A fascinating look at one of the 20th century’s best known humanitarians and theologians played out before a large audience at Edenton Street United Methodist Church, and both Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Johann Sebastian Bach were well served by the program; “Albert Schweitzer: Memoirs from Africa” combined narration, photographic images and organ music by Bach to give a fairly detailed account of Schweitzer’s life, character and ideas. The program is by Thurston Moore of the Tennessee Players in Madison, TN, and the performers were Josh Dumbleton, organist at Edenton Street UMC; Sally G. Bates, ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Duke University chaplain; Bill Cross, a church member and president of a local advertising and marketing firm; and, in the role of Schweitzer, Mark Thomas, a church member involved in several Edenton Street activities.

The program began, as one might expect, with Bach’s Toccata in D-minor, but instead of hearing the familiar opening on the organ, the version is a 1947 recording of Leopold Stokowski and his orchestra. But only the toccata is heard in the orchestral version; Dumbleton played the fugue on the church’s Letourneau organ, with nimble articulation but with neither blinding speed nor heavy-handedness. Ms. Bates and Cross then began telling Schweitzer’s story, focusing mainly on his time in Lambarene, Africa, and on his love for music (especially Bach’s organ works) and his strong advocacy for ethical behavior, environmental awareness and respect for all living creatures. Schweitzer (1875-1965) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, and some of his pronouncements and writings on conflict, war and nuclear weapons would be termed pacifist and “anti-nuke” today; and he also likely would be a leading proponent of the “green” movement — in fact, author Rachel Carson dedicated “Silent Spring” to him in 1962.

Thomas provided the voice of Schweitzer with a noticeable European accent (Schweitzer was born in Alsace and spoke German and French), and he was an excellent reader for his part, providing fine inflection for dramatic emphasis. His part offered some of Schweitzer’s better known quotations (“All life is valuable, and we are united to all life” and “You will be poor in life if all you think about is success for yourself”), and he and the other narrators occasionally engaged in dialog, as if participating in an interview.

The program was filled with photographs of Schweitzer (many with his familiar pith helmet, white shirt and dark bow tie), Schweitzer and the Africans he worked with and provided medical assistance to, and animals he befriended (one surprising image: Schweitzer with the neck of a pelican draped across his shoulders; the pelican likely is his pet Parsifal.) Images of churches, cathedrals and abbeys and their organs also are shown. The images of Schweitzer more often are informal snapshot-type photographs, but some wonderfully dramatic portrait-type photos were also included. The only quarrel with the program would be that on occasion, the image of Schweitzer did not fit the chronological point in the narrative—sometimes a picture of a young Schweitzer was accompanied by narration about him in later life, and vice versa.  Surprisingly, however, very few photos were repeated during the program.

Dumbleton played seven Bach works, including three personal favorites of Schweitzer. Three chorale preludes provided softer background to the narration as well as stand-alone selections, and the stirring “Kyrie, Gott, Heiliger Geist” was a wonderful accompaniment to images of the cathedrals and abbeys where Schweitzer played Bach. The final musical work on the program was the Fugue in E-flat (the “St. Anne” tune, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”), and this provided an eloquent, stately conclusion to the evening. 

Schweitzer, who believed that the “purpose of human life is to serve and show compassion and the will to help others,” and who also thought that “There is no higher religion than human service,” was a hero to many in the middle of the last century,  before the idealism of the Peace Corps and Mother Theresa. But, perhaps like Dag Hammarskjold in the same period, his iconic status faded. A program such as the one at Edenton Street United Methodist Church takes necessary steps to restore the community’s recognition of the importance of such an individual and his philosophy, and to offer a guide for the way to live a good life.