As a young theologian he published his first major work, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), by which he gained a great reputation. In this book, he interpreted the life of Jesus in the light of Jesus' own eschatological convictions. Schweitzer demonstrated that 19th century "liberal lives of Jesus" produced by those who sought to reimage Jesus through historical study were reflections of the authors' own historical and social contexts. This work effectively ended for decades the Quest for the Historical Jesus as a subdiscipline of New Testament studies, until the development of the so-called "Second Quest," among whose notable exponents was Rudolf Bultmann. The original edition was translated into English by William Montgomery and published in 1910. A second German edition was published in 1913, containing theologically significant revisions and expansions. This revised edition did not appear in English until 2003.
Schweitzer established his reputation further as a New Testament scholar with other theological studies including his medical degree dissertation, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus (1911), and The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930). In his study of Paul he examined the eschatological beliefs of Paul and through this the message of the New Testament.
During his tenure as a Lutheran minister for St. Nicholas church in Strassburg, he blessed the wedding of Theodor Heuss, who was to become the first President of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Schweitzer's theology leans towards the kind of theology espoused in Liberal Christianity . He wrote that Jesus and his followers expected the imminent end of the world.
Albert Schweitzer was a famous organist in his day and was highly interested in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He developed a simple style of performance, which he thought to be closer to what Bach had meant it to be. He based his interpretation mainly on his reassessment of Bach's religious intentions. While studying with Charles-Marie Widor in Paris, he astonished his teacher by explaining the imagery in Bach's chorale preludes through the hymn texts that would be sung to their melodies, an approach that had apparently never occurred to the older man. Through the book Johann Sebastian Bach, the final version of which he completed in 1908, he advocated this new style, which has had great influence in the way Bach's music is now being treated. Widor and Schweitzer collaborated on a new complete edition of Bach's organ works. His pamphlet "The Art of Organ Building and Organ Playing in Germany and France" (1906) effectively launched the twentieth-century Orgelbewegung, which turned away from romantic extremes and rediscovered baroque principles -- although this sweeping reform movement in organ building eventually went further than Schweitzer himself had intended. Recordings of Schweitzer playing the music of Bach are available on CD. Albert Schweitzer also made musical performances to raise money for medical supplies in Gabon.
Schweitzer's worldview was based on his idea of reverence for life ("Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben"), which he believed to be his greatest single contribution to humankind. His view was that Western civilization was in decay because of gradually abandoning its ethical foundations - those of affirmation of life.
It was his firm conviction that the respect for life is the highest principle. In a similar kind of exaltation of life to that of Friedrich Nietzsche, a recently influential philosopher of the time, Schweitzer admittedly followed the same line as that of the Russian Leo Tolstoy. Some people in his days compared his philosophy with that of Francis of Assisi, a comparison he did not object to. In his book Philosophy of Civilisation (all quotes in this section from chapter 26), he wrote:
True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness: 'I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live'.
Life and love in his view are based on, and follow out of the same principle: respect for every manifestation of Life, and a personal, spiritual relationship towards the universe. Ethics, according to Schweitzer, consists in the compulsion to show toward the will-to-live of each and every being the same reverence as one does to one's own. Circumstances where we apparently fail to satisfy this compulsion should not lead us to defeatism, since the will-to-live renews itself again and again, as an outcome of an evolutionary necessity and a phenomenon with a spiritual dimension.
However, as Schweitzer himself pointed out, it is neither impossible nor difficult to spend a life of not following it: the history of world philosophies and religions clearly shows many instances of denial of the principle of reverence for life. He points to the prevailing philosophy in the European Middle Ages, and the Indian Brahminic philosophy. Nevertheless, this kind of attitude lacks genuineness.
The will to live is naturally both parasitic and antagonistic towards other forms of life. Only in the thinking being has the will to live become conscious of other will to live, and desirous of solidarity with it. This solidarity, however, cannot be brought about, because human life does not escape the puzzling and horrible circumstance that it must live at the cost of other life. But as an ethical being one strives to escape whenever possible from this necessity, and to put a stop to this disunion of the Will to live, so far as it is within one's power.
Schweitzer advocated the concept of reverence for life widely throughout his entire life. The historical Enlightenment waned and corrupted itself, Schweitzer held, because it has not been well enough grounded in thought, but compulsively followed the ethical will-to-live. Hence, he looked forward to a renewed and more profound Renaissance and Enlightenment of humanity (a view he expressed in the epilogue of his autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought). Albert Schweitzer nourished hope in a humankind that is more profoundly aware of its position in the Universe. His optimism was based in "belief in truth". "The spirit generated by [conceiving of] truth is greater than the force of circumstances." He persistently emphasized the necessity to think, rather than merely acting on basis of passing impulses or by following the most widespread opinions.
Never for a moment do we lay aside our mistrust of the ideals established by society, and of the convictions which are kept by it in circulation. We always know that society is full of folly and will deceive us in the matter of humanity. [...] humanity meaning consideration for the existence and the happiness of individual human beings.
Respect for life, resulting from contemplation on one's own conscious will to live, leads the individual to live in the service of other people and of every living creature. Schweitzer was much respected for putting his theory into practice in his own life. He was, for instance, a well-known cat lover, who, although left-handed, would write with his right hand rather than disturb the cat who would sleep on his left arm.
