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Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer

On of the joys of travel – particularly staying in one particular area for any length of time – is that of coming across the unexpected. A couple of years ago we camped in Saint Remy in Provence, France, and were able to visit many of the places where Vincent van Gough lived and worked, as well as various museums dedicated to him. This year – for the first couple of weeks of our extended seven week camping holiday in France – we have been staying in Kaysersberg in the Alsace-Lorraine region. We came here because we have never been here before, and because there were lots of interesting places to visit in the region. We have not been disappointed.

One of the things we did not realise before we came here, however, was that Kaysersberg was the birthplace of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965). Schweitzer was born into an Alsatian family which for generations had been devoted to religion, music, and education. His father and maternal grandfather were ministers, both of his grandfathers were talented organists, and many of his relatives were persons of scholarly attainments.

When I first began to study theology, more than 50 years ago now, Albert Schweitzer was one of the controversial theological figures of my youth. Schweitzer entered into his own intensive theological studies in 1893 at the University of Strasbourg where he obtained Doctorates in Philosophy and Theology, and became licensed to preach. He began preaching at St Nicholas’ Church in Strasbourg in 1899 and served in various high ranking administrative posts from 1901-1912 in the Theological College of St Thomas, the college he had attended at the University of Strasbourg. In 1906 he published his controversial book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, a book on which much of his fame as a theological scholar rests.

At the same time Schweitzer continued with a distinguished musical career. Initiated at an early age with piano and organ lessons, Schweitzer was only nine years of age when he first performed in his father’s church. He became an internationally recognized concert organist and used the proceeds from his professional engagements to fund his education, later medical schooling, and his African hospital.

In 1905 Schweitzer decided to go to Africa as a medical missionary, rather than as a Pastor, and began the study of medicine at the University of Strasbourg. In 1913, having obtained his MD, he founded a hospital at Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa. In 1917 Schweitzer and his wife were deemed to be German (technically they were ‘German’ as a result of being born at a time when Kaysersberg was a part of Germany) and were sent to a French internment camp as prisoners of war. Released in 1918, Schweitzer spent the next six years in Europe, preaching in his old church, giving lectures and concerts, taking medical courses, and writing various books.

Schweitzer returned to Lambaréné in 1924 and, except for relatively short periods of time, spent the remainder of his life there. With the funds earned from his own royalties and personal appearance fees and with those donated from all parts of the world, he expanded the hospital to seventy buildings which by the early 1960s could take care of over 500 patients in residence at any one time. At Lambaréné, Schweitzer was doctor and surgeon in the hospital, Pastor of a congregation, administrator of a village, superintendent of buildings and grounds, writer of scholarly books, commentator on contemporary history, musician, and host to countless visitors. The honours he received were numerous, including the Nobel Peace Prize for 1952, using the $33,000 prize money to start a Leprosarium at Lambaréné. Schweitzer died on September 4, 1965, and was buried at Lambaréné.

Albert Schweitzer, like a number of other controversial characters of whom I was theologically ‘wary’ in my youth, has subsequently become one of my ‘heroes’ not least because of the practical slant to his understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. He was not content to be ‘theologically sound’ – to ‘tick every reformed evangelical box’ but interpreted the saving work and teaching of Jesus Christ in very practical ways. So, for Julia and I to discover on our initial walk round Kaysersberg, that Albert Schweitzer was actually born here, initiated our own ‘quest for the historical Albert’.

We begin our search in the village of Gunsbach, just a few miles from Kaysersberg, where Albert grew up. Albert’s father was the Pastor of the Protestant Church in Gunsbach although the Protestants and Roman Catholics actually shared the same medieval Parish Church building, worshipping at different times, but enjoying a fraternal relationship. This left an indelible mark on the young Albert who, from that time on, believed that true Christianity should always work towards a unity of faith and purpose. We want to see this church building for ourselves … but when we get there it is locked. There is, however, an ‘Albert Schweitzer Museum’ just across the road, so we head for that … only to find that that is closed as well. The notice on the door tells us that, in fact, it is only ever open during the months of July and August? We should have known that of course. Our previous visits to France have taught us that ‘the rules (in this case the rule of common sense) only apply during July and August’?! We do find the old Schweitzer family home, however, where the young Albert enjoyed a happy childhood in the company of his parents and siblings … and a very nice looking house it is.

