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Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography

Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography

3.7 4
by Albert Schweitzer, Jimmy Carter (Foreword by), Lachlan Forrow (Foreword by), Antje Bultmann Lemke (Translator), Rhena Schweitzer Miller (Preface by)

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Published to commemorate Albert Schweitzer’s only visit to the United States 60 years ago, this anniversary edition of his autobiography gives 21st-century readers a unique and authoritative account of the man John F. Kennedy called "one of the transcendent moral influences of our century."

Schweitzer is celebrated around the world as a European pioneer of


Published to commemorate Albert Schweitzer’s only visit to the United States 60 years ago, this anniversary edition of his autobiography gives 21st-century readers a unique and authoritative account of the man John F. Kennedy called "one of the transcendent moral influences of our century."

Schweitzer is celebrated around the world as a European pioneer of medical service in Africa, a groundbreaking philosopher and musical scholar, and a catalyst of environmental and peace activism. Yet people most revere Schweitzer for his dedication to serving others and his profound and influential ethic of reverence for life. For Schweitzer, reverence for life was not a theory or a philosophy but a discovery—a recognition that the capacity to experience and act on a reverence for all life is a fundamental part of human nature, a characteristic that sets human beings apart from the rest of the natural world.

This anniversary edition coincides with several high profile celebrations of his 1949 visit, as well as the release of a new feature film starring Jeroen Krabbe and Barbara Hershey. In addition to a foreword by Nobel Laureate and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, this edition features a new foreword by Lachlan Forrow, president of The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship.

Editorial Reviews

Los Angeles Times
Out of My Life and Thought shatters the old myth and allows us to glimpse the real Albert Schweitzer, a man whose moral example is as relevant and compelling... as it was in the 1930s on first publication. Eloquent and heartfelt.

Los Angeles Times
Allows us to glimpse the real Albert Schweitzer, a man whose moral example is as relevant and compelling in the 1990s as it was in the 1930s.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Even in our cynical age, the legendary story of jungle doctor Albert Schweitzer, self-sacrificingly devoted to the service of humanity, inspires. Out of print since the early 1970s, his classic autobiography, first published in 1933, speaks directly to modern readers in its searching appraisal of this ``period of spiritual decline for mankind,'' an age in which science, technology and power seem divorced from ethical standards. In earnest prose Schweitzer discusses his research into primitive Christianity and his search for the historical Jesus; his love of Bach, ``poet and painter in sound''; his fancy for rebuilding old church organs. His philosophy, which he called ``Reverence for Life,'' blends mysticism and rationalism, with an impulse to release the ``active ethic'' he sees latent in Christianity. For this fluid new translation, Schweitzer's own corrections made between original publication and 1960 have been incorporated.
One of two autobiographical works beginning a series that will combine material never published before with reprints of important volumes by Nobel Peace Laureate, Renaissance man, and humanitarian Schweitzer (1875-1965). First published in 1931 as Aus meinem Leben und thought: an autobiography and augmented with his own revisions and additions over the next 30 years. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
The Los Angeles Times
Allows us to glimpse the real Albert Schweitzer, a man whose moral example is as relevant and compelling in the 1990s as it was in the 1930s.

Product Details

Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
60th Anniversary Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

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Out of My Life and Thought

An Autobiography

By Albert Schweitzer, A. B. Lemke

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1990 Rhena Schweitzer Miller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8294-2


Childhood, School, and University

I was born on January 14, 1875, at Kaysersberg in Upper Alsace, the second child of Louis Schweitzer, who at that time served as minister for the little flock of Protestants in that Catholic place. My paternal grandfather was schoolmaster and organist at Pfaffenhofen in Lower Alsace, and three of his brothers occupied similar posts. My mother, Adele, née Schillinger, was a daughter of the pastor of Mühlbach in the Münster Valley, Upper Alsace.

A few weeks after my birth my father moved to Günsbach in the Münster Valley. Here with my three sisters and one brother I spent a happy childhood overshadowed only by my father's frequent illnesses. His health improved later on, however, and as a sturdy septuagenarian he looked after his parish during the war under the fire of the French guns that swept the valley from the heights of the Vosges mountains, destroying many a house and killing many an inhabitant of Günsbach. He died at a ripe old age in 1925. My mother had been run over and killed by cavalry horses on the road between Günsbach and Weier-im-Tal in 1916.

