10 Things You Need to Know about Francis Schaeffer

Francis Schaeffer was a landmark Christian thinker, often cited alongside C.S. Lewis as one of the most important influences on evangelical Christianity. Here are the most important things you need to know about his life and work.

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Published May 04, 2022
10 Things You Need to Know about Francis Schaeffer

For evangelical Christians in the 1960s-1970s, Francis Schaeffer’s teachings came like a thunderbolt. He analyzed existentialism and other popular philosophies, arguing that only Christianity had the necessary foundation for a consistent life that answered humanity’s deep longings. He argued Christians needed to take creativity seriously, talking about Frederico Fellini when many Christian colleges wouldn’t let students see To Kill A Mockingbird. Two generations later, his work continues to be a landmark example of combining faith, wisdom and holistic living.

Here is what you need to know about this original Christian thinker.

10 Important Events in the Life of Francis Schaeffer

1. On January 30, 1912, Francis August Schaeffer IV was born in Pennsylvania to Francis August Schaeffer III and Bessie Williamson. The drunk doctor neglected to fill out a birth certificate, which Schaeffer did not discover until he was 35 years old.

2. On August 19, 1930, after reading the Bible cover to cover, Schaeffer attended an evangelist tent meeting where he accepted the altar call to give his life to Christ.

3. On July 26, 1935, Schaeffer married Edith Seville, a daughter of missionaries who worked in China. Many have stated Edith was integral to her husband’s life and ministry, with Schaeffer’s student Os Guinness saying, “In many ways, she was the secret of L’Abri.”

4. In 1938, Schaeffer graduated from Faith Theological Seminary, one of its first graduates. He then became the first pastor ordained in the Bible Presbyterian Church, which split from the Presbyterian Church of America in 1937. He would serve as a pastor for 10 years, participating in many fundamentalist-liberal discussions.

5. In 1945, while living in St. Louis, the Schaeffers started Children for Christ. These credentials led to the Schaeffers becoming better known in Presbyterian circles, particularly the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.

6. In 1948, the Schaeffer family moved to Europe, representing the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions and helping with an Amsterdam conference that formed the International Council of Christian Churches. During this trip, he met Dutch art critic Hans Rookmaaker, who became one of his greatest friends.

7. In 1955, after several years of European missionary work with the International Council of Christian Churches, Schaeffer resigned to start L’Abri Fellowship in Huemoz, Switzerland.   

8. In 1965, Schaeffer did a lecture tour across the United States. Wheaton Bible College audiences asked for print copies of his lecture, inspiring Schaeffer to reshape his material into published books.

9. In 1978, Schaeffer began treatment at the Mayo Clinic for lymphoma. His cancer went into remission, but he acquired a home in Rochester, Minnesota, to get periodic treatments at the clinic. The Rochester home evolved into a L’Abri Fellowship that continues to this day.

10. On May 15, 1984, Schaeffer died in Rochester, Minnesota. Memorial services took place in Rochester and All Souls Church, Langham Place, London. Os Guinness spoke at the London Service, observing that the greatest thing about Francis Schaeffer wasn’t his books or methods: “the greatest thing about Francis Schaeffer was Francis Schaeffer.”

10 Important Quotes by Francis Schaeffer

1. “The lordship of Christ over the whole of life means that there are no platonic areas in Christianity, no dichotomy or hierarchy between the body and soul. God made the body as well as the soul and redemption is for the whole man. Evangelicals have been legitimately criticized for often being so tremendously interested in seeing souls get saved and go to heaven that they have not cared much about the whole man.”—Art and the Bible

2. “This [debate] is not a game I am playing. If I begin to enjoy it as a kind of intellectual exercise, then I am cruel and can expect no real spiritual results. As I push the man off his false balance, he must be able to feel that I care for him. Otherwise I will only end up destroying him, and the cruelty and the ugliness of it all will destroy me as well.”—The God Who Is There

3. “Every generation of Christianity has this problem of learning how to speak meaningfully to its own age.”—Escape from Reason

4. “In this life I can never say, ‘I have arrived; it is finished; look at me—I am holy.’”—True Spirituality

5. “Christians have tended to despise the concept of philosophy. This has been one of the weaknesses of evangelical, orthodox Christianity—we have been proud in despising philosophy, and we have been exceedingly proud in despising the intellectual.”—He Is There and He Is Not Silent

6. “The Christian does not say that there is no chemical or psychological conditioning. Some may argue that way, but they are trapped because chemical psychological conditioning can be demonstrated. My height was determined at conception by the chemical properties of my genes. Many aspects of my physical make-up were conditioned by heredity. But to a Christian, though man may undergo a good deal of conditioning, he is not only the product of conditioning. Man has a mind: he exists as an ego, an entity standing over against the machine-like part of his being.”—Back to Freedom and Dignity

7. “I want to add here that evangelicals have made a horrible mistake by often equating the fact that man is lost and under God’s judgment with the idea that man is nothing—a zero. This is not what the Bible says. There is something great about man, and we have lost perhaps our greatest opportunity of evangelism in this generation by not insisting that it is the Bible that explains why man is great.”—He Is There and He Is Not Silent

8. “We can talk about methods, we can stir each other up, we can call each other to all kinds of action, but unless it is rooted in a strong Christian base in the area of content and the practice of truth, we build on sand and add to the confusion of our day.”—Two Contents: Two Realities

9. “Holding to a strong view of Scripture or not holding to it is the watershed of the evangelical world.”—No Final Conflict

10. “People are unique in the inner life of the mind—what they are in their thought-world determines how they act. This is true of their value systems and it is true of their creativity. It is true of their corporate actions, such as political decisions, and it is true of their personal lives. The results of their thought-world flow through their fingers or from their tongues into the external world. This is true of Michelangelo’s chisel, and it is true of a dictator’s sword.”—How Should We Then Live?

