Remembering Albert Schweitzer’s life and work


Several recent news stories – the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize; the canonization of St. Damien de Veuster, who ministered to lepers; the African Synod – suggest that Respect Life month this year is a time to remember the contributions of a Protestant who promoted what he called “reverence for life.”

Albert Schweitzer, who gave up the life of a scholar to establish and run a hospital in the African jungle, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, and he used the prize money to improve medical resources to those suffering from leprosy. It has been said that Schweitzer (1875-1965) was to the first half of the 20th century what Mother Teresa was to its second half, an individual who came to be seen as a symbol of Christianity in action.

Unlike his relative, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who claimed that as a young man he dismissed concerns about God while standing on a street corner one day, Schweitzer devoted his entire life to trying to understand and live by the teachings of Jesus.

As a young man, the Alsatian-born Schweitzer distinguished himself in multiple fields, holding doctorates in music, philosophy and theology. He authored the groundbreaking book, “The Quest of the Historical Jesus,” and was recognized as an authority on organ architecture and as a Bach scholar. Yet, from a young age, he was deeply troubled that so many people throughout the world suffered so deeply. In his autobiography, “Out of My Life and Thought,” he describes his decision one morning in 1896 – “while the birds were chirping outside” — to “give something in return” for his good fortune.

He decided to devote himself to art and science until he was 30, and from that point on to devote all his energy to serving humanity. “Many a time already had I tried to settle what meaning lay hidden for me in the saying of Jesus: ‘Whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospels shall save it,’” he wrote.

So, at the age of 30, he announced his plan to become a medical doctor and work in equatorial Africa. Saying he wanted to “make my life my argument,” he spent 50 years trying to alleviate human suffering in a hospital in a rain forest in west central Africa.

While in Africa, while traveling on the Ogooue River and watching the wildlife there, the phrase “reverence for life” came to him. “Reverence for life” is not synonymous with the terms “pro-life” or “respect life” as they are currently used in Catholic circles, but it is grounded in the belief that all life is created by God and should be considered sacred. “I cannot but have reverence for all that is called life,” he wrote. “I cannot avoid compassion for everything that is called life. That is the beginning and foundation of morality.” The New York Times noted in its obituary of the jungle doctor that reverence for life is “conceivably the only formal philosophical concept ever to spring to life amid a herd of hippopotamuses.”

Schweitzer had his faults, including a famously bad temper. And he could be stubborn and difficult. An amusing story concerns a British journalist named James Biddulph who traveled to Schweitzer’s hospital in 1963 for an interview. Upon greeting Biddulph, Schweitzer said he would grant an interview. But he added that he couldn’t stand tape recorders or tolerate reporters taking notes. So, the reporter, who had just travelled 1,500 miles to conduct a Q&A, would ask a couple questions, listen carefully, and then excuse himself. Then he would run behind a hut and scribble notes before he forgot them, catch up with Schweitzer again and repeat the process.

Schweitzer exerted much of his energy in his last years warning against the dangers of nuclear weapons. He died in Africa in 1965 at the age of 90. His grave on the banks of the Ogooue River is marked by a simple cross.

“The older we grow the more we realize that true power and happiness come to us only from those who spiritually mean something to us,” he once said. “Whether they are near or far, still alive or dead, we need them if we are to find our way through life.”

Surely Albert Schweitzer has helped many Christians find their way through life.