When I was five years old my father began giving me music lessons on the old square piano that we had inherited from grandfather Schillinger. He had no great technical skill but improvised charmingly. When I was seven I surprised our teacher by playing hymn tunes on the harmonium with harmonies I supplied myself. At eight, when my legs were hardly long enough to reach the pedals, I began to play the organ. My passion for that instrument was inherited from my grandfather Schillinger, who had been much interested in organs and organ building, and, as my mother told me, had a reputation for improvising magnificently. In every town he visited, he made a point of getting to know its organs. When the famous organ was installed in the Stiftskirche at Lucerne he journeyed there to see its builder at work.

I was nine years old when I was permitted for the first time to substitute for the organist at a service at Günsbach.

Till the autumn of 1884 I went to the Günsbach village school. After that, for a year I was at the Realschule (which is a secondary school giving no instruction in classical languages) at Münster, and there I had private lessons in Latin to prepare me for entering the fifth class in the Gymnasium. In the autumn of 1885 I entered the Gymnasium at Mülhausen in Alsace. My godfather, Louis Schweitzer, my grandfather's half brother, who was director of the primary schools in that town, was kind enough to take me to live with him. Otherwise my father, who had nothing beyond his slender stipend on which to bring up his large family, could hardly have afforded to send me to a Gymnasium.

The strict discipline to which I was subjected in the house of my great-uncle and his wife, who had no children of their own, was very good for me. It is with deep gratitude that I always think of all the kindness I received from them.

Although it had cost me some trouble to learn to read and write, I had got on fairly well in school at Günsbach and Münster. At the Gymnasium, however, I was at first a poor scholar. This was owing not solely to my being slack and dreamy but partly also to the fact that my private lessons in Latin had not prepared me sufficiently for the fifth class, in which I entered the school. It was only when my teacher in the fourth, Dr. Wehmann, showed me how to study properly and gave me some self-confidence that things went better. But Dr. Wehmann's influence over me was due above all to the fact, of which I became aware during my first days in his class, that he prepared every lesson he gave very carefully in advance. He became a model of fulfillment of duty for me. I visited him many times in later life. When, toward the end of the war, I went to Strasbourg, where he lived during the latter part of his life, I at once inquired after him. I learned, however, that starvation had ruined his nervous system and that he had taken his own life.

My music teacher at Mülhausen was Eugène Münch, the young organist at the Reformed Church of St. Stephen. This was his first post after leaving the Academy of Music at Berlin, where he had been seized by the then reawakening enthusiasm for Bach. I owe it to him that I became acquainted in my early years with the works of the cantor of St. Thomas and from my fifteenth year onward enjoyed the privilege of sound instruction on the organ. When, in the autumn of 1898, he died of typhoid fever in the flower of his age, I perpetuated his memory in a booklet written in French. It was published in Mülhausen, and was the first product of my pen to appear in print.

At the Gymnasium I was chiefly interested in history and natural science. In languages and mathematics it took a great deal of effort for me to accomplish anything. But after a time I felt a certain fascination in mastering subjects for which I had no special talent. Consequently, in the upper classes I was considered one of the better students, though not one of the best. With essays, however, if I remember rightly, I was usually the first.

In the first class we were taught Latin and Greek by the distinguished director of the Gymnasium, Wilhelm Deecke of Lübeck. His lessons were not the dry instruction of a mere linguist; they introduced us to ancient philosophy while giving us glimpses into contemporary thought. He was an enthusiastic follower of Schopenhauer.

On June 18, 1893, I passed my final examinations. In the written papers I did not do very well, not even in the essay. In the oral examination, however, I attracted the attention of the chairman of the board of examiners — Dr. Albrecht of Strasbourg — with my knowledge of history and my historical judgment. A "very good" in history, substantiated by some words of praise, adorned my diploma, which otherwise was quite mediocre.

In October of the same year, the generosity of my father's elder brother, a businessman in Paris, secured for me the privilege of organ instruction from the Parisian organist Charles-Marie Widor. My teacher at Mülhausen had taught me so well that Widor, after hearing me play, took me as a pupil, although he normally confined his instruction to members of the organ class at the Conservatory. This instruction was for me an event of decisive importance. Widor presided over a fundamental improvement in my technique and made me strive to attain perfect plasticity in playing. At the same time, thanks to him, the meaning of the architectonic in music became clear to me.

My first lesson with Widor happened to be on the sunny October day when the Russian sailors under Admiral Avellan arrived in Paris for the visit that was the first manifestation of the Franco-Russian friendship then beginning. I was delayed by the closely packed, expectant crowds that filled the boulevards and the central streets, and was very late in reaching the master's house.

