Copyright 2000 by Viatoris Ministries
"It was unreasonable to me -- this was even before I had
gone to school -- that in my evening devotions I should pray only for
people. So when my mother had prayed with me and kissed me goodnight, I
used secretly to add another prayer which I had myself composed for all
living creatures: Dear God, guard and bless everything that breathes;
keep them from all evil and let them sleep in peace."
Unlike so many children who begin their lives with a
caring heart, Albert Schweitzer did not lose his capacity for love and
concern when he became an adult. His empathy was all-encompassing, and
led to a lifetime of service to all forms of life.
Born in 1875 in Alsace at a time when it was under
German rule, Albert was the son of a Lutheran minister. He was a musical
prodigy and by the age of nine had been invited to play as guest
organist in the church at Gunsbach. A love for the organ and for the
music of Bach, remained passionate interests for the rest of his life.
But he did not choose music as a career. Instead, he
followed in his father's footsteps and studied theology and philosophy.
He earned his Doctorate and was assigned to St. Nicolas Church in
Strasbourg. But he was there for only three years.
Because Schweitzer was intellectually as well as
musically gifted, by the time he was twenty-eight he had been appointed
principal of the Theological College at Strasbourg University. But
although music and scholarship were bringing him a great deal of
satisfaction and renown, he knew that this self-serving lifestyle was
not the path he would follow for the rest of his life.
In his autobiography, Schweitzer wrote that when he was
twenty-one he woke one morning with the thought that because he had been
so blessed in a world of so much suffering and sorrow, he must give
something in return. "So with calm deliberation, while the birds were
singing outside the
window, I decided that I could justify living my life
for scholarship and art until I was thirty." But he promised himself
that after thirty, he would devote his life to the service of others.
Albert Schweitzer kept that vow but when the time came,
his friends and colleagues strongly opposed his plan. They insisted that
he was throwing away his life. They brought great pressure to bear,
trying to convince him that he could make a much greater contribution to
the world by continuing on the path that was bringing him so much
attention and success.
But in spite of the continued pressure, at the age of
thirty Schweitzer began the medical studies that would allow him to
become a doctor -- a medical missionary. At the end of his training he
planned to go to Gabon in West Africa and establish a clinic, deep in
the jungle, at Lambarene.
He almost didn't go. The French Missionary Society,
which was supposed to sponsor his African Mission, got involved in a
heated debate. Dr. Schweitzer had a reputation for holding unorthodox
views, and many doctrinally-correct Christian leaders distrusted him. He
had to convince them that his only purpose in going to Africa was to
bring healing to those in need. And when he had done that, he had to
solemnly swear that he would never try to convert either the
missionaries or the natives to his theological beliefs. But the
Missionary Society could not keep Schweitzer from thinking, and it was
during his African years that he developed his ethic of Reverence For
As his work with the sick became known in Europe and
America, numbers of willing workers came to join Dr. Schweitzer, and he
was able to make extended trips out of Africa. During those times, as he
went about gaining financial support for his medical work, he was
increasingly asked to lecture on the spiritual/ethical relationship to
the world that he called "Reverence for Life."
His message was: "Reverence for Life gives us something
more profound and mightier than the idea of humanism. It includes all
living beings (his emphasis). We reject the idea that man is 'Master' of
other creatures, 'Lord' above all others. We must realize that all life
is valuable and that we are united to all life. By ethical conduct
toward all creatures, we enter into a spiritual relationship with the
Schweitzer's own "spiritual relationship with the
Universe" was based on his understanding that Christianity -- or any
religion -- had value only insofar as it balanced the inward turning of
the mystic with the kind of substantive, ethical activity which Jesus
called for in the Sermon on the Mount.
He faulted Christianity for not putting into action
Christ's "great commandment of love and mercy." Christians had treated
this command as a treasured platitude instead of using it as a basis
"for opposing slavery, witch burning, torture, and all the other ancient
and medieval forms of inhumanity."
He also faulted Christians for ignoring the reality of
the Lord's Prayer: "Only a Christianity which is animated and ruled by
the idea and the intent of the Kingdom of God, is genuine. Only such a
Christianity is genuine. Only such a Christianity can give to the world
what it so desperately needs. It is only through the idea of the Kingdom
of God that religion enters into relationship with civilization."
This Kingdom of God on earth was the goal towards which
Christ taught his followers to work and pray. A world in which God's
will would be "done on earth, as it is in heaven" was a world in which
compassion, kindness and love were the rule. It was a world in which
Reverence for Life, meant reverence for all living things.
Schweitzer said that the Christ who called men and women
of his own time, is the same Christ who calls us to do the works of
mercy and love today. "He speaks to us the same words, 'Follow thou me'
and then sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time."
Dr. Schweitzer believed that whatever path of service is
chosen, compassion and concern for all creatures must be incorporated
into that service. Reverence for Life leaves no breeding ground for
cruelty. It is a "boundless ethic" which includes all beings regardless
of race, religion, or species.
He lived out this belief. During his lifetime he
ministered to "all beings" with compassionate care. It is a matter of
record that in the hospital at Lambarene he gave his services to
countless thousands of native Africans. And although his care of
nonhuman beings is of no interest to those who record a great man's
deeds, in his autobiography Schweitzer wrote movingly of his care for
the many kinds of creatures who came across his path in the jungle at
In his own time, Albert Schweitzer was as widely known
for the extensive network of medical help he established in West Africa
as Mother Teresa is known for her ministry to the sick and dying in
India. And like Mother Teresa, Dr. Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel
Peace Prize (in 1952).
The Albert Schweitzer Society is still an active force
that continues his work in 25 countries and ministers to "the poor,
sick, lepers, and all those suffering from injustice due to race, sex,
color..." But Schweitzer's legacy goes far beyond this ministry to
suffering humanity. His "boundless ethic" of Reverence for Life,
continues to grow in its influence, helping to bring about the kind of
world in which all beings can know freedom from the violence and
brutality which makes life on earth a misery for so many.
He understood that this freedom is inextricably bound to
the way we treat all creatures -- human and nonhuman. And his prophetic
understanding is both a warning and a guideline for our own time: "Until
he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will
not himself find peace."
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