Albert Schweitzer (14 January 1875 – 4 September 1965) was a German theologian, musician, philosopher, and physician. He was born in Kaysersberg in the province of Elsass-Lothringen (Alsace-Lorraine) of the German Empire. Schweitzer challenged both the secular view of Jesus as depicted by historical-critical methodology current at his time in certain academic circles, as well the traditional Christian view, depicting a Jesus Christ who expected and predicted the imminent end of the world. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life“, expressed in many ways, but most famously in founding and sustaining the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, now in Gabon, west central Africa (then French Equatorial Africa). As a music scholar and organist, he studied the music of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach and influenced the Organ reform movement (Orgelbewegung).
Schweitzer’s passionate quest was to discover a universal ethical philosophy, anchored in a universal reality, and make it directly available to all of humanity. This is reflected in some of his sayings, such as:
“Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace.”
“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
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Albert Schweitzer was born on 14 January 1875 in Kaysersberg, Alsace, the son of a Lutheran pastor.
He attended high school in Mulhausen (Mulhouse), Alsace.
From 1893 to 1899 he studied Philosophy and Protestant theology, first at the University of Strassburg (Strasbourg), then at the universities of Berlin, Paris, and University of Tübingen, where he completed his doctoral degree and published his Ph.D. in 1899.
In 1900 he became pastor of the Church of St. Nicolas in Strassburg, then in 1901, principal of the Theological Seminary in Strassburg.
In 1905 he completed The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung), a classic work of Biblical historical criticism (published in 1906). He then began to study for a medical degree.
In 1911, he completed his medical degree and published his medical dissertation.
In 1917 they came back to Europe for medical treatment. In 1919 their daughter Rhena was born. During World War I, the French made Schweitzer and his wife, both Germans, leave Africa.
In 1924 Schweitzer returned a second time to Lambaréné, this time without his wife. He would remain there off and on for the rest of his life, returning frequently to Europe for speaking engagements.
In 1931 he published his autobiography, Aus Meinem Leben und Denken (“Out Of My Life and Thought”).
In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel peace prize for the year 1952.
Schweitzer died on September 4, 1965, aged 90, in his own hospital in Lambaréné. His death was attributed to circulatory trouble brought on by his advanced age..
Born in Kaysersberg, Schweitzer spent his childhood in the village of Gunsbach, Alsace (German: Günsbach), where his father, the local Lutheran-Evangelical pastor, taught him how to play music. During Schweitzer’s youth, the region was a traditional part of Germany but following the treaties of World War I, it was assumed by France. The tiny village is home to the Association Internationale Albert Schweitzer (AIAS). The Günsbach, Medieval-era parish church was of a special Protestant-Catholic kind found in various places in Germany even today: it was shared by the two congregations, which held their prayers in different areas of the same church at different times on Sundays – a compromise made after the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years War. Schweitzer, the pastor’s son, grew up in this exceptional environment of religious tolerance, and developed the belief that true Christianity should always work towards a unity of faith and purpose.
Schweitzer’s home language was an Alsatian dialect of German. At Mülhausen (Mulhouse) high school he got his “Abitur” (the certificate at the end of secondary education), in 1893. He studied organ there from 1885-1893 with Eugène Munch, organist of the Protestant Temple, who inspired Schweitzer with his profound enthusiasm for the music of German composer Richard Wagner. In 1893 he played for the French organist Charles-Marie Widor (at Saint-Sulpice, Paris), for whom Johann Sebastian Bach’s organ-music contained a mystic sense of the eternal. Widor, deeply impressed, agreed to teach Schweitzer without fee, and a great and influential friendship was begun.
From 1893 he studied Protestant theology at the Kaiser Wilhelm Universität of Straßburg. There he also received instruction in piano and counterpoint from professor Gustav Jacobsthal, and associated closely with Ernest Munch (the brother of his former teacher), organist of St William church, who was also a passionate admirer of J.S. Bach’s music. Schweitzer did his one year’s obligatory military service in 1894. Schweitzer saw many operas of Richard Wagner at Straßburg (under Otto Lohse), and in 1896 he pulled together the funds to visit Bayreuth to see Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal, and was deeply affected. Soon afterwards he visited the new organ in the Liederhalle at Stuttgart, and, appalled by its lack of clarity, experienced another great realization. In 1898 he went back to Paris to write a Ph.D. dissertation on The Religious Philosophy of Kant at the Sorbonne, and to study in earnest with Widor. Here he often met with the elderly Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. He also studied piano at that time with Marie Jaëll. He completed his theology degree in 1899 and published his Ph.D. at the University of Tübingen in 1899.
