September 4 – Albert Schweitzer

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Albert Schweitzer, Christian pioneer

Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), one of the best-known missionaries of the twentieth century, was born in Kayersberg, Alsace. He was extraordinarily gifted, intellectually brilliant and blessed with a robust constitution. His biographer, George Seaver, called him ‘probably the most gifted genius of our age’. By the age of thirty he had achieved distinction in the two disparate fields of music and theology. He was an authority on the life and works of J.S.  Bach, a renowned organist, expert on organ building and significant figure in the Organ Revival in the early twentieth century. In theology he is best remembered for The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), one of the most influential theological books of the twentieth century.  Thereafter, the apocalyptic element in the gospels—the sense of crisis, judgement, and the impending end of the world—had to be taken seriously. No longer could Christians be content with an image of Jesus as a civilized man of the nineteenth or twentieth century. And never again could preachers and scholars separate the teaching of Jesus from Jesus himself.

In 1906 Schweitzer began studying medicine and in 1913 he gave up his academic career as a theologian to devote himself to the care of the sick and to missionary activities at Lambaréné (French Equatorial Africa). For various reasons, he wanted to put the religion of love (the essential element in Christianity) into practice rather than talk about it. The prime reason for going to Africa, he explains in his reminiscences, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1922) was to do penance for the wrongs that Africans had suffered at the hands of Europeans—especially the introduction of disease and the slave trade.  Schweitzer believed that Europeans (like the rich man, Dives, in the biblical parable), had sinned against the people of Africa (the poor man at their gate), in that they had accepted the advantages of medical science and technology without putting themselves in the poor man’s place.

Schweitzer advocated an ethic based on ‘reverence for life’, including animal and plant life. For Schweitzer, it was good to maintain life and further life; it was bad to damage and destroy life.  Only by means of reverence for life, in Schweitzer’s view, can we establish a spiritual and humane relationship with all living creatures. A person is ethical when life is considered sacred and when that person devotes him or herself fully to those in need of help. Even as a child he was gripped by the sacredness of life. His night-time prayer was: ‘O heavenly Father, protect and bless all things that have breath; guard them from all evil, and let them sleep in peace.’

Schweitzer received numerous awards including the Nobel Peace prize in 1953. In putting into practice ‘reverence for life’, he became a symbol throughout the world of human dignity, service, and an example of the power of compassion in a time of genocide and mass hatred.

Contributed by William W. Emilsen