The Doctor Who Followed Jesus to Africa

As medical editor for ABC News, Dr. Timothy Johnson has worked in the secularized realms of media and medicine. In his Finding God in the Questions (IVP, 2004), Dr. Johnson talks about how “meeting” Dr. Albert Schweitzer (1875—1965) has revolutionized his life, challenging him to make more time in his life to serve Christ in others.

THIS REMARKABLE MAN has captured my imagination. Born January 14, 1875, in the German province of Alsace, by age 30 Albert Schweitzer had accomplished more than most of us could imagine doing in several lifetimes. He was an amazingly productive scholar with doctorates in philosophy and theology. He was an ordained minister, a professor at the University of Strasbourg, a concert organist, a world authority on J. S. Bach, a recognized expert on organ building and remodeling, and a prolific writer and author. But then he made a decision that stunned his friends and family: he went to medical school so he could become a doctor and go to Africa to work as a physician.

Seven years later he and his new wife, Helene, went to Lambarene in West Africa, where he set up a hospital in the jungles along the Ogowe River. For the next 52 years, he dedicated himself to the people of that place, helping to build an expanding medical compound that would eventually feed, house and treat an average of 1,000 Africans a day! Periodically, he returned to Western civilization to give lectures and fundraising organ concerts. In 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and he donated the prize money to help build a hospital for lepers about a half mile from the main hospital grounds. Schweitzer died in Lambarene in 1965 at age 90.

Schweitzer was captivated by the life and teachings of Jesus, and applied his scholarly training to finding out who He really was. At 31 he published the theological bombshell The Quest of the Historical Jesus.

The seminal work of today’s often skeptical search for clues to the historical Jesus, this book posed difficult intellectual and spiritual questions that were also deeply personal questions for its author. And it did not provide easy answers. In essence, Schweitzer was forced by his research to hold on to faith even in the midst of many doubts. And he expounded this paradox in his book’s famous last chapter, “Results":

"It is not Jesus as historically known . . . but the spirit which goes forth from him and in the spirits of men strives for new influence and rule . . . which overcomes the world. He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake—side. He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

Though I disagree with some of Schweitzer’s conclusions, I have been deeply influenced by his personal commitment to serve Christ in others. As a result, I have decided, after my current contract with ABC, to rearrange my life so that I have much more time than I do now to give in direct service to those in need. I don’t know how or where that will happen, but I know that for me it must happen if I am to be true to myself and my deep desire to be a follower of Jesus.

Adapted from Finding God in the Questions: A Personal Journey (copyright 2004, InterVarsity Press).

By Dr. Timothy Johnson

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #83 in 2004]

Dr. Timothy Johnson was medical editor for ABC News.
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