Reviews of and Quotes From Dr. Schweitzer's Books

Here are my reviews of some of Albert Schweitzer's books. All are English translations from French or German. Some of them are out of print, but often can be found in a research library or by a book search from a good used-book dealer. Also included here are reviews of compilations of his writings. See The Albert Schweitzer Page for reviews of books about Dr. Schweitzer and related information.

The Albert Schweitzer-Helene Bresslau Letters 1902-1912

Edited By:  Rhena Schweitzer Miller and Gustav Wyott

Translated from German by: Antje Bultmann Lemke

Reviewed Edition:  Syracuse University Press, 2003

Hardcover, 246 pages

ISBN 081562994X


Table of Contents

A few years ago, Rhena Schweitzer Miller found a collection of letters exchanged by her parents, Albert Schweitzer and Helene Bresslau, in the years before their marriage. They were apparently saved by Helene, and then put in storage and forgotten after her death. Most of the letters were written by Albert, though a few of Helene's letters also survived. Some were written while Albert and Helene were both living in the same city and seeing each other frequently, but most date from periods of separation due to Albert's or Helene's medical studies, vacations, Helene's trip to Russia, and other such activities. Rhena Schweitzer Miller provides a helpful but too-brief introduction to their activities during these years.

The correspondence covers the period during which the paths of their future lives would be established. According to the introduction, they met at a wedding in 1898. On March 22, 1902, Albert and Helene walked along the banks of the Rhine and exchanged their innermost thoughts, an event they would commemorate for many years. Albert was resolved to spend his life in direct service to others, though the means by which this could be achieved were not then clear; Helene either had similar plans or was convinced by Albert that direct service was not only an obligation but also the path to true happiness. For the first several years of their correspondence, their destinies seemed to require that they be apart; Albert wrote that she should find a husband, and he expected their lives to unfold in deep friendship. But as Albert's mission to Africa took shape, their destinies converged, and Albert and Helene were wed on June 18, 1912, and left for Africa together in March, 1913. Albert was 38 years old, Helene four years younger.

There are two stories, both incomplete, told in these letters. One is the story of Albert and Helene's relationship, which seems to have been intense and deeply felt but based more on common aspirations and understandings than twenty-first century ideas of romance. These are clearly two great souls, aspiring to rise above the common and vulgar in obedience to Jesus' call for service to others. This is the other story, their searching and then preparing for a means of providing direct service. Albert at first tried to adopt orphaned boys--a curious and unsuccessful effort never fully explained. Helene worked with orphans and poor, single mothers. Their letters describing their struggles to find, prepare for, and then apply for missionary work in Africa (mostly from Albert's point of view, since he wrote most of the surviving letters) are moving and inspiring.

As with all collections of letters, much of the writing concerns mundance matters. For instance, Albert is clearly quite tired from his demanding work schedule, and Helene frequently implores him to get more rest. But they are an invaluable source for those trying to understand Albert's motivations for going to Africa--which were largely theologically, rather than humanitarianly, inspired.

Quotes from The Albert Schweitzer-Helene Bresslau Letters 1902-1912

[Written by A.S., July 4, 1903]  "Give me both your hands--we are at the Rhine, I imagine--the smell of the hay--, just as at that time when I revealed the secret of my life to you. You were so happy to be the sister of my thoughts, and I felt miserable because I had opened myself up so completely. But then I did not regret it--now I feel relieved in the knowledge that you, such an honest and noble soul, know my innermost thoughts, and to talk about them with somebody is a great, good fortune for me. And even when I worry about you--it is not only in sadness.

God bless you. Each of us will go our way, and you will find happiness."

[Written by A.S., September 25, 1903]  "Let us go on--the spirit that speaks to me is a reality, the only supernatural reality that really exists for me--the rest is only a symbol, based on the only reality: I believe because I act--action is, for me, the essential reality--and while I act, I will be both humble and proud--truthful as cutting steel." [emphasis in original]

[Written by A.S., May 1, 1904]  "Sometimes it seems to me as if I had climbed beyond clouds and stars and could see the world in the most wonderful clarity and therefore have the right to be a heretic! To know only Jesus of Nazareth, to continue his work as the only religion, not to bear what Christianity has absorbed over the years in vulgarity. Not to be afraid of Hell, not to strive for the joys of Heaven, not to live in false fear, not the fake devotion that has become an essential part of our religion--and yet to understand the one Great One and to know that one is His disciple."

[Written by H.B., December 24, 1909]  "And so we both celebrate a lovely quiet Christmas--and think of a Christmas Eve when there will be no cold winter around us, but also no other people who are dear to us, and where we will have to be everything to one another."

[Written by A.S. to Helene Bresslau's parents, December 22, 1911]   I come to ask your permission to call on you next Sunday between ten and eleven o'clock--because I have services at other times--to discuss a matter with you that is of great concern to you and me. You will not be inordinately surprised when I tell you that it concerns your daughter and that I venture to ask you to permit your daughter to accept my name and to accompany me to the Congo. I am aware of the severity of this request. Ever since this plan became a reality in me, I have felt a pain when I look at you and know about the sacrifice I have to ask from you. It is a heavy burden for me. [...]

I know that all these considerations cannot ease my heavy responsibility or your worries about your daughter when she becomes my companion...and yet I dare to come to you with my request and hope that you will not reject it. The thought of joining our lives in common work grew steadily in your daughter and in me, and in the course of time and events became a firm resolution. We have thought about this, considered everything carefully, and finally found that we both have the right to make this decision and that through everything we have thought, worked, and experienced together, we belong together.

I beg you, esteemed professor, to have confidence in me. Even if I cannot offer your daughter a brillant existence or even a steadily secure one, I will strive with all I have to make her happy and--for the great sacrifice she brings me--to be hers in deep gratitude to my last breadth."

Table of Contents of The Albert Schweitzer-Helene Bresslau Letters 1902-1911

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