A distinguished author, an insightful pastor, a creative organist, a gifted teacher—all these talents resided in one young man whose destiny stretched before him on the unwritten pages of his life. His abilities were many, thus a myriad of options were available to him. Many were awed by this talented individual; those who knew him were impressed by his intellect during conversation and in his preaching, as well as by his unique stance on topics ranging from music to philosophy to theology.
However, none of these accomplishments were enough for this young man. He felt a calling—a deep desire to devote his life in service to mankind—and he knew he would not be satisfied by life’s usual, temporal accomplishments. Albert Schweitzer followed the bidding of his heart, for it resounded louder than his talents and abilities, and through his dedication to helping others, he made a lasting difference in the lives of countless individuals across the world.
In the early nineteen hundreds, Albert Schweitzer was well known across Europe. In the era before either of the world wars had divided nations and ushered in great change worldwide, much respect was given to intellectuality. Great thinkers were—as they had been for thousands of years—widely revered. At a young age, Albert Schweitzer was already recognized as one of these original thinkers. For instance, the 600-page book he had written on Bach, “interpreted the great master organist-composer. Albert Schweitzer…comprehended what Bach was trying to say and do with his music and thus was able to reach into Bach’s life and spirit.”[i] Similarly, Schweitzer’s writings on theology questioned dogmatic Christian beliefs and brought attention from theologians and skeptics alike. Still, no one knew of the passion raging deep within his heart.
From the time he was a boy, Albert Schweitzer felt the necessity to respect every form of life, from smallest to greatest. Albert Schweitzer described an experience in his Memoirs of Childhood and Youth, when a friend invited him to use sparrows in a tree as targets for their new slingshots. “Stooping like a hunter, my companion put a bullet in the leather of his catapult and took aim. In obedience to his nod of command, I did the same. At that very moment the church bells began to ring, mingling their music with the songs of the birds. For me it was a voice from heaven. I shooed the birds away, so that they flew where they were safe from my companion’s catapult, and then I fled home. And ever since then, when the bells ring out to the leafless trees and the sunshine, I reflect with a rush of grateful emotion how their music drove deep into my heart the commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”[ii] His boyhood was sprinkled with experiences such as these, which carried on into his young adulthood.
It was when he was 21 that Albert Schweitzer decided on a unique course which determined the direction of his life. We are given a glimpse into an element of that experience through the words of Christian author Ken Gire: “Schweitzer was enjoying the cozy solitude of an Easter vacation one spring day. The ascending sun angled in from a window in his room, as he lay in bed, half-awake, basking in the serenity of early morning. And then, as auspiciously as a sparrow landing on his windowsill, his destiny fluttered into view.”[iii] The call, which had been slowly building deep in the recesses of his soul, finally sounded. Albert Schweitzer realized that he was responsible for bearing the pain of those in pain. He understood the words spoken by Jesus during his life on earth, words that bid the people of the earth to live, not for oneself, but for others.[iv] “Whoever is spared personal pain must feel himself called to help in diminishing the pain of others.”[v] Thus his resolution was made. He would continue on his present course as student, teacher and pastor until the age of thirty, at which time he would pursue a life of dedication to mankind.
Just how he was meant to accomplish that, though, was not yet clear. It would be years before the answer trumpeted once more, but it finally did. It was 1904, and Schweitzer was working in his study when his eyes fell upon a magazine article. It had been written by a member of the Paris Missionary Society, and beckoned anyone willing to join the mission work in Gabon. The direst need was for doctors. As he read, it was as if a light began to shine in his mind. The appeal reached down into his heart, and he knew there was no need to keep searching. He would study medicine and volunteer his services to the Paris Missionary Society in Gabon—in what was then French Equatorial Africa.
Albert Schweitzer, now a pastor and college principal, reached his thirtieth year. It was now time to leave behind that which he had worked for during the first three decades of his life in order to pursue his soul’s ambitions. Among his first steps of preparation were to inform family and friends of his intentions. Their responses, though relatively understandable, were at the same time very discouraging. Many attempted to dissuade him from his new endeavor. They thought it a great waste of his talents to pursue such an obscure mission. The most difficult times for him were when he was completely misunderstood by friends—those who professed the same Christianity that he held before him as a guiding light for his path of service. They seemed completely unable to realize that the teachings of Christ should encourage believers to follow a path of dedication to mankind. Still there were others who—though they did not completely understand his vision—knew that Schweitzer was a person of integrity and enthusiasm, and they vowed to support him in his efforts.
