Why you should know him: Schaeffer was one of the most influential figures in American evangelicalism in the period between World War II and the mid-1980s.
Previous roles: Founder of L’Abri Fellowship International; Lecturer and author of eighteen books.
Area of expertise/interest: Apologetics, philosophy, Western culture, abortion, neo-Calvinism
Books: The God Who is There (1968); Escape from Reason (1968); Death in the City (1969); The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (1970); The Mark of a Christian (1970); Pollution and the Death of Man (1970); The Church Before the Watching World (1971); True Spirituality (1971); Back to Freedom and Dignity (1972); Basic Bible Studies (1972); Genesis in Space and Time (1972); He is There and He is Not Silent (1972); The New Super-Spirituality (1972); Art and the Bible (1973); Everybody Can Know (1973); No Little People (1974); Two Contents, Two Realities (1974); Joshua and the Biblical Flow of History (1975); No Final Conflict (1975); How Should We Then Live? (1976); Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (with C. Everett Koop) (1979); A Christian Manifesto (1981); The Great Evangelical Disaster (1983)
Biography and Assessment: In the late 1940’s, Schaeffer and his wife Edith moved to Switzerland as long-term missionaries. They initially began a program called “Children for Christ” and on weekends entertained groups of schoolgirls on ski holidays in their Swiss chalet. By 1955 the couple had set up their own independent ministry organization called L’Abri (“The Shelter”) in the mountain village of Huemoz. They began taking guests, and developed a regular weekend schedule that consisted of conversations about religion, philosophy, art, and culture. L’Abri became popular among student circles, and by 1957 the Schaeffers were hosting about 25 guests every weekend.
The European students that showed up at L’Abri were well-versed in the post-Enlightenment philosophers like Kierkegaard and Hegel and with the existentialist literature of Camus and Sartre. As historian Michael S. Hamilton notes,
These students tutored Francis in the details of modern post-Christian thought, while he observed its impact on their lives. They had been taught that human beings were the mere product of time and chance in a materialistic world. This left many of them unable to find any basis for distinctions between right and wrong nor meaning in the normal activities of human life. The young people’s self-destructive moral confusion, alienation from society, and sincere search for something better stirred the Schaeffers’ compassion. It made the cost of an open home worth bearing, and it compelled Francis into ever-deeper reflection on the trajectory of modern culture.
The popularity of L’Abri continued to increase and by 1960 even Time magazine was taking notice. Workers at the chalet began recording Schaeffer’s lectures on the philosophical meaning of modern theology and culture. The tapes quickly developed an international circulation prompting the evangelist to return to the states. In 1965 Schaeffer took his first speaking trip to the United States, giving a series of lectures in the Boston area. He then gave a series of talks at Wheaton College that were later published as The God Who Is There. Although he dressed like a Swiss farmer, wearing knickers and an alpine hiking outfit, the most unusual aspect about Schaeffer was the way in which he differed from other evangelicals in engaging with the broader culture. Hamilton points out,
At Wheaton College, students were fighting to show films like Bambi, while Francis was talking about the films of Bergman and Fellini. Administrators were censoring existential themes out of student publications, while Francis was discussing Camus, Sartre, and Heidegger. He quoted Dylan Thomas, knew the artwork of Salvador Dali, listened to the music of the Beatles and John Cage.
Over the next ten years Francis and Edith became increasingly influential figures within American evangelicalism. Francis published eighteen books and booklets, most of which came out of lectures and talks he had been giving since the 1950s, that sold over 2.5 million copies in the U.S.
Schaeffer often railed against the middle-class evangelical mindset that placed an emphasis on “personal peace and affluence” and became an intellectual hero to Christian counter-culture figures like Jack Sparks, founder of Berkeley’s Christian World Liberation Front, and Larry Norman, “poet laureate of the Jesus Revolution.” By the 1970’s, though, he had also begun to gain a hearing within what would later be viewed as the “religious right.” Congressman Jack Kemp introduced the Schaeffers to Washington insiders and an encounter with L’Abri student Michael Ford led to a private dinner in the Ford White House.
In 1974, Schaeffer’s son Franky, a budding filmmaker, designed a ten-part documentary film series intended as a Christian response to Kenneth Clark’s widely viewed Civilization series. The project, How Should We Then Live?, consisted of an 18-city tour that attracted tens of thousands of people and was viewed as a resounding success.
What set the film series apart was the focus on legalized abortion. By the late 1970s, Schaeffer began devoting his full attention to the issue and encouraged pediatric surgeon C. Everett Koop to collaborate on a five-part film series with accompanying book, action handbook, and international lecture tour. In Whatever Happened to the Human Race? , Schaeffer argued that secular humanism had led to the devaluation of human life while Koop presented testimony about the widespread practice of infanticide in hospitals and its links to abortion. Koop later wrote that his involvement in this project was his first step toward becoming President Reagan’s surgeon general.
Unlike his first series, Human Race failed to garner a large audience and even lost money in some of the locations it was screened. Undaunted, Schaeffer continued to focus on abortion, calling it the hinge issue for American society in his book A Christian Manifesto. The book inspired Jerry Falwell to take a stand against abortion and inspired Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry to start a new kind of abortion protest employing passive resistance techniques used in the civil-rights struggle.
In early 1984 he had just enough strength left from his battle with cancer to complete a 13-city tour lecturing on this theme. A month after the tour was complete, he died at his home in Rochester, Minnesota.
Schaeffer—who always claimed to be an evangelist and not a philosopher—was often criticized for the way his work oversimplified intellectual history and philosophy. Even his most ardent admirers admit that he made significant errors in detail and overly broad generalizations. His books, which were often edited together from lecture notes, often fail to provide a systematic coherence that would allow them to withstand greater scrutiny.
Michael Hamilton rightly acknowledges, though, that Schaeffer played a vital role in “stepping stone scholarship.” His work provided an opening to the intellectual depths of Christianity that had been sorely lacking in conservative Protestant Christianity. Schaeffer helped to restore the value of developing a Christian worldview and offered the intellectuals tools that evangelicals needed to properly engage with the secular culture. The effect of his legacy still reverberates through evangelicalism. His influence shaped such thinkers as Chuck Colson, Nancy Pearcey, Cal Thomas, Ron Sider, Harold O. J. Brown, Os Guinness, Thomas Morris, Clark Pinnock, Mark Noll, Doug Groothuis, Jim Sire, and Ronald Wells. Perhaps the best summation of the evangelist who was considered both a “missionary to intellectuals” and a “guru to fundamentalists” is the one provided by Albert Mohler:
Schaeffer served as a prophet of cultural engagement during an age of rebellion among America’s youth, and he shaped the thinking of an entire generation of theologically-minded Christian young people.
(Primary source: Michael Hamilton, The Dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer )
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