Memories of Francis Schaeffer and His Influence
Compiled by Rick Matt
The late pastor, teacher, and apologist Francis A. Schaeffer had a tremendous impact on generations of Christians and those investigating the claims of Christianity—including many who have since gone on to serve the Lord through their work at Covenant Seminary. Here are a few brief memories of Schaeffer the man and his influence. For more on Schaeffer, see the Winter 2012–Spring 2013 issue of Covenant magazine.
Dr. David Calhoun, professor emeritus of church history, heard Francis Schaeffer lecture at Covenant Seminary when Calhoun was a student here in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He later spent a summer at L’Abri in Switzerland where he often had extended conversations with Schaeffer during long walks. These memories are quoted from a personal interview with Dr. Calhoun in July 2012.
Dr. Schaeffer would often ask visitors to come for a walk with him to talk about what they were learning during their stay at L’Abri. The first time he asked me to do it, I was nervous; I was so in awe of him. He was a fast walker, too, so it was hard to keep up! But he was not difficult to be with. He was warm and down to earth. We talked about many things, but what impressed me most was the way he would often interrupt our discussion to point at something along the path—a rock or a tree—and say how it reminded him of a person who had talked with him about some crisis he or she was having, or who had come to Christ in that spot. Schaeffer remembered these people very well and would share their stories as we walked. For me it was like a course in pastoral theology. I had not expected that during our walks. I learned what it means to be in tune with people so you can see what they really need.
My wife, who had visited L’Abri as a high school student, remembers an incident when she and several friends were with Dr. Schaeffer on a tour of Rome. The trip was wonderful but what stood out most for her was a day when they were trying to cross a piazza that was busy with traffic. They saw an old man trying to pull a loaded wagon across the street. Without hesitation, Schaeffer took off his jacket, gave it to Anne to hold, and ran out to help the man pull his cart through the traffic. That was a great example of his compassion, what Dr. Schaeffer would call “observable love.”
More than anyone Schaeffer helped me move beyond the narrow view of Christianity I had grown up with to a greater appreciation of the wider stream of our Christian heritage. I met up with him again at the first Lausanne Conference in 1974 and was surprised that he remembered me. But again I was more impressed by the unexpected. One of the speakers at the conference noted that the next morning there would be a prayer meeting that was open to all members of the PCA and the PCUS, which I thought a good thing given the tensions that had only recently caused a split between the two. I turned to Dr. Schaeffer, who was sitting next to me, and I saw tears streaming down his face. He said, “That is the way it ought to be. We did not do it that way.” He was remembering the acrimonious divisions in the Presbyterian church of the 1930s out of which he had come. That underscored for me his commitment not only to the purity of the church, but also to the unity of the believing church. It was a powerful moment.
Prof. Jerram Barrs, professor of Christian studies and contemporary culture, converted to Christianity under the influence of Schaeffer and later worked with Schaeffer at L’Abri (where his future wife worked as Schaeffer’s secretary). Jerram served as director of the English branch of L’Abri for many years before coming to Covenant Seminary to found and serve as resident scholar at the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute. His memories here are excerpted from his article “Francis Schaeffer: The Man and His Message.”
As a non-Christian I wrestled with several of the problems that were addressed repeatedly by Schaeffer. I wondered how any meaning and value can be given to human life. I did not see any basis for being able to make a distinction between good and evil. . . . I was also haunted by the reality of suffering. Is there any reason for suffering, any ultimate explanation for it, or is it meaningless in the end? . . . For me, the lack of answers drove me to the very edge of suicide. I was prevented (thank God!) from throwing myself over a cliff one January day by the glory of creation even in the middle of winter. I felt constrained to keep searching just a little longer before taking such a final step.
About two weeks later I met Mike, a Canadian doctoral student at Manchester University where I was an undergraduate. Mike had studied under Francis Schaeffer at the Swiss L’Abri and held discussions, Bible studies, and sessions for listening to Schaeffer’s tapes in his apartment each week. The first evening he led a reading and reflection on the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes. It pierced me to the heart, for here was a man, Mike, and here was a book, the Bible, that took my questions seriously and began to give them answers. . . . Within a little over a year and a half, Mike led me in a prayer of commitment . . . as we knelt side by side on his kitchen floor in November 1966. God had brought another reluctant sinner to himself!