Study and hard work filled the subsequent eight years, as Albert Schweitzer earned his medical degree. At the same time, he searched for those who would support him in his venture of building and operating a hospital in Africa.
Finally, the time had come. On March 23, 1913—amidst well wishes from many in his hometown of Gunsbach, Alsace–Schweitzer’s journey began.[vi] Nearly the entire town saw him and his new wife, Helene, off at the train station. Three weeks later, they arrived in Lambarene—a small village at the edge of the forests of Gabon.
Thus began a unique stage of his life, far from anything Schweitzer’s friends, family and colleagues would have expected, from anything even he himself expected. Dr. Albert Schweitzer built a unique community hospital. He conducted his medical service to the native people of Africa and gave needed treatment to the thousands of inhabitants of villages up and down the Ogowe River. At first, his work was conducted in relative obscurity, as he spent day after steaming hot day on the edge of the primeval forest, serving with his medical knowledge all those who came to him in need of medical help. In time, his name became somewhat of a legend yet his life was in many ways still a mystery. As the knowledge of his work grew and spread worldwide, many came to visit, see for themselves, and even join in the selfless work among the sick and afflicted of Gabon.
In September of 1965, one more call took place. A quiet one, only heard by a dedicated doctor who was now 90 years old. It was the call Home. Albert Schweitzer died among the people for whom he had worked so many years. In the period of time between the building of the first hospital in 1913 to his death in 1965, nearly 150,000 people had stayed and been treated at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital, and close to 20,000 individuals received timely and life-saving operations.[vii] Many of these doubtless would have succumbed to their diseases and wounds if not for the painstaking care of Dr. Schweitzer and those who came to join him in his efforts. The new-famous work of the Schweitzer Hospital in Lambarene would not end with his passing. Dedicated doctors and nurses would ensure that it continued, and the people of Gabon were not left without personalized care and effective treatment.
The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship is one continuation of the original work provided by Dr. Schweitzer, formed with the purpose of developing “Leaders in Service: individuals who are dedicated and skilled in meeting the health needs of underserved communities, and whose example influences and inspires others.”[viii] Its 250 members worldwide have studied in over 100 respected universities and have come together to “develop a blueprint for lifelong service,” including service to nearly 25,000 low-income individuals.[ix]
This “fellowship” also serves in the Schweitzer Hospital, which is still in operation. Its purpose is clearly stated as “a site significant to the historical and cultural inheritance of Gabon, the hospital looks towards the future as a living symbol of the nation’s unity. With its international identity, the hospital stands as a symbol of solidarity, of brotherhood throughout the world. It aspires to serve as a medical and humanitarian example in Africa with its multiple collaborators and affiliates. The hospital will remain an organization built on Albert Schweitzer’s message of ‘Reverence for Life’ by continuing to care for and respect each patient and his or her human dignity.”[x]
After seeing the effects that Albert Schweitzer had on the lives of many, none could deny the fact that his choice to leave behind a life of prestige and influence for a life of obscure service had been the right one. Yet what was it that took him across lands and demarcation lines to die among a people who were, at first, strangers to him?
Albert Schweitzer felt a personal bidding that took him from a life of prestige and influence to a life of simple service. The books that he wrote describe his life, work, and views. A number of books written by others likewise give information on these same topics. Yet no explanations can accurately define the calling he felt in his heart. To fully understand, one would likewise have to hold that same purpose in the heart…and follow it. Deep within our hearts, each of us has a dream, a destiny. We can choose to ignore it, or to take heed and follow. We might have to lose sight of the shore in order to discover that “new world,” yet we will never regret the choice we made to pursue that dream, that calling. We just might change the world.
[i] Marshall, George and David Poling. Schweitzer: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
[ii] Schweitzer, Albert. Memoirs of Childhood and Youth. Trans. C. T. Campion. New York: Macmillan, 1958.
[iii] Gire, Ken. Windows of the Soul. Michigan: Zondervan, 1996.
[iv] Schweitzer, Albert. Out of My Life and Thought. Trans. C. T. Campion. New York: Henry, 1933.
[v] Cousins, Norman. The Words of Albert Schweitzer. New York: Newmarket, 1984.
[vi] Schweitzer, Albert. On the Edge of the Primeval Forest. C. T. Campion. New York: Macmillan, 1956.
[vii] Marshall, George and David Poling. Schweitzer: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
[viii] Albert Schweitzer Fellowship (ASF). The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, 2011. 04 Feb. 2011.
[x] Albert Schweitzer Fellowship (ASF). The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, 2011. 04 Feb. 2011. Lambarene Fellows