Remembering Dr. Albert Schweitzer

By UUA International Resources

On September 4, 1965, the world lost an incredible polymath: Humanitarian, theologian, philosopher, organist, musicologist, physician, and scholar, Dr. Albert Schweitzer. A lifelong Lutheran, Schweitzer challenged both the secular and traditional Christian views of Jesus, observing in his historiographical research of depictions of Jesus dating back to the late 18th century—1906's Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung (eventually translated and published in English as The Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1910)—that the image and understanding of "the historical Jesus" evolved with the times and outlooks of the various authors who wrote about him, ultimately concluding that the life of Jesus must be interpreted in the light of Jesus' own convictions. It was his ethical interpretation of Christianity that led him on a search for a universal concept of ethics. While on a boat trip through French Equatorial Guinea (now Gabon) in the early 1900's, the phrase "Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben" (in English, Reverence for Life) came to him in an epiphany, forming the basis for his ethical philosophy of the same name, which he developed and put into practice through written word and humanitarian action for the rest of his life. In 1923's Civilization and Ethics he concluded that ethics was synonymous with reverence for life: "Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil." In 1952 he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his Reverence for Life philosophy, expressed most famously in his founding and sustaining of the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, French Equatorial Guinea, where philosophy was put into healing practice. It was his hope that Reverence for Life would catch on worldwide; it is no coincidence that Rachael Carson's Silent Spring (1962), widely credited as sparking the environmental movement, is dedicated to him. In fact, innumerable ethical & charitable organizations formed since the '50s align with and revere his core philosophy. Between his theological seeking, reverence for life, and humanitarian work in Lambaréné, Unitarians were among the first Americans to respond to his simpatico philosophy. In 1947, Dr. Charles Joy, an administrator of relief programs, and Melvin Arnold, the editor in chief of Beacon Press, donated $4,000 to Schweitzer's hospital in Lambaréné. Numerous articles on Schweitzer were published in The Christian Register applauding his numerous contributions to world community. In 1962, Schweitzer graciously accepted honorary membership into the Church of the Larger Fellowship:
From The Unitarian Register and the Universalist Leader, February 1962: Dr. Albert Schweitzer Accepts Membership in UUA's Church of the Larger Fellowship Dr. Albert Schweitzer, noted for his work as a physician in Lambaréné, French Equatorial Africa, and as winner of the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize, has become a life member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship. A certificate of life membership in the CLF has been sent to him. Dr. Schweitzer accepted an invitation extended to him by the Rev. George N. Marshall, CLF minister, "to receive our materials and become an honored member," issued "because of your broad sympathy and understanding of the liberal religious position." Dr. Schweitzer replied: "I thank you cordially for your offer....I accept with pleasure. Even as a student I worked on the problem and history of the Unitarian Church and developed sympathy for your affirmation of Christian freedom at a time when it resulted in persecution. Gradually I established closer contact with Unitarian communities and became familiar with their faith-in-action. Therefore I thank you that through you I have been made an honored member of this church." Time magazine, reporting Dr. Schweitzer's acceptance, said: "By the time he became a Lutheran preacher at 24, Albert Schweitzer had already begun to question orthodox Christian doctrine and to hedge on the divinity of Christ....Was Schweitzer renouncing Lutheranism? His own eclectic exegesis: 'For a long time now I have had connections with the Unitarian Church. Yet there is no question of my breaking with the Lutheran Church. I am a Protestant, but above all I am a scientist, and as such I can be on good terms with all of the Protestant churches.' As for the matter of the Trinity, which Lutherans affirm and Unitarians deny, Schweitzer wondered rhetorically: 'Did Christ or Saint Paul believe in it?'"
On occasion, our admiration of "le Grand Docteur" has led us to claim Dr. Schweitzer as one of our own. In honor of his 90th birthday, the January 1965 issue of "The Unitarian Universalist Register-Leader" commemorates Schweitzer's incredible legend, reality, and humanity through a series of pieces written by several that had the privilege of knowing him. Then-UUA President Rev. Dana McLean Greeley astutely notes in the issue's editorial column:
"We who are religious liberals are honored that Albert Schweitzer on several occasions has chosen to associate himself with us. We have tried to repay that honor in part by interpreting his life and work. We must not exploit Schweitzer's association with liberal religion, for we know that he is above partisan labels. ...Because of the power of his example, our own lives are richer and he makes us want to devote an ever-greater portion of our lives to service."
We invite you to dig into the full issue of "Albert Schweitzer - an Evaluation at Ninety" in remembrance of an extraordinary life whose philosophy and accomplishments continue to reverberate and resonate today. Shared here with permission, you'll find reflections from Rev. Homer A. Jack, Robert M. Goldwyn, Jack Mendelsohn, Charles R. Joy, and George N. Marshall.


The Albert Schweitzer Visiting Ministries program seeks to connect Unitarian Universalist Association ministers with Deutsche Unitarier Religiongemeinschaft (DU) congregations in Germany. Ministers in Final Fellowship with the UUA and in good standing with the UU Ministers Association, with considerable fluency in German and an interest in providing short-term professional services to DU congregations in Germany are invited to explore this opportunity.

Did You Know

In recognition of UU Church of the Philippines' founder Toribio Quimada's outstanding service to liberal religion and the people of the Philippines, the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) presented Quimada with the Albert Schweitzer Award for Distinguished Service in 1984.

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A letter from Dr. Schweitzer adorns the walls of the offices of the Church of the Larger Fellowship. Click here for a transcription & translation.
A bust of Dr. Schweitzer at UUA Headquarters.

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