* * *

At the end of October 1893, I entered the University of Strasbourg. I lived in the theological seminary of St. Thomas (the Collegium Wilhelmitanum), the principal of which was the learned Reverend Alfred Erichson. Just at that time he was occupied with the completion of his great edition of the works of Calvin.

The University of Strasbourg, recently founded, already had a fine reputation. Unhampered by tradition, teachers and students alike strove to realize the ideal of a modern university. There were hardly any older professors among the faculty. A fresh breeze of youthfulness animated the whole university.

I took the two subjects of theology and philosophy together. As I had learned only the elements of Hebrew in the Gymnasium, my first term was spoiled by work for the "Hebraicum" (the preliminary examination in Hebrew), which I passed with much effort on February 17, 1894. Later, spurred on again by the effort to master what did not come easily to me, I acquired a sound knowledge of that language.

Anxiety about the Hebraicum did not prevent me from eagerly attending the lectures by Heinrich Julius Holtzmann on the Synoptics — that is to say, the three first Gospels — and others by Wilhelm Windelband and Theobald Ziegler on the history of philosophy.

On April 1, 1894, I began my year of military service, but the kindness of my captain, Krull by name, made it possible for me to be at the university by eleven o'clock almost every day, and so to attend Windelband's lectures.

When in the autumn of 1894 we went on maneuvers in the neighborhood of Hochfelden (Lower Alsace), I put my Greek Testament in my knapsack. I should explain that at the beginning of the winter term, those theological students who wished to compete for a scholarship had to pass an examination in three subjects. Those, however, who were then doing their military service had only to take one. I chose the synoptic Gospels.

I took my Greek New Testament with me to maneuvers so I would not disgrace myself with a poor performance before Holtzmann, whom I admired very much. At that time I was robust and did not know fatigue, so I could study in the evenings and on holidays. During the summer I had gone through Holtzmann's commentary. Now I wanted to get to know the text and see how much I remembered of his commentary and his lectures. This produced an amazing discovery. Holtzmann had gained recognition in scholarly circles for his hypothesis that the Gospel of Mark is the oldest, and that its plan serves as the basis for Matthew and Luke. That seemed to justify the conclusion that the public activities of Jesus can only be understood through Mark's Gospel. This conclusion puzzled me deeply. On one of the rest days, which we spent in the village of Guggenheim, I concentrated on the tenth and eleventh chapters of Matthew, and became aware of the significance of what is narrated in those two chapters by him alone, and not by Mark as well.

* * *

In the tenth chapter of Matthew the mission of the twelve disciples is narrated. As Jesus sends them out He tells them that they will almost immediately suffer severe persecution. But nothing of the kind happens.

He tells them also that the appearance of the Son of Man will take place before they have gone through the cities of Israel, which can only mean that the heavenly Messianic Kingdom is dawning. He has therefore no expectation of seeing them return.

How is it possible that Jesus leads His disciples to expect events that do not take place?

I was dissatisfied with Holtzmann's explanation that we are dealing not with a historical discourse about Jesus but with one made up at a later date, after His death, out of various "Sayings of Jesus." A later generation would never have gone so far as to put into His mouth words that were belied by the subsequent course of events.

The bare text compelled me to assume that Jesus was really announcing the persecution of the disciples, which would then be followed by the appearance of the supernatural Son of Man. This announcement, however, was proven wrong by subsequent events.

But how did He come to entertain such an expectation, and what must His feelings have been when events turned out otherwise than He had assumed they would?

Matthew 11 records the Baptist's question to Jesus, and the answer Jesus gave him. Here too it seemed to me that Holtzmann and the commentators in general do not sufficiently appreciate the riddles of the text. Whom does the Baptist mean when he asks Jesus whether He is "the one who is to come"? Is it then quite certain, I asked myself, that by the Coming One no one can be meant except the Messiah? According to late Jewish Messianic beliefs, the coming of the Messiah is to be preceded by that of his Forerunner, Elijah, risen from the dead, and to this previously expected Elijah Jesus applies the expression "the Coming One," when He tells the people around Him (Matthew 11:14) that the Baptist himself is Elijah who is to come. Therefore, I concluded, the Baptist in his question used the expression with that same meaning. He did not send his disciples to Jesus to ask Him whether He was the Messiah; he wanted to learn from Him, strange as it may seem to us, whether He was the expected Forerunner of the Messiah, Elijah.

