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Albert Schweitzer

An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To consider the life of Albert Schweitzer.

Preparation and materials


  1. Albert Schweitzer was born in 1875 and died in 1965. He has been described as one of the greatest Christians of all time and his work was characterized by a profound respect for nature. Schweitzer explored his beliefs theoretically, but also put them to practical use. His views continue to be deeply relevant, considering the growing need for environmental and humanitarian awareness. Most people today have not heard the name Albert Schweitzer, but at one time, he was extremely famous.

  2. By the time he was nearly 40, Albert Schweitzer had established himself as a distinguished musician and theological scholar and had also written books about philosophy, theology and music by Bach. However, in 1913, he gave all of this up to move to Lambaréné in Africa, where he worked for many years alongside his wife, helping anyone in need, particularly people suffering from leprosy.

    In his autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought, Schweitzer tells us that he had been grappling for a long time with questions concerning the fundamental nature of civilization and ethics. He had been struggling to find a universal basis for understanding them that would meet the needs and questions of the modern world. When the book was published in the early 1930s, this modern world had suffered the First World War and was experiencing the events that would lead to the start of the Second World War by the end of the decade. Schweitzer had many thoughts about the nature of civilization and ethics, but could not break through to that crucial principle that he felt held them all together. He said that he felt as though he was ‘wandering about in a thicket where no path was to be found . . . [and] pushing against an iron door that would not yield’.

  3. At last, one day, out of the blue, the answer came to him. It was the dry season in Lambaréné and Schweitzer was sitting on the deck of a barge. As the barge searched for a route through the sandbanks, Schweitzer was searching for what he called ‘the elementary and universal concept of the ethical that I had not discovered in any philosophy’. He had covered sheet after sheet in disconnected sentences, trying to make himself concentrate. Then, suddenly, everything slotted into place. As he puts it in his autobiography, ‘Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase “reverence for life”. The iron door had yielded: the path in the thicket had become visible. Now I had found my way to the principle in which affirmation of the world and ethics are joined together!

  4. Nearly 100 years later, we are still only beginning to see what we have to do to take seriously what Schweitzer glimpsed there among the hippos: ‘A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as much as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help.’

  5. We are unlikely to have the privilege of finding ourselves among a herd of hippos from which to draw inspiration. However, we can find inspiration from the beauty of nature that we see all around us: a spider’s web, the night sky, a piece of music, a smile, a view from a mountain or the ruins of an ancient temple. The world is full of things that we often don’t take the time to admire and appreciate.

    When we appreciate the small things that we see in the world, it becomes more difficult to ignore the bigger issues.

Time for reflection

When can we make time today to stop and look at the beauty of the world?

This prayer for animals is commonly attributed to Albert Schweitzer.

Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends the animals,
Especially for animals who are suffering . . .
For any that are hunted or lost or deserted or frightened or hungry;
For all that must be put to death.
We entreat for them all thy mercy and pity,
And for those who deal with them, we ask a heart of compassion and gentle hands and kindly words.
Make us, ourselves, to be true friends to animals and so to share the blessings of the merciful.


Albert Schweitzer was a fine musician who played the organ and was an authority on the music of J. S. Bach. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor is an accessible piece for organ that you may wish to play, in which case you will also need the means to do so. A version (12.57 minutes long) is available at:

Publication date: April 2018   (Vol.20 No.4)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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