Sunday, April 23, 2006

Linguist Friend: "A Unitarian, more or less."

On a number of occasions, I have read in UU publications or heard from UU pulpits that Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was a Unitarian. Although Unitarians responded positively to Schweitzer's person and his theology, to count him as a Unitarian is misleading. Unitarians were among the first Americans to respond to the work of Schweitzer at his hospital in Lambarene in Gabon, started in 1913, although they took some time to do so. In 1947, Dr. Charles Joy, an administrator of relief programs, and Melvin Arnold, the editor in chief of the Beacon Press, brought to Schweitzer in Lambarene a check to the amount of $ 4,000, a contribution which was significant and welcome in the post-war years. In September of 1947, there appeared a special number of The Christian Register devoted to Schweitzer, with a contribution from Joy and Arnold. However, they had been beaten out in chronological terms by an article published in the Reader's Digest the year before, written by a Catholic priest, Father John O'Brien. Schweitzer had been an outstanding intellectual figure in Europe for many years, because of his musicological, theological, and philosophical publications, and his musical performances, still preserved in recordings of his performance of the organ music of Bach.

Unitarian interest in Schweitzer did not diminish with time. Thirteen years later, in 1961, George Marshall, then minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, invited Schweitzer to become an honorary Unitarian. Schweitzer wrote back:

"I thank you cordially for your offer to make me an honoured member of the Unitarian Church. I accept with pleasure. Even as a student I worked on the problem and history of the Unitarian church and developed sympathy for your affirmation of Christian freedom at a time when it resulted in persecution. Gradually I established closer contact with Unitarian communities and became familiar with their faith-in-action. Therefore I thank you that through you I have been made an honoured member of this church."

This response was published by Marshall in the news bulletin of the Church of the Larger Fellowship on Nov. 24, 1961, and presumably is the root of the often-repeated statement that Schweitzer was a Unitarian. However, Unitarians have generally overlooked the clarification of this statement which was published in Time magazine on the following December 8, 1961. Schweitzer stated in an interview with Time:

"For a long time now I have had connections with the Unitarian church. But there is no question of my breaking with the Lutheran Church. I am a Protestant, but above all I am a scientist, and as such I can be on good terns with all Protestant churches."

I enjoy the point of view that Schweitzer expressed, speaking expressly from the Lutheran side of a divide that he was free to cross from his side, but which Unitarians are not always free to cross from their side. In some contexts they are free to share in the Christian community, and sometimes they are not. My only contribution to the field of Biblical scholarship in the broad sense was made at the invitation of a fine Lutheran scholar. More recently I have found my invited contribution to a progressive Christian campus ministry to be viewed with some suspicion by a Lutheran minister who had not read and will never read the well-thumbed Greek New Testament which is one of my constant companions. Go figure.



Brabazon, James (1975). Albert Schweitzer Putnam, New York.


Chalicechick said...

In the words of a Chalicesseur who has spent some time with him, Linguist Friend's habit of pulling out a Greek New Testament to read at odd moments "Must be seen to be believed."


TheCSO said...

It's really quite endearing.

fausto said...

Schweitzer read it in Greek too, no doubt. His work on the historical Jesus would pretty much have required it.

BTW, not only was Schweitzer a lifelong Lutheran, he was an ordained Lutheran pastor. He never transferred his clergy credentials to the CLF!

Joel Monka said...

Fascinating- I didn't know those things about Schweitzer. But I have noticed a pattern- it almost seems that any do-gooder whose religious affiliation is not well known publicly gets claimed by the UUA for its list of famous Unitarians. We’ve all heard of grade inflation… shall we now speak of fame inflation?

LinguistFriend said...

Knowledge of Greek and Latin and their literatures were a staple of the German humanistic
Gymnasium, an advanced secondary school with an academic range on a level with much of an American college course, sometimes better. Schweitzer attended Gymnasium in Muelhausen (Fr. Mulhouse) in upper Alsace, from 1885 to 1893. Schweitzer did not distinguish himself academically in the Gymnasium. Apparently, however, he learned enough Greek that when he was motivated to use the Greek NT texts, in his university studies of theology and philosophy at the University of Strasbourg (1893-1896), the language was no great obstacle when he settled down to work on the synoptic gospels in the original language under Heinrich Holtzmann (1832-1910).

Schweitzer's previous readings would have been classical Greek, but even at that time there were available a number of detailed works on NT Greek grammar in German (e.g. Winer, Buttmann), although the Greek papyri which would provide a different and more precise orientation for studies of the language of the Greek NT were just becoming known. The greatest grammar of the late Greek language on the basis of the Ptolemaic papyri, by the way, was written by an instructor in a German Gymnasium, Edwin Mayser.


fausto said...

Doch, so wuerde ich meinen. Koennte es anderes sein?

Chalicechick said...

Yeah. What he said.