Albert Schweitzer

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Schweitzer, Albert (1875–1965)

An Alsatian theologian, physician, and organist, Schweitzer wrote Von Reimarus zu Wrede (1906, tr. Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1910); The Psychiatric Study of Jesus (1913; 1948); and Civilization and Ethics (1923). His ethical philosophy was developed in Philosophy of Civilization (1923), which contained his concept of “reverence for life.” For that concept, he received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1952.

Reared a Lutheran, Schweitzer was an unorthodox Protestant, rejecting as he did the historical infallibility of Jesus although admiring the spiritual Jesus. Sacrificing a comfortable life in Europe, where in 1905 he had written a biography of Bach, co-edited his music (1912–1914), and enjoyed a reputation as being an organist who excelled playing Bach’s compositions, Schweitzer moved in 1913 to Lambaréné in Africa. There, he founded a hospital to which people feared coming until the word went out that Dr. Schweitzer never surgically removed any body parts.

Some critics accused him of administering dictatorially, but specialists and notables visited him from all over the world to observe his successful hospital. In the mid-1940s, and after having had trouble with Protestant sources in obtaining hospital funds because of certain fears he was not preaching an infallible Jesus, he joined the Church of the Larger Fellowship (Unitarian). Vilma Szantho Harrington, wife of the New York Unitarian minister Donald Harrington, has written that Schweitzer “. . . told me personally that he was a Unitarian when I visited him with my husband in Lambaréné.”

Norman Cousins, writing of his visit, admired the physician’s workmanship, productiveness, and applied humanism, remarking that on Schweitzer’s daughter’s birthday Schweitzer showed his sense of humor by playing a boogie-woogie tune for her on the organ. Schweitzer admired not only Cousins but also wrote friendly letters to Romain Rolland, Gandhi, Hermann Hesse (to whom in 1915 he wrote, “I feel a bond with you in the ideal of humanity. Both of us remained loyal to this ideal in an age when it lost prestige”), Einstein, Thomas Mann, Pablo Casals, and Bertrand Russell.

Was Schweitzer A Unitarian, A unitarian, or A Humanist?

In a 13 April 2009 e-mail to the Unitarian Universalist History and Historical Research Group <> Carol Simmons - a 5th generation Universalist and affiliation Member, Outlaw’s Bridge Universalist Church and formerly member of the Kinston UU Church, Kinston North Carolina, told of her research:

I found my copy of a biography that George Marshall and David Poling wrote,Schweitzer: A Biography 1971. This book was printed by the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, United Nations Plaza, NYC. Marshall gave me the autographed copy of his book when he was living in North Carolina in the Durham/Chapel Hill area. He came to our Universalist, then UU church in Kinston NC where he spoke several times.

In the book is an article about the authors and the following is what was said about Marshall:

George Marshall corresponded with Schweitzer for many years before he finally visited Lambarene. He made three subsequent trips to Lambarene and also to Schweitzer's home in Gunsbach. He has been director and minister of the Boston-based Church of the Larger Fellowship--a worldwide Unitarian Universalist communication and membership organization. Dr. Marshall is the author of Church of the Pilgrim Fathers, An Understanding of Albert Schweitzer, and Challenge of a Liberal Faith. He studied at Tufts, Columbia and Harvard.

In scanning back through the biography I see no mention of Schweitzer's actual membership in UU, though in the past I had thought that Schweitzer was a member of the CLF. However, I've not reread it--just scanned through the book and the index.

One paragraph on page 275 states:

His broad sympathy was shown in his continuing membership in his old family church, even while he was reaching out to the Church of the most liberal Protestant dissent, the Unitarians, for a significant relationship with those who like him, had separated themselves from the mainstream of Christian institutionalism. He said laughingly once, "In Europe I am supported by liberal Catholics, but in America by liberal Protestants." He was in fact a thorough humanist, and his universalist religious beliefs preceded the modern ecumenical movement by decades."

and on page 285 of the book:

