Albert Schweitzer – Salvationist?
by Kurt Burger, Lt. Colonel –
He claimed “to make his life his argument.” In other words: “look at my life, and you’ll discover a potent argument for following Christ.” To me, Schweitzer is one of the great heroes of the faith. Though he is all but forgotten today, those who acquaint themselves with his life and work will reap a rich harvest of insight and encouragement.
Albert Schweitzer was born in 1875 to a Protestant minister in Kayserberg, then part of Germany, now belonging to France. Enjoying a happy childhood, he showed little promise. He often refused to participate in school, failing to finish assignments, more interested in nature, roaming the fields that surrounded his house and village. At age nine, however, things began to change: he discovered the Bible as a storybook and also became attentive to music, particularly the organ.
Eventually, he obtained two doctorates, one in theology, the other in philosophy. In addition, he became a superb organist, as well as one of the most outstanding authorities on Johann Sebastian Bach—his life and music. As a scholar, he authored several books, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, his best known. While his liberal theology was never accepted, his contribution to the study of the life of Jesus was nevertheless impressive.
His career and status as a scholar, author and musician was assured. “On October 13, 1905, I dropped into a letter box in Paris letters to my parents and to some of my closest friends telling them that at the beginning of the winter term I would embark on the study of medicine with the idea of later going out to equatorial Africa as a doctor.” (Out of My Life and Thought) Few people understood his thinking that led to his unusual decision. In a letter to one of his friends, however, he described the very center of his faith and Christianity, making his sudden and drastic change of course understandable:
Now we sit here and study theology, and then compete for the best ecclesiastical posts, write thick learned books in order to become professors of theology…and what is going on out there where the honor and the name of Jesus are at stake, does not concern us at all. And I am supposed to devote my life to making ever fresh critical discoveries, that I might become famous as a theologian and go on training pastors who will also sit at home…I cannot do so. For years I have turned these matters over in my mind…At last it became clear to me that this isn’t my life. I want to be a simple human being, doing something small in the spirit of Jesus.
In 1913 Schweitzer and his wife embarked on the long journey to Lambarene in Gabon. He writes in his autobiography: “From the very first days, even before I had found time to unpack my drugs and instruments, I was besieged by sick people.” Clearly, people needed a physician, not just to heal their souls, but also their bodies—Schweitzer had made the right decision. However, phase I of his work in Lambarene only lasted a little over four years before the French government decided that he (a German) and his wife (a French citizen) were a “danger” to this French colony and should be interned in Europe until the end of World War I and perhaps beyond.
Blind and irrational decision that it was, it cost Schweitzer six and a half years away from his mission and brought joy and tragedy to the devoted couple. While in captivity, both became seriously ill and Schweitzer’s biographer, James Brabazon, summarized the consequences: “From the aftereffects of this brief incarceration Schweitzer was to suffer for at least two years, and Helene for the rest of her life. Those three weeks were a tragic turning point for both of them, for never again was Helene fully fit to work beside her husband in Africa.” (Albert Schweitzer – A Biography). While in Europe, their only child, a daughter, was born. But she grew up without her father because when Schweitzer finally returned to Africa, it was without his wife and child.
Convinced of his calling, he labored on, slowly building a hospital of significant size and treating thousands of patients each year. Frequent trips to Europe and the United States assured funding for an ever-growing budget. In 1954 the world recognized his towering achievement by awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Schweitzer died on September 4, 1965, the same year another giant, Winston Churchill, was called to appear before his maker.
Schweitzer, of course, was not a Salvationist. But he would have made a good one. At one point early in his adult life, he thought that taking care of poor children was the best way to serve Christ. In a letter to his future wife, he makes the only reference to The Salvation Army: “I know one thing: If I cannot realize my plan to educate, to take care of young boys, I cannot remain here: I would despair. I would envy all those who serve Jesus, even the lowliest woman at the Salvation Army.”
Indeed, his life was his argument—a powerful one—lasting, profound and well worth emulating. Salvationists can learn much from Schweitzer’s life––a perfect combination of intellectual and spiritual depth joined with a passion for service—a sure recipe to make one’s life a strong argument for Christ.