Albert Schweitzer

Chorale Prelude on “All Glory, Laud and Honor” (the melody is in the pedals)   J.S. Bach (1685–1750)

“Oh Morning Star, How Fair and Bright”  Johann Christoph Bach (J.S. Bach’s great uncle, 1642–1703)

Question: What do you get when you combine a medical doctor, a renowned concert organist and musicologist, a significant New Testament scholar, a heaping helping of Mother Theresa, and a Nobel Peace Prize?

Answer: You get Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), whose birthday was the 14th of this month.

Schweitzer was born in Alsace, on the border between France and Germany — a village so small that the Catholic and Lutheran congregations shared the same sanctuary. 18-year-old Schweiter played for the eminent organist and composer Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937) who was so impressed with Schweitzer’s playing that he agreed to teach him without fee.

Schweitzer went on to study theology and music at Kaiser Wilhelm University of Strasbourg. At age 23 he returned to Paris to write his PhD dissertation on _The Religious Philosophy of Kant_ at the Sorbonne, and to study in earnest with Widor. Schweitzer rapidly gained prominence as a musical scholar and organist, and was dedicated to the restoration of historic pipe organs. He even developed a unique configuration of microphones for recording concerts still known as the “Schweitzer Technique”. With theological insight he explicated J. S. Bach’s deep use of musical symbolism in his sacred music, astonishing Widor with his insights. Widor’s encouragement resulted in Schweiter’s two-volume biography of Bach — a landmark in Bach scholarship.

At age 24 Schweitzer became a deacon at the church of Saint Nicholas in Strasbourg, a year later he was ordained as curate, and a year after that became provisional Principal of the Theological College of Saint Thomas (from which he had just graduated) — at age 28 his appointment was made permanent. At age 31 he published his _Quest of the Historical Jesus_ — a landmark work in New Testament studies. Particularly in the 19th century there was a major effort to excavate the ‘historical Jesus’, the “real Jesus” behind the ‘facade’ of the Gospel account. Schweitzer analyzed over 50 of those efforts, and demonstrated that in every case the investigating scholar ended up ‘discovering’ a ‘historical Jesus’ who happened to match the scholar’s expectations (prejudices?) with which he had undertaken his investigations in the first place. This was a major blow to the entire ‘historical Jesus’ movement — a project that continues to this day but with nary the same enthusiasm. (The last marvelous paragraph of Schweitzer’s book is the text for today’s anthem.)

At age 30 Schweitzer answered the call of “The Society of the Evangelist Missions of Paris” which was looking for a medical doctor. Alas, the committee wouldn’t accept his offer because of his “incorrect” Lutheran theology. Nevertheless, in spite of a chorus of dismay from his friends, family and colleagues, he resigned his theological post and entered medical school. He planned to spread the Gospel by the example of his Christian labor of healing, rather than through the verbal process of preaching.

By extreme efforts he completed his studies in six years. Now armed with a medical degree, Schweitzer made a proposal they could hardly refuse: to go as a medical doctor to present day Gabon (on the western African coast and the equator) to work at his own expense. He refused to attend a committee inquiring into his doctrine, but met each committee member personally and was at last accepted. Through concerts and other fund-raising, he was able to equip a small hospital.

In their first nine months he and his wife Helene (an anesthesiologist) treated about 2000 patients.  After briefly occupying a shed formerly used as a chicken coop, in 1913 they built their first hospital of corrugated iron, with two 13-foot rooms (consulting and operating rooms) and with a dispensary and sterilising room in spaces below the broad eaves. The waiting room and dormitory (42 by 20 feet) were built, like native huts, of unhewn logs.

Schweitzer frequently visited Europe to raise money and awareness of his efforts, and eventually his hospital became self sufficient — it is still in operation. With an international stature in his day something like Mother Theresa in ours, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. He died age 90 at his hospital in Africa. Helene predeceased him by three years, and they are both buried there.