Francis Schaeffer


Francis A(ugust) Schaeffer (1912-1984), was an evangelical pastor, missionary, and thinker. Schaeffer was born into a working class Lutheran family in Philadelphia. A self-styled teenage agnostic, he had designs on a career as an engineer but was converted and opted to transfer to the Presbyterian Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. After earning his degree there in 1935, Schaeffer enrolled at J. Gresham Machen‘s breakaway Westminster Theological Seminary. After Machen’s death in 1937 Schaeffer followed fundamentalist firebrand Carl McIntire to his secessionist Faith Theological Seminary.

Upon his graduation in 1938, Schaeffer became the first ordained minister in McIntire’s new Bible Presbyterian Church. Moving into the pastorate Schaeffer served churches in western Pennsylvania and the St. Louis area for the next nine years before accepting an invitation from the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions to investigate a church-planting ministry in war-ravaged Western Europe. In 1948 Schaeffer and his family headed to Europe, eventually settling in Switzerland.

In an attempt to understand the intellectual and cultural drift of post-war western society he read extensively in theology, philosophy, and the arts. In Schaeffer’s analysis, the loss of the concept of absolute truth (symbolized in the philosophical work of Hegel) had caused Western Man to abandon reason, as evident in the increasing fascination with existential philosophy, drugs, and Eastern religion. The ultimate danger lay in the erosion of a biblical basis for law in which majority rule and totalitarian power opened the door for all manner of atrocities. In 1955 Schaeffer left the missions board and struck out on his own founding L’Abri, a youth-oriented study center and community near the Swiss village of Huemoz. Largely by word-of-mouth, scores of college students and youthful seekers began to make their way to L’Abri to wrestle with intellectual and theological questions and issues. In 1958 Schaeffer opened an English version of L’Abri in the south of England and established strong ties with British leaders of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.

By the mid-1960s his Inter-Varsity connections had opened the way for frequent lecture tours of the United States, particularly at the nation’s small Christian liberal arts colleges. In 1968 InterVarsity Press published two major collections of Schaeffer’s lectures, The God Who is There and Escape From Reason. In the 1970s Schaeffer became more and more concerned about the impact of modern intellectual trends upon American culture and politics. His response was a pair of books and film series, How Should We Then Live? (1976) and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979)–the latter of which played a strong part in sensitizing American evangelicals to the abortion issue. Increasingly before his 1984 death from cancer, Schaeffer lent his support to the emergent Religious Right, for which his 1981 book A Christian Manifesto was in many ways a thumbnail guide to understanding the concerns and worldview of the movement. Since his death some evangelical scholars have criticized Schaeffer’s thought as derivative, sometimes mistaken, and occasionally shallow. Nonetheless, Francis Schaeffer played a pivotal role in awakening evangelical concern for deeper thinking about cultural and intellectual issues.

For further reading, see Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of American Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 2008), and Colin Duriez, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (Crossway, 2008). 

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