"The Greatest Soul in Christendom” and His Stand on Free Religion

Robert H. Schacht Jr.

Berry Street lecture, 1949


read before the Ministerial Conference

Boston, Massachusetts



            Here is a man whose rational approach to religion, ethical sensitivity, and confidence in the methods and spirit of freedom as we understand it, are uniquely akin to the ends and means we value most. Schweitzer has already identified himself with our International Association For Religious Freedom and endorsed its program. Only last summer he sent a letter of approval and encouragement to our committee meeting in Geneva to plan the conference at Amsterdam this summer.


            His life and writings are commanding increasing world-wide attention, and his personal integrity is winning him the title of a modern saint. Yet somehow we Unitarians have failed to acknowledge widely among ourselves the kinship of his life and thought with our religious movement, and use the resources he offers us as a religious personality and profound thinker.


            We have to admit that Albert Schweitzer is a genius, and most of us are not; but a genius is one whose range of ability is basically like ours but much more extensive. When such a genius carries his thought and life into those larger regions where we, ourselves, cannot pioneer, we have an opportunity — even a duty — to follow and use what he has opened up for us. It does not mean, of course, slavishly to take his insights and conclusions as final truth, but it does mean to feed on, digest and use what we otherwise would not have. It means saying: "This is what liberal religion can do for and to those who share our basic questing spirit for the truth which makes men free.”


            There are no doubt some who feel Schweitzer has been too much of a "fool for Christ's sake,” that he has been too far removed from the currents of thought and action in the world to be able to stand in the front ranks with those leaders of thought and action now at work. Perhaps so, but I think not. His forthright opposition to Karl Barth would certainly include opposition to neo-orthodoxy; his devotion to complete freedom in religious thinking places him against all authoritarianism; and his sensitive concern for the humblest human being makes him an agitator for social reform dear to our own hearts.


            But leaving this dispute to one side, let us look at some of those aspects of his life and thought which show his kinship to us.


            Albert Schweitzer was born January 14, 1875, in the village of Kaysersberg, Alsace. When Albert was a few weeks old, his father became minister of the Protestant Evangelical group in the charming village of Gunsbach, in the Muenster Valley of Upper Alsace, and it was here he spent his early boyhood. Albert was the second child in a family of five children: three sisters and one brother. A sixth child died early.


            As a minister's son—and a liberally slanted minister, too—we see at once that here was a favorable start! There was also musical ability on both sides of the family tree and it bore remarkable fruit in Albert. Another matter of unusual interest lay in the fact that the one church edifice in town served both Catholics and Protestants. This went back to a practice introduced by Louis my for the benefit of Catholics in districts where their own places of worship were too few. Happily this arrangement has persisted to today. Thus Albert was conditioned from the start to a neighborly feeling with Catholics which has merged with many other factors into a spirit of tolerance and cooperation for building the larger religious unity which he personifies today. We might note here that one of the most appreciative tributes written regarding him is one appearing in the Readers Digest for March, 1946, by a noted Catholic priest, Father John A. O'Brien. The memories of that church with its Roman Catholic images and altar, and his father's own services there, are deeply imbedded in his living memories and practicing philosophy.


            His musical education began at the age of five on the old family square piano with his father as teacher. Albert quickly caught on to the rudiments and found it was much more fun to make up his own harmonies than to follow the plain ones he had in his music. He started playing the organ at the age of eight, and by nine years of age was able to take the place of the organist for a service in his father's church. In his early and middle 'teens he had the gifted young organist Eugene Munch as teacher. He had just graduated from the Institute of Music in Berlin and was one of the devotees of the new cult of Bach enthusiasts, It was he who gave Albert his introduction to Bach which culminated some years later in Albert himself becoming probably the greatest interpreter of Bach in our time as well as one of our time's greatest organists. The story of Albert's musical career and development is highly exciting. His two-volume work on Bach is the authority for students of this great composer. The story of his musical education and adventures told in his autobiography, and the appreciation of his abilities and spirit written by Prof Archibald Davison in the Jubilee volume honoring Schweitzer on his seventieth birthday in 1945, are there for those of you who care to pursue them. For the main purposes of this paper we must focus more on his theological and philosophical thinking, his ethics and views of civilization, and his uniquely consistent living of the high ends of life he has thought out. It is here we see a special kinship of his life and thought to ours.