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Francis Schaeffer

1. He didn’t do it alone. While Edith Schaeffer wasn’t the public face of L’Abri, she was equally important. She helped manage the center, wrote the first book about the founding of L’Abri, and released a newsletter that reached over 1,000 readers. She also wrote several landmark books on homemaking as an artistic, Christian practice.

2. He wasn’t a classic intellectual. Unlike many famous theologians, Schaeffer didn’t come from a highly educated family that loved books. After the third grade, his father stopped school to support his family and later worked as a sailor and caretaker. Schaeffer scored high on school intelligence tests but focused on trade classes. His father’s belief that all pastors were parasites living off others created a problem as Schaeffer felt a call to ministry.

3. He had struggles. Schaeffer confidently talked about religion and the Bible but didn’t pretend faith made life easy. Biographer Colin Duriez (a Li’Abri student in the 1970s) describes Schaeffer’s lifelong struggles with dyslexia and his temper and bouts of depression. Duriez observes that Schaeffer openly admitted his imperfections, showing that a spiritual teacher didn’t have to be perfect.

4. He was more than a theologian. While Schaeffer was a trained pastor, theology wasn’t his only passion. He described how his high school art teacher, Lidie C. Bell, “opened the door to an interest in art.” His marriage, and later his friendship with H.R. Rookmaaker, expanded his cultural references and tastes. His lectures referenced everything from Frederico Fellini’s arthouse films to the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

5. He believed there were more important things than getting the facts right. Schaeffer belonged to the fundamentalist movement of 20th-century Christianity, which emphasized conservative theology and often feuded over maintaining proper doctrine. During his pastoral work in America, Schaeffer belonged to the “separatist” faction of Presbyterianism, fundamentalists that left denominations and seminaries several times over to distinguish themselves from liberalism. Schaeffer moved away from being a separatist during the 1950s, particularly after a 1950 encounter with Karl Barth where Barth asked why Schaeffer made a point of meeting him when he didn’t want to converse with him. Eventually, Schaeffer concluded Christians had to equally hold proper doctrine with caring for others: “love is the final apologetic.”

6. He had a multicultural viewpoint. One of Schaeffer’s unique qualities was how he combined different cultural perspectives. He was American but lived in Switzerland and often gave lectures in Swiss hiking attire (boots, lederhosen, etc.). He maintained conservative theological views but was comfortable talking with hippies and existentialists. Some of this cultural fluidity stems from his American wife growing up in China. In today’s language, Edith Schaeffer was a Third Culture Kid (TCK), someone who combined several cultural heritages.

7. He didn’t “write” his books. Schaeffer initially wasn’t interested in writing books until someone suggested providing printed versions of his lectures. InterVarsity Press editor James Sire describes in his introduction to The God Who Is There how the material for Schaeffer’s early books was often compiled from transcripts of his lectures. This quality means his books often treat subjects broadly, which may explain criticisms that his books treat some philosophers eccentrically or superficially.

8. He wasn’t a “Christian conservative.” Schaeffer’s Whatever Happened to the Human Race? and A Christian Manifesto influenced the Christian Right Movement. Schaeffer met notable Christian Right figures like Jerry Falwell while making the documentary Whatever Happened to the Human Race? and shared their pro-life, theologically conservative views. However, multiple colleagues, family members, and L’Abri students have noted that Schaeffer’s views on the environment, his love for creativity, and his belief that love is the final apologetic set him apart from the Christian Right movement.

9. He made creativity acceptable for many Christians. Schaeffer lived in a period where many American evangelical Christians saw art as worldly or useless unless it directly talked about the Bible. Schaeffer argued for understanding creativity as a God-given gift that doesn’t need to have an explicit gospel message to make it “Christian.” His writings on creativity had a huge influence on Christians trying to understand art in a more holistic model. Several L’Abri graduates wrote important theses on Christianity and art, including Steve Turner (Imagine, Popcultured), Donald Drew (Images of Man), and David A. Covington (A Redemptive Theology of Art).

10. His legacy is international. While the original L’Abri is still operating in Huemoz, Switzerland, many other L’Abri study centers exist. Locations include Minnesota and Massachusetts in the United States, and locations in England, South Korea, The Netherlands, Canada, Brazil, Australia, and South Africa.

10 Great Books by Francis Schaeffer

Schaeffer published 23 books, with various lectures and speeches also printed in his collected works. While all of them are worth reading, here are his best works to start with:

1. The God Who Is There

2. Escape from Reason

3. He is There and He Is Not Silent

4. Art and the Bible

5. True Spirituality

6. How Should We Then Live?

7. Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (with C. Everett Coop)

8. Pollution and the Death of Man

9. Death in the City

10. The Mark of the Christian

10 Great Books by Edith Schaeffer

Edith Schaeffer wrote 20 books, including award-winning memoirs and lay theology books. Here are her best books to start with:

1. L’Abri

2. Dear Family

3. The Tapestry

4. The Hidden Art of Homemaking

5. With Love, Edith

6. Affliction

7. What Is a Family?

8. Mei Fuh: Memories from China

9. Forever Music

10. The Art of Life

Photo Credit: Public Domain Photo, Schaeffer at 1981 L'Abri Conference in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. Via Flicker

Connor SalterG. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.

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