Our next port of call in our quest for the historical Albert is Kaysersberg itself. We know that there is a museum dedicated to him here, and we know the times when it is open. Our quest for the historical Albert started off somewhat badly in Gunsbach, but it quickly goes from unfortunate to the completely potty. No sooner do we get into the small museum in Kaysersberg itself than we are ‘cornered’ by what appears to be either ‘the local undertaker’ or ‘the spectre at the feast’?! A rather tall, thin, very elderly man – he looks about 150 years of age – traps us in a corner. He informs us that he served with Schweitzer in Africa, that he has written a book about it, which he just happens to have a copy with him, and would we like to buy it? We tell him that we are English and that our French is not really up to debating with him. ‘Not to worry’ he says, ‘he speaks perfect English, and German, and Spanish, etc., etc.’ He starts to tell us his life story … right from the beginning … and he really is very, very old! There is not much about Albert Schweitzer … it is all about him!? It is very difficult to break away. We want to see the various exhibits in the museum … it is due to close for lunch in an hour … and he won’t stop talking? He reminds me of a Deacon at my home church in my youth. She was equally verbose and seemingly impossible to stop when in full flight. The only person who could ever stop her was the Moderator we had at the time. I asked him how he managed to do it? ‘I watch her lips’ he replied ‘she has to pause for breath occasionally … and then I step in!’ He was very clever, and the next time she ‘went off on one’ I watched the Moderator carefully. And as soon as the Deacon momentarily paused for breath, he jumped in … ‘Thank you so much Mrs Soandso, that was very interesting … now (turning to another Deacon) Mr Thingymajig, what do you think?’ In desperation (there are now only 30 minutes left before the museum closes) I watch the Undertaker’s lips. As soon as he pauses for breath I am in ‘Thank you so much … your story is so interesting … but we really must see the rest of the exhibition … oh look, there are two Americans that have just come in … they would love to hear your story I’m sure … goodbye!’ And off we move.

To be honest we are slightly disappointed, however, because the museum seems to be almost exclusively devoted to Schweitzer’s work in Africa at the hospital he founded in Lambarene (now Gabon but then French Equatorial Africa). There is virtually nothing about Schweitzer’s own ‘faith journey’ and what it was that motivated his complete change of lifestyle, leaving a ‘successful’ career, both as an academic of repute and a famous musician, in order to retrain as a doctor and serve God, and the poor and needy, in Africa. It is almost time for the museum to close, so we slip away. The Undertaker is still talking to the Americans. In desperation they have bought one of his books … at an inflated price of 25€.

We wander round Kaysersberg looking at the numerous memorials to Albert Schweitzer. Fascinatingly there are various quotes from his sermons on huge posters everywhere. Our favourite is the one by the beautiful memorial garden dedicated to those from Kaysersberg who died in battle. It is in French of course, but a rough translation reads thus: ‘None of us are preoccupied properly with the problem of peace if we are not constantly assailed by the question: What are you doing for peace? Are you acting to the best of your resources? How are things in your heart? Do you allow the Spirit of peace to dominate the spirit of the world?’

Later in the week we go to Strasbourg to continue our quest for the historical Albert. We know that he both studied and taught at the University here, and that he was the Curate at St Nicholas’ Church, where he also played the organ. We find our way to the nearest car park to St Nicholas’ (courtesy of our wonderful new SatNav, Kate) and we even find the church easily enough. Needless to say it is closed. Well it isn’t July or August yet? I don’t know about this being a quest for the ‘historical’ Albert, it has turned out to have been more like a quest for the ‘hysterical’ Albert … although that very challenging quote about our need to be a ‘people of peace’ will continue to live with us for a long time!

Jim Binney

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