            Before we plunge into weightier matters, I think it will be valuable to select two childhood experiences. This story is in his own words: "One thing that specially saddened me was that the unfortunate animals had to suffer so much pain and misery. The sight of an old limping horse, tugged forward by one man while another kept beating it with a stick to get it to the knacker's yard at Colmar, haunted me for weeks.


            "It was quite incomprehensible to me —this was before I began going to school —why in my evening prayers I should pray for human beings only. So when my mother had prayed with me and kissed me good night, I used to add silently a prayer I had composed myself for all living creatures. It ran thus: ‘O heavenly Father, protect and bless all things that have breath; guard them from all evil, and let them sleep in peace.’”


            To all who remember that his adult ethics, rooted in "Reverence for Life,” call not only for positive help to all human beings who are capable of being helped, but also all forms of life—animal and even vegetable—it is not hard to, infer that it is a carry-over from his childhood sensitivity and sense of fair-play. Another childhood incident found also in his Memoirs underscores his later attitude on race relations. He describes it thus: "A Jew from a neighboring village, Mausche by name, who dealt in land and cattle, used to come occasionally through Gunsbach with his donkey-cart. As there was at that time no Jew living in the village, this was always something of an event for the boys; they used to run after him and jeer at him. One day, in order to announce to the world that I was beginning to feel myself grown up, I could not help joining them, although I did not really understand what it all meant, so I ran along with the rest behind him and his donkey cart, shouting: ‘Mausche, Mausche!’ The most daring of them used to fold the corner of their shirt or jacket to look like a pig's ear, and spring with that as close to him as they could. In this way we followed him out of the village as far as the bridge, but Mausche, with his freckles and, his grey beard, drove on as unperturbed as his donkey, except that he several times looked at us with an embarrassed but good-natured smile. This smile overpowered me. From Mausche it was that I first learned what it means to keep silent under persecution, and he thus gave me a most valuable lesson. From that day forward I used to greet him politely, and, later, when I was in the secondary school I made it my practice to shake hands and walk a little way along with him, though he never learned what he really was to me. He had the reputation of being a usurer and a property-jobber, but I never tried to find out whether this was true or not. To me he has always been just ‘Mausche’ with the tolerant smile, the smile which even today compels me to be patient when I should like to rage and storm.”


            At this point we might well append the fact that he married a Jewess, a daughter of a Professor at the University of Strasburg. She has shared his life magnificently as far as her strength has been able to take her.


            As a parson's son, and later a minister himself, he has known the kind of life many of us have had or are having. His unusual sensitivity, penetrating thought and logical actions are simply more extensive and consistent than ours. Another observation is that in having in our possession such writings as Schweitzer's, do they not suggest their usefulness to us as possible teaching materials for our children and young people? It is not often that the world gives us a character of such consistently fine responses to life-situations. Here is no fiction but fact; a modest hero of the spirit who touches the best that is in us and gently but firmly shames our own shortcomings.


            The present paper is by no means intended to claim that Albert Schweitzer belongs to us. We honor him more accurately by saying that we strive to belong to him. There is no denying that there are literally thousands who have been inspired by his life and thoughts. What we would accent is that in his loyalty to truth and handling of it he uses the same disciplines and has the appreciation of its primary importance which we share. This same starting point also flowers out into all areas of life—philosophical, cultural, economic, political and educational—just as it does with us. His type of truth-loving is for him, and for us, the surest and most reliable tool by which men can apprehend a sound interpretation of life and win the courage to live, and, if need be, die for it.


            Suppose we think first of the five working principles which have been proposed as an addition to our AUA By-Laws: Individual freedom of belief; discipleship to advancing truth; the democratic process in human relations; brotherhood, undivided by nation, race, or creed; allegiance to the cause of a world community.


            As I have read Schweitzer I have come across abundant evidence that he could at once subscribe to these principles. Take, for example, these two paragraphs from his autobiography in which he discusses the problem of new truth raised by his Quest of the Historical Jesus. 