Schweitzer rapidly gained prominence as a musical scholar and organist, dedicated also to the rescue, restoration and study of historic pipe organs. With theological insight, he interpreted the use of pictorial and symbolical representation in J. S. Bach‘s religious music. In 1899 he astonished Widor by explaining figures and motifs in Bach’s Chorale Preludes as painter-like tonal and rhythmic imagery illustrating themes from the words of the hymns on which they were based. They were works of devotional contemplation in which the musical design corresponded to literary ideas, conceived visually. (Widor had not grown up with knowledge of the old Lutheran hymns.)
The exposition of these ideas, encouraged by Widor and Munch, became Schweitzer’s next task, and appeared in the masterly study J. S. Bach: Le Musicien-Poète, written in French and published in 1905. During its preparation he became a friend of Cosima Wagner (then in Strasbourg), with whom he had many theological and musical conversations, exploring his view of Bach’s descriptive music, and playing the major Chorale Preludes for her at the Temple Neuf. There was a great demand for a German edition, but instead he rewrote it in two volumes (J. S. Bach) in German, which were published in 1908, and in an English translation by Ernest Newman in 1911. Schweitzer’s interpretative approach greatly influenced the modern understanding of Bach’s music. He became a welcome guest at the Wagner’s home, Wahnfried.
His pamphlet “The Art of Organ Building and Organ Playing in Germany and France” (1906, republished with an appendix on the state of the organ-building industry in 1927) effectively launched the twentieth-century Orgelbewegung, which turned away from romantic extremes and rediscovered baroque principles — although this sweeping reform movement in organ building eventually went further than Schweitzer himself had intended. In 1909 he addressed the Third Congress of the International Society of Music at Vienna on the subject. Having circulated a questionnaire among players and organ-builders in several European countries, he produced a very considered report. This provided the basis for the International Regulations for Organ Building. He envisaged instruments in which the French late-romantic full-organ sound should work integrally with the English and German romantic reed pipes, and with the classical Alsace Silbermann organ resources and baroque flue pipes, all in registers regulated (by stops) to access distinct voices in fugue or counterpoint capable of combination without loss of distinctness: different voices singing together in the same music.
In 1905 Widor and Schweitzer were among the six musicians who founded the Paris Bach Society, a choir dedicated to performing J.S. Bach’s music, for whose concerts Schweitzer took the organ part regularly until 1913. He was also appointed organist for the Bach Concerts of the Orféo Català at Barcelona and often travelled there for the purpose. He and Widor collaborated on a new edition of Bach’s organ works, with detailed analysis of each work in three languages (English, French, German). Schweitzer, who insisted that the score should show Bach’s notation with no additional markings, wrote the commentaries for the Preludes and Fugues, and Widor those for the Sonatas and Concertos: six volumes were published in 1912-14. Three more, to contain the Chorale Preludes with Schweitzer’s analyses, were to be worked on in Africa: but these were never completed, perhaps because for him they were inseparable from his evolving theological thought.
On departure for Lambaréné in 1913 he was presented with a piano with pedal attachments (to operate like an organ pedal-keyboard). Built especially for the tropics, it was delivered by river in a huge dug-out canoe to Lambaréné, packed in a zinc-lined case. At first he regarded his new life as a renunciation of his art, and fell out of practice: but after some time he resolved to study and learn by heart the works of Bach, Mendelssohn, Widor, César Franck, and Max Reger systematically. It became his custom to play during the lunch hour and on Sunday afternoons. Schweitzer’s piano-organ was still in use at Lambaréné in 1946.
In 1899 Schweitzer became a deacon at the church Saint-Nicolas of Strasbourg. In 1900, with the completion of his licentiate in theology, he was ordained as curate, and that year he witnessed the Oberammergau Passion Play. In the following year he became provisional Principal of the Theological College of Saint Thomas (from which he had just graduated), and in 1903 his appointment was made permanent.
