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Schweitzer, Albert


SCHWEITZER, ALBERT (18751965), was philosopher, theologian, musicologist, and humanitarian physician. Schweitzer was born in a Lutheran parsonage in Kaysersberg, Upper Alsace, which was then in Germany. This locale, which included his childhood hometown of Günsbach, and his university city, Strassburg, later became part of France.

In 1899 Schweitzer received a doctorate in philosophy and in 1900 a doctorate in theology from Strassburg. Yet philosophy and theology could not contain all his energies, some of which he directed to music. Between 1905 and 1911 he began making intensive studies and contributions to the literature on Johann Sebastian Bach, whose organ music he also edited. Regarded by his teachers and critics as a man with sufficient talent to be world-renowned as an organ performer, he chose instead to write on the almost mystical spirituality of Bach. Schweitzer later took a zinc-lined organ with him to the damp climate of equatorial Africa and occasionally returned to his Günsbach bench and performed elsewhere in Europe to raise funds for his African ventures.

It was these African endeavors that made a world citizen out of Schweitzer and that led to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. After having shown his ability to excel in philosophy, theology, and music, Schweitzer felt a call to become a physician so that he could address human suffering. He recognized a vocation to this role after having been moved by a Strassburg statue of an African, and he chose for his work a site called Lambaréné in Gabon, in French Equatorial Africa. There he went with his wife, physician and researcher Hélène Bresslau, after he received the M.D. degree in 1913, and there he spent most of his remaining fifty years.

Schweitzer became one of the best-known figures in the world, a pioneer in a form of humanitarianism that was to know no boundaries of ideology, nation, or religion. Although the administration of his hospital clinic was often arbitrary, patriarchal, and paternalistic, and although his attitude toward African blacks was so condescending as to be regarded as racist by critics, Schweitzer gained and held credentials because of his ability to serve suffering natives. He attracted volunteers from all over the world, and for decades Lambaréné was a goal for pilgrimages. Visitors ordinarily brought back enthusiastic, almost unrestrained, reports of Schweitzer's motivation and a humane spirituality that emanated from his work and life. Lambaréné was an easy image to grasp, one that left a much bigger stamp on the religious world than did anything Schweitzer was to write or say.

Yet the physician also had much to say in philosophy and religion, and some of his writings on the New Testament found a permanent place in the canons of biblical criticism. It is clear that Schweitzer wanted to make his mark through a multivolume Kulturphilosophie (1923), which was translated as Philosophy of Civilization. He worked on its third volume for many years between surgical operations in Africa. Its first volume, with its survey of history, has had little impact and would be little read were it not for curiosity about the author.

The second volume, however, includes Schweitzer's personal religious philosophy, identified by his famous phrase "reverence for life." One day in 1915 on a boat on the Ogooué River, Schweitzer had an almost mystical revelatory experience. This led him to concentrate his disparate energies on the notion and ethos of reverence for all life. It was this passion that made the doctor well known, sometimes notorious, because he did not want to kill mosquitoes or bees or any other living things, even though they add to misery by spreading diseases. He felt that reverence for life, for which he presented little philosophical justification but toward which he assembled all his religious energies, made its own claims on humans, whose future depended upon how they regarded all life.

Schweitzer's more vivid theological work concentrated on radical studies of Jesus. Gradually his Lutheranism was transformed into a reverent attention to the "spirit of Christ," and some thought of him as a Unitarian. His Die Mystik des Apostels Paulus (1930) elaborated on some of these themes, but Von Reimarus zu Wrede (1906), translated as The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910), had epochal significance. The book traces the history of biblical criticism, chiefly in Germany, through a century of liberal efforts to establish a revitalized Christianity around the figure of "the historical Jesus."

Schweitzer devastated the reputation of many predecessors by showing that their search for the historical Jesus was not sufficiently historical. There was no "historical Jesus" to be found, he said, since the biblical records left such figures irretrievable, and he showed that German scholars had usually stopped their quest short, at the point where they found a Jesus who projected their own liberal ideals. The evidence, Schweitzer said, reached instead to a Jesus who turned out to be virtually useless for such purposes. Jesus was an apocalyptic zealot who had thought that God would break into world history and usher in his Kingdom after Jesus began his ministry. When God failed to do this, Jesus by his own sufferings tried to bring on that divine action. There was no way such an eschatologically minded figure could be anything but alien to moderns.

Paradoxically, this did not mean the end of following the spirit of Christ. Schweitzer often wrote in almost mystical terms about following Jesus. In the eyes of many he successfully promoted a search for the divine will in the path of this remote and mysterious Jesus. While Schweitzer's positive theology held limited appeal, serious biblical scholarship has subsequently had to build its New Testament historical research on new foundations.


Taken together, two biographiesSchweitzer (New York, 1971), by George N. Marshall and David Poling, and Albert Schweitzer (New York, 1975), by James Brabazonprovide a comprehensive portrait of Schweitzer's eclectic talents and undertakings. Jackson Lee Ice restricts himself to a study of a single aspect of Schweitzer's career, namely, his impact on theological and historical studies of Christianity, in Schweitzer: Prophet of Radical Theology (Philadelphia, 1971), and Henry Clark probes The Ethical Mysticism of Albert Schweitzer: A Study of the Sources and Significance of Schweitzer's Philosophy of Civilization (Boston, 1962). Concise presentations of the highlights of Schweitzer's life and work abound in Albert Schweitzer: An Anthology, edited by Charles R. Joy (Boston, 1965), which reprints excerpts, organized by topic, from Schweitzer's prolific writing career, on issues ranging from "Bach's World-View" to "The Cause of the World War," and in In Albert Schweitzer's Realms, edited by A. A. Roback (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), a collection of addresses and essays presented at a symposium in his honor. The latter includes articles by Jacques Maritain, Paul Tillich, and Tom Dooley. Many of the themes in these works are discussed in George Seaver's substantial study, Albert Schweitzer: The Man and His Mind, 6th ed. (New York, 1969).

New Sources

Bentley, James. Albert Schweitzer: The Enigma. New York, 1992.

Berman, Edgar. In Africa with Schweitzer. Far Hills, N.J., 1986.

Meyer, Marvin W., and Kurt Bergel. Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century. Syracuse, N.Y., 2002.

Schweitzer, Albert. Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography. Rev. ed. New York, 1990.

Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. (1910) Baltimore, Md., 1998.

Starobeltsev, A. "Life Is Indivisible: Albert Schweitzer's Ethic of Love." Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate no. 10 (1989): 3741.

Martin E. Marty (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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