As my two books on the life of Jesus gradually became known, the question was put to me from all sides, what the eschatological Jesus, who lives expecting the end of the world and a supernatural Kingdom of God, can be to us. My own thoughts were continually busy with it while at work on my books. The satisfaction which I could not help feeling at having solved so many historical riddles about the existence of Jesus, was accompanied by the painful consciousness that this new knowledge in the realm of history would mean unrest and difficulty for Christian piety. I comforted myself, however, with words of St. Paul's which had been familiar to me from childhood: ‘We can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth’ (2 Cor. xiii, 8). Since the essential nature of the spiritual is truth, every new truth means ultimately more value than non-truth, and this must apply to truth in the realm of history as to other kinds of truth. Even if it comes in a guise which piety finds strange and at first makes difficulties for her,  the final result can never mean injury; it can only mean greater depth. Religion has, therefore, no reason for trying to avoid coming to terms with historical truth.

He then continues:


How strong would Christian truth now stand in the world of today, if its relation to the truth in history were in every respect what it should be! Instead of allowing this truth its rights, she treated it, whenever it caused her embarrassment, in various ways, conscious or unconscious, but always by either evading, or twisting, or suppressing it. Instead of admitting that new elements towards which she had to advance were new, and justifying them by present action, she proceeded with artificial and disputable arguments to force them back into the past. Today the condition of Christianity is such that hard struggles are now required to make possible that coming to terms with historical truth which has been so often missed in the past.


Because, while I was busied with the history of earlier Christianity, I had so often to deal with the results of its sins against the truth in history, I have become a keen worker for honesty in our Christianity of today.

            To indicate he knows that individual freedom of belief will mean for some arriving at an honest agnosticism, let me quote from a concluding paragraph from The Decay and Restoration of Civilization.

If thought is to set out on its journey unhampered, it must be prepared for anything, even for arrival at intellectual agnosticism. But even if our will-to-action is destined to wrestle endlessly and unavailingly with an agnostic view of the universe and of life, still this painful disenchantment is better for it than persistent refusal to think out its position at all. For this, disenchantment does, at any rate, mean that we are clear as to what we are doing.

            Does this not make clear the kinship of Schweitzer's recognition of complete freedom in seeking the truth? He, and we, accept honest agnosticism as more important religiously than no careful thought at all.


            Yet we should also recognize that for Schweitzer such complete freedom of belief was able to save for him a continuing and newly-deepened sense of what was of primary importance in Christianity, and strengthen his own confidence like ours—that a despairing agnosticism is a seldom-experienced reality for a courageous lover of truth. Along this same line of thought it is fitting that we take his words on what he came to see of importance for liberal Christianity in Jesus. In his autobiography he relates: ". . . if

.. . liberal Christianity has to give up identifying its belief with the teachings of Jesus in the way it used to think possible, it still has the spirit of Jesus not against it but on its side. Jesus no doubt fits His teaching into the late-Jewish Messianic dogma. But He does not think dogmatically. He formulates no doctrine. He is far from judging any man's belief by reference to any standard of dogmatic correctness. Nowhere does He demand of His hearers that they shall sacrifice thinking to believing. Quite the contrary! He bids them meditate upon religion. In the Sermon on the Mount He lets ethics, as the essence of religion, flood their hearts, leading them to judge the value of piety by what it makes of a man from the ethical point of view. Within the Messianic hopes which His hearers carry in their hearts, He kindles the fires of an ethical faith. Thus the Sermon on the Mount becomes the incontestable charter of liberal Christianity. The truth that the ethical is the essence of religion is firmly established on the authority of Jesus.”


            From this viewpoint, how does one regard orthodoxy? He says: "We know how much that is precious exists within the ecclesiastical Christianity which has been handed down in Greek dogmas and kept alive by the piety of so many centuries, and we hold fast to the church with love, and reverence, and thankfulness. But we belong to her as men who appeal to the saying of St. Paul: ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,’ and who believe that they serve Christianity better by the strength of their devotion to Jesus religion of love than by acquiescence in all the articles of belief. If the Church has the spirit of Jesus, there is room in her for every form of Christian piety, even for that which claims unrestricted liberty.”


            Here is one of those definitive positions of Schweitzer which clearly shows his and our kinship: For a church with the spirit of Jesus, there is room even for that form which claims unrestricted liberty.


            We continue with his closing words on this point: "I find it no light task to follow my vocation, to put pressure on the Christian Faith to reconcile it in all sincerity with historical truth. But I am certain that truthfulness in all things belongs to the spirit of Jesus.”


            These passages make it clear to me that Schweitzer would subscribe in a moment to the individual freedom of belief and discipleship to advancing truth in the five working principles. But there are supplemental observations we may well make before going on to the others.


