Albert Schweitzer, Missionary 5 September 1965
David Livingstone, Missionary 1 May 1873

Albert Schweitzer, theologian, philosopher, organist, authority on Bach, physician, and missionary, was born in 1875, son of a Lutheran pastor, in Alsace, then German but now French. (Alsace and Lorraine are two provinces lying between France and Germany, and for centuries they have belonged to whoever won the last war.) He studied at Strasbourg and at Paris, and around 1900 he became a doctor of philosophy and a doctor of theology, and was ordained to the Lutheran ministry and became a preacher and a lecturer in philosophy. He became an outstanding organist, and in 1905 published a study of Johann Sebastian Bach. He simultaneously wrote a book called The Quest of The Historical Jesus, in which he argued that, of all the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, the ones that are most certainly His are the ones that give the impression that the end of the world is at hand. (Interestingly, the well-known group called the Jesus Seminar, which likewise sets out to rate the sayings attributed to Jesus with different degrees of certainty, has drawn the opposite conclusion, and rejects all the so-called apocalyptic sayings of Jesus as unauthentic.) Schweitzer himself drew the conclusion that Jesus believed in the imminent end of the world, that he was wrong, and that therefore he was not infallible or inspired or divine. In 1905 he announced his intention of becoming a missionary doctor, and resigned his positions, giving up a brilliant career, to go to medical school. In 1913 he and his wife set out for Lambarene in Gabon (then part of French Equatorial Africa), where they built a hospital. His work there was interrupted by World War I. Since he was a German citizen, he was interned by the French as an enemy alien, and spent his prison time writing. He published his Philosophy of Civilization, in which he urged "reverence for life," a philosophy of compassion for all living things. (A visitor to Lambarene saw a mosquito on his arm and was about to swat it. Schweitzer saw it and said: "Think twice. Remember that you are a guest in its country.") After the war, Schweitzer returned to Lambarene and rebuilt his hospital, adding a leper colony. His autobiography, Out Of My Life And Thought, was published in 1933. In 1952 he received the Nobel Peace Prize. He died 4 September 1965.

A student of Schweitzer's thought has written:

We typically use 'optimism' or 'pessimism' to describe our intellectual predispositions in how we view the world. For Schweitzer, however, those words relate not to the intellect only, but also to the will and to the positive actions which we may take: "True optimism has nothing to do with any sort of lenient judgment. It consists in comtemplating and willing the ideal in the light of a deep and self-consistent affirmation of life and the world. ... Optimism and pessimism, therefore, do not consist in counting with more or less confidence on a future for the existing state of things, but in what the will desires the future to be. They are qualities not of the judgment, but of the will."

Schweitzer also distinguished between how individuals and societies approach their ethical roles: "The ethic of ethical personality is personal, incapable of regulation, and absolute; the system established by society for its prosperous existence is supra-personal, regulated, and relative. Hence the ethical personality cannot surrender to it, but lives always in continuous conflict with it, obliged again and again to oppose it because it finds its focus too short." Schweitzer also holds that "even a society whose ethical standard is relatively high, is dangerous to the ethics of its members", because the individual spiritual ethic may be corrupted and overwhelmed by the more practical ethic of the society.

I think the challenge for the Christian is to try to develop a reflective, compassionate understanding of life which will lead to devotion to others. As Greg Singleton said, "Schweitzer was looking for method, not answers." We need to find methods by which we can become "optimistic" actors in the world.

Society will not resolve the world's problems. I guess that leaves it up to us as individuals to try, however futile the goal my be. But I think that Schweitzer would say that the ethical person must not consider whether the goal is reasonable, but rather, must act according to the necessity of his own inner compulsion to do good in the world.

Schweitzer was not without his critics.

Some of them were shocked by his hospital, which they found primitive. Instead of hospital wards, there were rows of huts. When a patient came to stay there, his family came along and moved in with him, bringing a few chickens and a goat and some pots and pans, and they cooked their own meals, which the patient shared. His critics said that this was no way to run a hospital. He replied that if the patients were isolated from their families and fed from the hospital kitchen, most of them would not come to the hospital at all. Life on a 20th century European-style hospital ward would have been unfamiliar and terrifying. He admitted that his hospital was practicing nineteenth-century medicine, but said that this was better than the alternative, and that until his critics were prepared to finance and maintain a better hospital themselves, they ought to shut up.

Some of them were shocked by his racism. In an age when everyone was denouncing colonialism as an unmixed evil, he said bluntly that the European rulers were managing African affairs better than the Africans had managed them when left to themselves, and that it was in the interests of the Africans that the Europeans should continue to be in charge. He said that the European ought to say to the African, "I am your brother, but your elder brother."

Some of them were shocked by his personal autocracy. He ran his hospital as he saw fit, and expected others, black and white alike, to fall in line. It was, perhaps, a natural attitude for a man who was in fact considerably more intelligent than almost anyone else he met, black or white.

Some were shocked by his religious beliefs, his forsaking of traditional Christianity; for although he continued to regard himself as in some sense a Christian, his views on the deity of Jesus Christ were at best shaky.

The fact remains that he was a dedicated humanitarian, one who had the world at his feet, and gave up everything to serve Christ in the person of the least of His brethren. He prodded the conscience of the world. Without believing in the deity of Christ, he did more in the service of Christ than most of those who do; and without believing in the right of all peoples to instant self-government, he did more to improve the lives of Africans than most of those who do.

Prayer (traditional language)

Heavenly Father, whose Son Jesus Christ came, not to be ministered unto, but to minister: Grant us the grace to follow in his footsteps, and to show forth thy love by loving and serving our neighbors, and coming, as did Albert Schweitzer, to the rescue of those in need; for the sake of the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever.
Prayer (contemporary language)
Heavenly Father, whose Son Jesus Christ came, not to be served but to serve: Give us the grace to follow in his footsteps, and to show forth your love by loving and serving our neighbors, and coming, as did Albert Schweitzer, to the rescue of those in need; for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.


With Schweitzer, we may remember other African missionaries, such as David Livingstone. Livingstone was born in 1813 in Blantyre, Scotland, trained as a physician, and ordained as a missionary in 1840. His original plan was to work in China, but he was prevented from doing so by the Opium Wars. He therefore went instead to South Africa and travelled northward into the interior. To his countrymen, he was known chiefly as an explorer, a surveyor, and a scientist; and his expeditions, including the discovery of Victoria Falls in 1855, made him a national hero. In 1866 he began an expedition seeking the headwaters of the Nile. No news of him came back for several years, and it was thought that perhaps he was dead. A publisher sent a correspondent, Henry M Stanley, to find him. Stanley did find him, in 1871, and accompanied his expedition for a while before returning to report. (Stanley's greeting, "Doctor Livingstone, I presume," is the one thing about Livingstone that is remembered by persons who know absolutely nothing else about him.)

Livingstone died 1 May 1873 in Zambia. His body was embalmed and brought to the coast by his African friends, and was buried in Wesminster Abbey. However, his heart was removed from the body and buried where he died. His friends said, "His heart was always with the people of Africa. It must remain here."

Prayer (traditional language)

Almighty and everlasting God, we thank thee for thy servant David Livingstone, whom thou didst call to preach the Gospel to the people of Africa. Raise up, we beseech thee, in this and every land evangelists and heralds of thy kingdom, that thy Church may proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever.
Prayer (contemporary language)
Almighty and everlasting God, we thank you for your servant David Livingstone, whom you called to preach the Gospel to the people of Africa. Raise up in this and every land evangelists and heralds of your kingdom, that your Church may proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.