Since the mid-1890s Schweitzer had formed the inner resolve that it was needful for him as a Christian to repay to the world something for the happiness which it had given to him, and he determined that he would pursue his younger interests until the age of thirty and then give himself to serving humanity, with Jesus serving as his example.
In 1906 he published Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung (“History of the Jesus-life research”). This book established his reputation, and it is worth reviewing its publication history. The original edition was translated into English by William Montgomery and published in 1910 under the somewhat aberrant title The Quest of the Historical Jesus. This title stuck however, and the book became famous under that name in the English-speaking world. A second German edition was published in 1913, containing theologically significant revisions and expansions. This revised edition did not appear in English until 2001.
In The Quest, Schweitzer reviewed all prior work on the question of the “historical Jesus” starting in the late 18th century. He pointed out how Jesus’ image had changed with the times and with the personal proclivities of the various authors. He concluded with his own synopsis and interpretation of what had been learned over the course of the previous century. He took the position that the life of Jesus must be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ own convictions, which he characterized as those of “late Jewish eschatology.”
Schweitzer wrote that Jesus and his followers expected the imminent end of the world. He became very focused on the study and cross referencing of the many Biblical verses promising the return of the Son of Man and the exact details of this urgent event, as it was originally believed that it would unfold. He noted that in the gospel of Mark, Jesus speaks of a “tribulation,” with nation rising against nation, false prophets, earthquakes, stars falling from the sky, and the coming of the Son of Man “in the clouds with great power and glory.” Jesus even tells his disciples exactly when all this will happen: “Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done.” (Mark 13:30) The same story is told in the gospel of Matthew, with Jesus promising his rapid return as the Son of Man, and again saying: “Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” Even St. Paul believed these things, Schweitzer observes (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4), and Schweitzer concludes that Christians of the first century theology literally believed in the imminent fulfillment of Jesus’ promise.
Schweitzer realizes that critical First Century theology has been ignored by the faithful. Almost all early followers are known to have been illiterate. Only those few literate leaders, then in power, could be aware of the critical unfulfilled First Century promise indivisible from the original theology of Jesus. Schweitzer observes that the early church leaders introduced a modified theology, once the prompt return of Jesus failed to occur. Obviously, the early leaders would surely lose power, and their employment, if they failed to modify the original theology. The publication of The Quest for the Historical Jesus, effectively put a stop for decades to work on the Historical Jesus as a sub-discipline of New Testament studies. This work resumed however with the development of the so-called “Second Quest”, among whose notable exponents was Rudolf Bultmann‘s student Ernst Käsemann.
Schweitzer writes that the many modern versions of Christianity deliberately ignore the urgency of the message that Jesus originally promised, for an immediate “world end,” that was so powerfully proclaimed in his First Century theology. Each new generation hopes to be the one to see the world destroyed, another world coming, and the saints governing a new earth. Schweitzer brilliantly concludes that the First Century theology, originating in the lifetimes of those who first followed Jesus, is both incompatible and far removed from those beliefs later made official by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 CE.
Schweitzer established his reputation further as a New Testament scholar with other theological studies including The Psychiatric Study of Jesus (1911); and his two studies of the apostle Paul, Paul and his Interpreters, and the more complete The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930). This examined the eschatological beliefs of Paul and (through this) the message of the New Testament.
At the age of 30, in 1905, he answered the call of “The Society Of The Evangelist Missions of Paris” who were looking for a Medical Doctor. However, the committee of this (Roman Catholic) French Missionary Society was not ready to accept his offer, considering that his Lutheran theology was “incorrect”. He could easily have obtained a place in a German Evangelical mission, but wished to follow the original call despite the doctrinal difficulties. Amid a hail of protests from his friends, family and colleagues, he resigned his post and re-entered the University as a student in a punishing seven-year course towards the degree of a Doctorate in Medicine, a subject in which he had little knowledge or previous aptitude. He planned to spread the Gospel by the example of his Christian labor of healing, rather than through the verbal process of preaching, and believed that this service should be acceptable within any branch of Christian teaching.
Even in his study of medicine, and through his clinical course, Schweitzer pursued the ideal of the philosopher-scientist. By extreme application and hard work he completed his studies successfully at the end of 1911. His medical degree dissertation was another work on the historical Jesus, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus. In June 1912 he married Helene Bresslau, daughter of the Jewish pan-Germanist historian Harry Bresslau.