            Whereas he is no Humanist himself, he certainly would never exclude such, for in his eyes they are brethren of the spirit. They share the same hunger for truth and exercise the same disciplines in its acquisition. They have the same concern for the spiritual development of all men. These make a foundation of broad aims and specific methods fundamental to any thoughtful expression of man's religious search. So, we infer, he looks to the left of himself. But he also looks to the right with an affectionate appreciation of those who are rooted in the Christianity of ancient dogmas and who cannot readily free themselves from their domination. He would keep intercourse with these by asking them to accept his efforts to express Jesus' religion of love by the credentials of his personal life. Religiously, too, he would judge them primarily in the same way, never needling them to accept his theological point of view. Here again we sense we share an approach to the ecumenical problem in the spirit Schweitzer embodies in his life and writings. The spirit of loving helpfulness is the primary thing, and there is no need to surrender one inch of our personal religious integrity nor to ask our neighbors to surrender theirs. There is a foundation of spirit and integrity in which we can do much together. He, and we, champion this realm of the ethical spirit as the means for successful and enduring ecumenicity.


            Schweitzer's belief in the democratic process in human relations can be likewise abundantly illustrated. First of all there is his personal handling of the natives at his mission in Africa. One of the three valuable appendices George Seaver has put in his volume The Man and His Mind is Schweitzer's paper on "The Relations of the White to the Coloured Races.” Here, out of his personal experiences and observations of what this impact has been and done, he outlines a plan of procedure which could bring the highest possible self-development to each African negro under seven fundamental "rights of man.” He lists them as (1) the right to habitation; (2) to move freely; (3) the right to the soil and subsoil and to the use of it; (4) the right to freedom of labour and of exchange; (5) the right to justice; (6) the right to live within a natural, national organization; and (7) the right to education. Under each of these headings he develops a view of the conditions of negroes before white men came, the conditions since, and the factors now on the scene, and additional ones which could be introduced to give a more self-respecting, self-sustaining form of life and culture to these neglected peoples. The point is that the whole spirit of his approach, methods and ends are in perfect keeping with the ideal of the democratic process in human relations as we understand it.


            A most important illustration supporting this ideal and also introducing the next—Brotherhood, undivided by nation, race or creed—would be the meaning of his famous phrase "Reverence for Life.” This is hard to define briefly with all the undertones and overtones of the careful context within which Schweitzer brings it forth, so we shall have to suffice with saying that it is first of all a reverent concern for the development of the best which is in us within the limitations life imposes on us all. Secondly, it is a similar concern for the best development of every other human life. Thirdly, it is such a concern for all forms of life—animal and vegetable—which are neither dangerous to us nor to the health and safety of others. It grows by a uniting of our will-to-live with this ethical concern. It is enriched and empowered by thoughtful living to this end in all we think, say and do. As an inner, growing experience it suggests itself as a clue to a spirit of wisdom and love in the universe, expressing itself through us for the fulfillment of the highest meaning and most satisfying purpose in life that man can know. Its larger value, thus tested in the crucible of, our own thought and experience, is as sure a ground for a meaningful concept of God as wisdom and love as thoughtful human experience can provide.


            Let us stop this definition here and hope to take up more of its associated views later. It is clear, however, that this is a basic, principle and attitude undergirding a broad and deep view of human brotherhood and responsibility. But we would do Schweitzer a great injustice if we used for illustration at this point just the philosophical-theological concept of "Reverence for Life” to demonstrate his acceptance of this fourth working principle. The warmth of his love in action is needed to make this word before flesh. In On the Edge of the Primeval Forest is this often quoted picture of him as he sits by the bedside of a man upon whom he has just operated: "The operation is finished, and in the hardly-lighted dormitory I watch for the sick man's awakening. Scarcely has he recovered consciousness when he stares about him and ejaculates again and again: ‘I’ve no more pain! I've no more pain!’ His hand feels for mine and he will not let it go. Then I begin to tell him and the others that it is the Lord Jesus who has told the doctor and his wife to come to the Ogowe, and that white people in Europe give them the money to live here and cure the sick negroes. Then I have to answer questions as to who these white people are, where they live, and how they know that the natives suffer so much from sickness. The African sun is shining through the coffee bushes into the dark shed, but we, black and white, sit side by side and feel that we know by experience the meaning of the words; ‘And all ye are brethren’.” (Matt. XXIII, 8)