But why does Jesus not give him a clear answer to his question? To say that He gave an evasive answer in order to test the Baptist's faith avoids the issue and has been the source of many a poor sermon. It is much simpler to assume that Jesus avoided saying either yes or no because He was not yet ready to make public who He believed Himself to be. From every point of view the account of the Baptist's question proves that at that time none of those who believed in Jesus held Him to be the Messiah. Had He already been accepted in any way as the Messiah, the Baptist would have indicated this in his question.

Another reason for finding a new interpretation came from the words of Jesus, addressed to the crowd after the departure of the Baptist's messengers. "Among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he" (Matthew 11:11).

The usual explanation — that in these words Jesus expressed a criticism of the Baptist and placed him at a level below that of the believers assembled round Him as adherents of the Kingdom of God — seemed to me both unsatisfying and simplistic, for these believers were also born of women. By giving up this explanation I was forced into the supposition that, in contrasting the Baptist with members of the Kingdom of God, Jesus was taking into account the difference between the natural world and the supernatural Messianic world. As a man in the condition into which all men enter at birth, the Baptist is the greatest of all who have ever lived. But members of the Kingdom of Heaven are no longer natural men; through the dawning of the Messianic Kingdom they have experienced a change that has raised them to a supernatural condition akin to that of the angels. Because they are now supernatural beings, the least among them is greater than the greatest man who has ever appeared in the natural world of the age that is now passing away. John the Baptist does, indeed, belong to this Kingdom either as a great or a humble member of it. Yet his greatness, unique and surpassing that of all other humans, lies in the fact that he became incarnate in this natural world.

* * *

Thus, at the end of my first year at the university, I was troubled by the explanation then accepted as historically correct of the words and actions of Jesus when He sent the disciples out on their mission. As a consequence of this, I also questioned the interpretation that viewed the whole life of Jesus as historical.

When I reached home after maneuvers, entirely new horizons had opened up for me. Of this I was certain: that Jesus had annouced not a kingdom that was to be founded and realized in the natural world by Himself and the believers, but one that was to be expected as coming with the approaching dawn of a supernatural age.

I would of course have considered it presumptuous to hint to Holtzmann in my examination, which I took shortly afterward, that I distrusted his conception of the life of Jesus, which was universally shared by the critical school of that time. In any case, I had no opportunity to do so. With his well-known kindness he treated me, a young student hindered in my studies by military service, so gently that in the twenty-minute interview he demanded from me nothing beyond a summary comparison of the contents of the first three Gospels.

In my remaining years at the university I pursued, often to the neglect of my other subjects, independent research on the Gospels and on the problems of the life of Jesus. Through these studies I became increasingly convinced that the key to the riddles awaiting solution is to be looked for in the explanation of the words of Jesus when He sent the disciples out on their mission, in the question sent by the Baptist from his prison, and, finally, in the way Jesus acts upon the return of the disciples.

How grateful I was that the German university does not supervise the student too closely in his studies, nor keep him breathless through constant examinations, as is the case in other countries, but offers him the opportunity for independent scholarly work!


Excerpted from Out of My Life and Thought by Albert Schweitzer, A. B. Lemke. Copyright © 1990 Rhena Schweitzer Miller. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Norman Cousins
An authentic twentieth-century classic. Few books in our time have had a greater impact on the life and values of untold numbers of people.

Meet the Author

Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1952. Although he was highly gifted in science, theology, and music and as an author, Schweitzer dedicated the last six decades of his life to medicine and to a hospital he founded with his wife, Helene Breslau, in French Equatorial Africa, the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon. A true humanitarian, he used his Nobel Prize stipend to expand the hospital and to build new facilities for leprosy patients. The Johns Hopkins University Press published several of Schweitzer's books, including The Quest of the Historical Jesus, The Primeval Forest, and The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle.

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Out of My Life and Thought 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Lonka More than 1 year ago
Schweitzer was, according to Churchill, a genius of humanity. I have read this book in the original version in German many years ago and was pleasantly surprised to find it again, this time in English. It should be read by everyone who is interested in religion, music, medicine and adventure.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I came accross an article about doctor Schweitzer,when I was a teen-ager in Vietnam. However ,it is amazingly new to me that he could do so many works with his life-like Madame Curie . The book ,translated , is still clear and entertaining and moving . The translator surely did a good job ! Dr. Schweitzer is such a talented , modest humanitarian . I was proud and moved about his Christianity views !