In 1912, now armed with a medical degree, Schweitzer made a definite proposal to go as a medical doctor to work at his own expense in the Paris Missionary Society’s mission at Lambaréné on the Ogooué river, in what is now the Gabon, in Africa (then a French colony). He refused to attend a committee to inquire into his doctrine, but met each committee member personally and was at last accepted. By concerts and other fund-raising he was ready to equip a small hospital, taking satisfaction that Bach himself had assisted in the enterprise. In Spring 1913 he and his wife set off to establish a hospital near an already existing mission post. The site was nearly 200 miles (14 days by raft) upstream from the mouth of the Ogooé at Port Gentil (Cape Lopez) (and so accessible to external communications), but downstream of most tributaries, so that internal communications within Gabon converged towards Lambaréné.
In the first nine months he and his wife had about 2,000 patients to examine, some travelling many days and hundreds of kilometers to reach him. In addition to injuries he was often treating severe sandflea and crawcraw sores (washing with mercuric chloride), framboesia (using arseno-benzol injections), tropical eating sores (cleaning and potassium permanganate), heart disease (treated with digitalin), tropical dysentery (emetine (syrup of ipecac) and arseno-benzol), tropical malaria (quinine and Arrhenal (arsenic)), sleeping sickness, treated at that time with atoxyl, leprosy (chaulmoogra oil), fevers, strangulated hernias (surgery), necrosis, abdominal tumours and chronic constipation and nicotine poisoning, while also attempting to deal with deliberate poisonings, fetishism and fear of cannibalism among the Mbahouin.
Frau Schweitzer was anaesthetist for surgical operations, using chloroform and omnipon, a synthesized morphine derivative. After briefly occupying a shed formerly used as a chicken hut, in autumn 1913 they built their first hospital of corrugated iron, with two 13-foot rooms (consulting room and operating theatre) and with a dispensary and sterilising room in spaces below the broad eaves. The waiting room and dormitory (42 by 20 feet), were built like native huts, of unhewn logs, along a 30-yard path leading from the hospital to the landing-place. The Schweitzers had their own bungalow, and employed as their assistant Joseph, a French-speaking Galoa (Mpongwe) who first came as a patient.
When World War I broke out in summer of 1914, Schweitzer and his wife, Germans in a French colony, were put under supervision at Lambaréné (where work continued) by the French military. In 1917, exhausted by over four years’ work and by tropical anaemia, they were taken to Bordeaux and interned first in Garaison, and then from March 1918 in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. In July 1918, after having been transferred via Switzerland to his home in the Alsace, he was a free man again. At this time Schweitzer, born a German citizen, obtained French nationality. Then, working as medical assistant and assistant-pastor in Strasbourg, he advanced his project on The Philosophy of Civilization, which had occupied his mind since 1900. By 1920, his health recovering, he was giving organ recitals and doing other fund-raising work to repay borrowings and raise funds for returning to Gabon. In 1922 he delivered the Dale Memorial Lectures in Oxford University, and from these in the following year appeared Volumes I and II of his great work, The Decay and Restoration of Civilization and Civilization and Ethics. The two remaining volumes, on The World-View of Reverence for Life and a fourth on the Civilized State, were never completed.
In 1924 he returned without his wife but with an Oxford undergraduate, Noel Gillespie, as assistant. Everything was heavily decayed and building and doctoring progressed together for months. He now had salvarsan for treating syphilitic ulcers and framboesia. Additional medical staff, nurse (Miss) Kottmann and Dr. Victor Nessmann, joined him in 1924, and Dr. Mark Lauterberg in 1925; the growing hospital was manned by native orderlies. Later Dr. Trensz replaced Nessmann, and Martha Lauterberg and Hans Muggenstorm joined them. Joseph also returned. In 1925-6 new hospital buildings were constructed, and also a ward for white patients, so that the site became like a village. The onset of famine and a dysentery epidemic created fresh problems. Much of the building work was carried out with the help of local people and patients. Drug advances for sleeping sickness included Germanin and tryparsamide. Dr. Trensz conducted experiments showing that the non-amoebic strain of dysentery was caused by a paracholera vibrion (facultative anaerobic bacteria). With the new hospital built and the medical team established, Schweitzer returned to Europe in 1927, this time leaving a functioning hospital at work.