Schweitzer considered his work as a medical missionary in Africa to be his response to Jesus' call to become "fishers of men" but also as a small recompense for the historic guilt of European colonizers: "Who can describe the injustice and cruelties that in the course of centuries they [the coloured peoples] have suffered at the hands of Europeans? . . . If a record could be compiled of all that has happened between the white and the coloured races, it would make a book containing numbers of pages which the reader would have to turn over unread because their contents would be too horrible." (On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, p. 115). Rather than being a supporter of colonialism, Schweitzer was one of its harshest critics. In a sermon that he preached on January 6, 1905, before he had told anyone of his plans to dedicate the rest of his life to work as a doctor in Africa, he said:
''Our culture divides people into two classes: civilized men, a title bestowed on the persons who do the classifying; and others, who have only the human form, who may perish or go to the dogs for all the "civilized men" care.
Oh, this "noble" culture of ours! It speaks so piously of human dignity and human rights and then disregards this dignity and these rights of countless millions and treads them underfoot, only because they live overseas or because their skins are of different color or because they cannot help themselves. This culture does not know how hollow and miserable and full of glib talk it is, how common it looks to those who follow it across the seas and see what it has done there, and this culture has no right to speak of personal dignity and human rights...
I will not enumerate all the crimes that have been committed under the pretext of justice. People robbed native inhabitants of their land, made slaves of them, let loose the scum of mankind upon them. Think of the atrocities that were perpetrated upon people made subservient to us, how systematically we have ruined them with our alcoholic "gifts," and everything else we have done…We decimate them, and then, by the stroke of a pen, we take their land so they have nothing left at all…
If all this oppression and all this sin and shame are perpetrated under the eye of the German God, or the American God, or the British God, and if our states do not feel obliged first to lay aside their claim to be "Christian" - then the name of Jesus is blasphemed and made a mockery. And the Christianity of our states is blasphemed and made a mockery before those poor people. The name of Jesus has become a curse, and our Christianity - yours and mine - has become a falsehood and a disgrace, if the crimes are not atoned for in the very place where they were instigated. For every person who committed an atrocity in Jesus' name, someone must step in to help in Jesus' name; for every person who robbed, someone must bring a replacement; for everyone who cursed, someone must bless.
And now, when you speak about missions, let this be your message: We must make atonement for all the terrible crimes we read of in the newspapers. We must make atonement for the still worse ones, which we do not read about in the papers, crimes that are shrouded in the silence of the jungle night…'' [Source: Albert Schweitzer: Essential Writings. (James Brabazon, ed., Orbis Books, 2005. pp. 76-80.]
Schweitzer was nonetheless still sometimes accused of being paternalistic or colonialist in his attitude towards Africans, and in some ways his views did differ from many liberals of the 1960's. For instance, he thought Gabonese independence came too early, without adequate education or accommodation to local circumstances. Edgar Berman quotes Schweitzer speaking these lines in 1960: "No society can go from the primeval directly to an industrial state without losing the leavening that time and an agricultural period allow." (In Africa With Schweitzer, p. 139). Chinua Achebe has quoted Schweitzer as saying "The African is indeed my brother but my junior brother." , which Achebe criticized him for, though Achebe seems to acknowledge that Schweitzer's use of the word "brother" at all was, for a European of the early 20th century, an unusual expression of human solidarity between whites and blacks. Later in his life, Schweitzer was quoted as saying "The time for speaking of older and younger brothers has passed."
Albert Schweitzer spent most of his life in Lambaréné in what is now Gabon, Africa. After his medical studies in 1913, he went there with his wife to establish a hospital near an already existing mission post. He treated and operated on literally thousands of people. He took care of hundreds of patients with leprosy and treated many victims of the African sleeping sickness.
In 1914 World War I began and because he was a German in a French colony, Schweitzer and his wife were temporarily placed under house arrest. In 1917 they were sent to be interned in Garaison, France, and in 1918 in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There he studied and wrote as much as possible in preparation for, among others, his famous book Culture and Ethics (published in 1923). In July 1918 he was a free man again, and while working as a medical assistant and assistant-pastor in Strassburg, he was able to finish the book. In the meantime, he began to speak and lecture about his ideas wherever he was invited. Not only did he want his philosophy on culture and ethics to become widely known, it also served as a means to raise money for the hospital in Lambaréné, for which he had already emptied his own pockets.
In 1924 he returned to Lambaréné, where he managed to rebuild the decayed hospital, after which he resumed his medical practices. Soon he was no longer the only medical doctor in the hospital, and whenever possible he went to Europe to lecture at universities. Gradually his opinions and concepts became acknowledged, not only in Europe, but worldwide.
From 1939-1948 he stayed in Lambaréné, unable to go back to Europe in war. Three years after the end of World War II, in 1948, he returned for the first time to Europe and kept traveling back and forth (and once to the USA) as long as he could until his death in 1965.
From 1952 until his death he worked against nuclear tests and nuclear weapons with Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell. In 1957 and 1958 he broadcast four speeches over Radio Oslo which were published in Peace or Atomic War. In 1957, Schweitzer was one of the founders of The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.
His life was portrayed in the 1952 movie Il est minuit, Docteur Schweitzer, starring Pierre Fresnay as Albert Schweitzer and Jeanne Moreau as his nurse Marie.
He was chevalier of the Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem.
Schweitzer died on September 4, 1965 in Lambaréné, Gabon.
His cousin Anne-Marie Schweitzer Sartre was the mother of Jean-Paul Sartre.
Schweitzer inspired actor Hugh O'Brian when O'Brian visited in Africa. O'Brian returned to the United States and founded the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership Foundation (HOBY).