Many years later, Francis Schaeffer was also instrumental in helping my atheist father come to accept Christ. Schaeffer visited my father as he lay dying and presented the glorious truth of the gospel to him. My father’s response was, “How could a worm accept that?” to which Schaeffer said, “How could a worm refuse?” He prayed with my father then, and Dad asked him also to pray for my brother and sister, to help undo the atheism he had taught them all their lives.
I worked for almost 20 years in L’Abri, many of those years while Francis Schaeffer was still alive. Our pattern was to tell those who came to our homes that “no questions are off limits.” For if we believe that Christianity is indeed the truth, we do not need to be afraid of any questions or objections.
Dr. Richard Winter, professor of practical theology and counseling, is a former director of L’Abri Fellowship in Hampshire, England. These memories are excerpted from his chapter titled “The Glory and Ruin of Man,” in Francis A. Schaeffer: Portraits of the Man and His Work, edited by Lane T. Dennis (Crossway, 1986).
I owe much to my parents and my traditional evangelical Christian home, but there was, at that time, little exposure to non-Christian ideas. When I left medical school I started to read much more widely in philosophy and history. . . . I encountered huge and difficult questions about the existence and nature of God, about reality, and about good and evil. I felt completely overwhelmed with doubt because I was not equipped to answer them. It was then that I remembered that, as a student, I had struggled through a little book called Escape From Reason. I read it again and then eagerly devoured other books by Dr. Francis Schaeffer and found, at last, a Christian who had struggled with the same questions and had discovered some answers. . . . [Later, after traveling the world looking at other religions, my wife and I reached Swiss L’Abri far more convinced that Christianity is the only way to know God and that it is indeed, as we heard Dr. Schaeffer often say, “true truth” about the nature of reality. . . .
Had I not been so helped by Francis Schaeffer’s teaching, I wonder whether I would have survived psychiatry. In so many ways he helped me to build a firm foundation and framework within which to develop a Christian mind in the academic discipline and the therapeutic practice of psychiatry. . . I saw, for the first time, how important world views are in shaping life and thought. . . . Always I returned to a simple, yet profound, fact which makes sense of our day-to-day experiential reality—the fact that we are made in the image of the “infinite personal God.” . . . And because God exists, there is an answer to the question that so many people hardly dare to ask: “What’s the point of it all?” We are made to live in a relationship with the God who is really there. . . .
Dr. Schaeffer also described man as “a glorious ruin”—part glory and part ruin. . . . [As a result of the fall] our minds, emotions, and wills no longer work as they should; we find we are divided against ourselves, . . . As I have struggled, over these years, to integrate psychology and psychiatry within a biblical Christian framework, it has become increasingly clear that I am in the business of rebuilding the broken fragments of men and women who have been created for something better. . . . It is only as we go to the King and ask for his help and wisdom that we can begin to truly help people rebuild the shattered fragments of their lives. . . .
Edith Schaeffer, wife of Francis and his faithful partner in ministry for more than five decades wrote this beautiful letter to some friends shortly after Francis passed away from cancer in 1984. Excerpted from a letter dated May 16, 1984, from the Papers of Dr. Robert G. Rayburn, located in Box 428, File 49, of the PCA Historical Center, St. Louis, Missouri.
The time can still be counted in hours when I went through the very once-in-a-lifetime experience of watching Fran stop breathing from one second to the next. It is not only an incredibly new experience but a different one from any other in life. For 52 years, from the time Fran and I began writing every day to each other in college, I have seen everything in the light of what Fran might like or what his reaction would be so that the sense of absence was beyond anything I could have imagined when he left his body. The absence was vivid but of course no curtain pulled back to see the change he underwent as he became present with the Lord. This could not be shared nor might I have his report! . . . The Lord has given an amazing continuity in our period of time in Rochester as the funeral will be held in the John Marshall High School where Fran answered questions from a large audience, five Sunday nights, five and a half years ago during his first weeks of chemotherapy.
The film Whatever Happened to the Human Race? has a final episode which Fran felt was the best presentation of the Gospel and of the wonder of the resurrection that he has been able to give in his life. . . . This episode will be shown at the funeral. It is my husband’s favorite episode of any of the filming he did. We pray that as he speaks himself concerning death and the way of salvation and the assurance of the resurrection that any who are not certain of their own eternal life may indeed be saved during the service. . . .
I am praying that this total experience of togetherness as a family and the contemplation together of what takes place in the presence of the Lord will be unforgettable for each of our own children and for those who come from outside. I am hoping that the content of the message, music, and film will take people away being closer to the Lord rather than full of sorrow.
Rick Matt is associate director of communications for Covenant Seminary.