He was there again from 1929-1932. Gradually his opinions and concepts became acknowledged, not only in Europe, but worldwide. There was a further period of work in 1935. In January 1937 he returned again to Lambaréné, and continued working there throughout the Second War.
Controversy in Africa
Schweitzer considered his work as a medical missionary in Africa to be his response to Jesus’ call to become “fishers of men” but also as a small recompense for the historic guilt of European colonizers:
“Who can describe the injustice and cruelties that in the course of centuries they [the coloured peoples] have suffered at the hands of Europeans? … If a record could be compiled of all that has happened between the white and the coloured races, it would make a book containing numbers of pages which the reader would have to turn over unread because their contents would be too horrible.
Rather than being a supporter of colonialism, Schweitzer was one of its harshest critics. In a sermon that he preached on 6 January 1905, before he had told anyone of his plans to dedicate the rest of his life to work as a doctor in Africa, he said:
“Our culture divides people into two classes: civilized men, a title bestowed on the persons who do the classifying; and others, who have only the human form, who may perish or go to the dogs for all the “civilized men” care.
“Oh, this “noble” culture of ours! It speaks so piously of human dignity and human rights and then disregards this dignity and these rights of countless millions and treads them underfoot, only because they live overseas or because their skins are of different color or because they cannot help themselves. This culture does not know how hollow and miserable and full of glib talk it is, how common it looks to those who follow it across the seas and see what it has done there, and this culture has no right to speak of personal dignity and human rights…
“I will not enumerate all the crimes that have been committed under the pretext of justice. People robbed native inhabitants of their land, made slaves of them, let loose the scum of mankind upon them. Think of the atrocities that were perpetrated upon people made subservient to us, how systematically we have ruined them with our alcoholic “gifts”, and everything else we have done…We decimate them, and then, by the stroke of a pen, we take their land so they have nothing left at all…
“If all this oppression and all this sin and shame are perpetrated under the eye of the German God, or the American God, or the British God, and if our states do not feel obliged first to lay aside their claim to be “Christian” — then the name of Jesus is blasphemed and made a mockery. And the Christianity of our states is blasphemed and made a mockery before those poor people. The name of Jesus has become a curse, and our Christianity — yours and mine — has become a falsehood and a disgrace, if the crimes are not atoned for in the very place where they were instigated. For every person who committed an atrocity in Jesus’ name, someone must step in to help in Jesus’ name; for every person who robbed, someone must bring a replacement; for everyone who cursed, someone must bless.
“And now, when you speak about missions, let this be your message: We must make atonement for all the terrible crimes we read of in the newspapers. We must make atonement for the still worse ones, which we do not read about in the papers, crimes that are shrouded in the silence of the jungle night…”
Schweitzer was nonetheless still sometimes accused of being paternalistic or colonialist in his attitude towards Africans, and in some ways his views did differ from many liberals of the 1960s. For instance, he thought Gabonese independence came too early, without adequate education or accommodation to local circumstances. Edgar Berman quotes Schweitzer speaking these lines in 1960:
“No society can go from the primeval directly to an industrial state without losing the leavening that time and an agricultural period allow.”
Chinua Achebe has quoted Schweitzer as saying: “The African is indeed my brother but my junior brother,” which Achebe criticized him for, though Achebe seems to acknowledge that Schweitzer’s use of the word “brother” at all was, for a European of the early 20th century, an unusual expression of human solidarity between whites and blacks. Later in his life, Schweitzer was quoted as saying: “The time for speaking of older and younger brothers has passed.”
The journalist James Cameron visited Lambaréné in 1953 (when Schweitzer was 78) and found significant flaws in the practices and attitudes of Schweitzer and his staff. The hospital suffered from squalor, was without modern amenities and Schweitzer had little contact with the local people. Cameron did not make public what he had seen at the time: according to a recent BBC dramatisation, he made the unusual journalistic decision to withhold the story, and resisted the expressed wish of his employers to publish an exposé aimed at debunking Schweitzer.
American journalist John Gunther also visited Lambaréné in the 1950s and reported Schweitzer’s patronizing attitude towards Africans. He also noted the lack of Africans trained to be skilled workers. After three decades in Africa Schweitzer still depended on Europe for nurses. By comparison, his contemporary Sir Albert Cook in Uganda had been training nurses and midwives since the 1910s and had published a manual of midwifery in the local language of Luganda.