"If one suggest to Schweitzer, as did George Marshall, that such a spiritual arousal was the function of the churches, he was immediately told that the churches had had two thousand years to come to terms with the ethics of Jesus, those of brotherhood and peace, but had utterly failed. There was little hope to be found in the traditional churches, Schweitzer felt, and none whatsoever in those supported by the state. He told Marshall that it was with great sorrow that he had come to this conclusion."
Marshall quoted Schweitzer as adding:
  • "Once I thought three things could control public opinion but,I now discount the churches, except for the slight impact, like pebbles tossed in the ocean, made in limited areas by a few small churches. There are the Quakers who are an historic peace Church , and other people appreciate or take heart from their forthright stand. Then there are the Unitarians who form the historic Church of martyrs, composed of people who try to practice what Jesus preached. Their emphasis is on the ethical teachings of Jesus who stood for peace. But such small groups of church people as these are not able to influence public opinion any more than a pebble raises the level of the ocean. They do have enough members between them," he explained."

There were several other references to the Unitarian Service Committee, AUA, and Unitarians.

/s/Carol Simmons


In 1951, from his African hospital, he wrote Warren Allen Smith concerning humanism:

  • I find the articles [in The Humanist] very interesting and my full sympathy is given to the movement which it represents: Humanism. The world thinks it must raise itself above humanism; that it must look for a more profound spirituality. It has taken a false road. Humanism in all its simplicity is the only genuine spirituality. Only ethics and religion which include in themselves the humanitarian ideal have true value. And humanism is the most precious result of rational meditation upon our existence and that of the world. (Translated from the French by Warren Allen Smith. Original is in the Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

In 1956, he wrote again:

  • I kindly ask you to excuse me for writing after such a long time. But I am so overburdened with work and so tired also, as my eyes are overtired. It also is impossible for me to write something about my Humanism. I must be very concentrated on my work, the medical and the literary work. I think your study, as you term it, very interesting. Please give only your opinion about me as you think it and feel it after the thoughts that I lay down in my works. That will be the best. When you will send me a copy of your work, it will greatly be appreciated. But please do not send it to Lambaréné (where the termites eat my books) but to my address at Gunsbach, Alsace, France.

(Translation from the German by A. Silver, nurse, who added:

  • Dr. Schweitzer asked me to express to you his regret for not having answered your letter dated 26 April 1956. He is very much interested indeed in your study of Humanism and in former years he surely would have contributed more to this study. But now it is no more possible. The hospital grew to a greater importance than he had ever intended, the hospital administration is much more complicated than before, and the correspondence is tremendous. Dr. Schweitzer works in general on the hospital ground from 7 a.m. till sunset and has to write often till midnight. This is his life week after week and year after year, without ever having some time for himself, to finish his manuscripts, which he wants so much to finish before it may be too late. Many letters remain unanswered, as our time for correspondence is rather limited. He asked me to thank you for the honor you showed him in inviting him to contribute his thinking about humanism, and to thank you for your sympathy.

In 1961, Schweitzer wrote to George N. Marshall of the Unitarian Church of the Larger Fellowship, I thank you cordially for your offer to make me an honored member of the Unitarian Church. I accept with pleasure. Even as a student I worked on the problem and history of the Unitarian Church and developed a sympathy for your affirmation of Christian freedom at a time when it resulted in persecution. Gradually I established a closer contact with Unitarian communities and became familiar with their faith-in-action. Therefore, I think you that through you I have been made an honored member of this church.





Final Days

Lambaréné Gravesite

Norman Cousins, who like Marshall had visited with and written about Schweitzer in Africa, said that he shared Schweitzer’s humanistic outlook and his interest in the historical Jesus, the man-not-a-god, as well as his profound belief in applied ethics, in applying humanism, not just talking about it. Schweitzer’s critics, however, focused on his dictatorial rule of the African hospital, his helping blacks but allegedly considering them inferior, his failing to pass on any skills to the natives in order that one day they could replace the foreigners who had come, and his insufficiently applying his philosophy to the social realm.

Schweitzer had designed a simple stone cross for his gravestone, and he was buried on the hospital grounds in Lambaréné. The inscription, “Here Lies Dr. Albert Schweitzer,” is in French only.

{CE; CL; HNS; U; UU; WAS, 15 April 1951 and 1956}