or suffered anything close to the extent that Schweitzer had. And they certainly had not done nearly as much to help so many people in physical need.
Once when asked how he had accomplished so much, the old doctor responded by repeating what he had earlier told some of his students: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”
Those are certainly words well worth considering as we remember with appreciation the long and productive life of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who died on September 4, 1965.
Note – Recently read/viewed and recommended: “Albert Schweitzer: Serving a Higher Calling,” chapter 15 in Ace Collins, Stories behind Men of Faith (2009) and “Albert Schweitzer: Called to Africa” (2006 film).


  1. A local Thinking Friend early this morning wrote about being confronted by a friend who was very opposed to his going dove hunting. (The opening day this year was Sunday, September 1st.)

    Here is what I wrote him in response:

    While I admire much of what Albert Schweitzer did, I have never been a supporter of his "reverence for life" emphasis--or of the similar concept in Buddhism.

    In the latter, it is thought that the "Buddha nature" is present in all sentient beings, so all life must be considered "sacred."

    But as a Christian, I believe that (only) humans have been created in the image of God and that human life is qualitatively different from the life of animals and other living beings.

    I am not for the wanton killing of animals, or birds, or for the misuse (destruction) of the environment.

    But I do not see anything ethically questionable about dove hunting, even though Dr. Albert would probably not have approved of it.

  2. Another local Thinking Friend wrote,

    "How redeeming it is that the context of colonial paternalism in which Schweitzer fulfilled his desire to serve God was not the dominant or final historical assessment of his life."

    When I shared this with June, she wrote back, "For sure!"

  3. Dr. Glenn Hinson, my esteemed Thinking Friend in Kentucky, just now wrote:

    "Thanks, Leroy. Schweitzer was truly a great soul. Douglas Steere once spent two weeks in Lambarene; he revered Schweitzer. As he prepared for the visit, S. wrote, 'Don't forget the leather gloves.' He expected Douglas to work!"

    (Dr. Hinson is the author of "Love at the Heart of Things: A Biography of Douglas V. Steere" (1998). Steere, 1901-95 was an outstanding Quaker Christian.)

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  5. Many thanks for spotlighting the good Dr. in your post today, Leroy. I particularly appreciate him for many reasons: (1) He was a New Testament scholar, who wrote a book in 1906, translated in English under the title _The Quest of the Historical Jesus_. Over a hundred years later, we're still wrestling with this book! He concludes his 400-page study with these words: "The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence." For Schweitzer, Jesus was a disillusioned apocalypticist who "threw himself on the wheels of history and was crushed by them." Schweitzer goes on to speak of Jesus as "spiritually arisen in" people, which leads me to another reason why I appreciate Schweitzer: (2) This "spirit of the Risen Jesus" apparently led him to give up his academic career, become a physician, and take up his "great work" in central Africa. I taught in east Africa in 2011 and will go back there later this year. (I plan to remain an academic!) (3) I appreciate Schweitzer's "reverence for life," which has many similarities to my own Quaker thought. (Glenn Hinson notes above that Quaker theologian Douglas Steere spent time with Schweitzer in Africa.) (4) While at Southern Baptist Seminary in the late 70s or early 80s, I reported on Schweitzer's autobiography _Out of My Life and Thought_ (1953) for our World Peacemakers group. It's quite a testament! Thanks again for bringing attention to this "great soul."

    1. Michael, I have failed until now to reply to your comments about Schweitzer and his theological writings. I didn't say anything about book about the historical Jesus, mainly because I didn't want to make the article any longer, but I appreciate you writing about that important part of his life's work.

  6. Having grown up just south of some of his legendary humanitarian medical work, I heard of some of his efforts.

    Regardless of ones religion/ theology it is hard to sneeze at good works done for the good of humanity. He never claimed to be a messiah, so I won't hold perceived wrong motives or thinking against him. I'll just be thankful for the good he did, and the good example he set.

  7. Thank you Leroy Seat. I have always been fascinated by Albert Schweitzer and have read material about him though it was years ago and my memory fails me.