March 30, 2013

The Legacy of Edith and Francis Schaeffer

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By Mark Tooley @markdtooley

Edith Schaeffer, widow of the late great evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer, and herself an intellect and formidable writer, has died, just short of age 99. Francis, who died in 1984, intellectually fathered modern conservative evangelical cultural and political activism. She was the daughter of missionaries in China, her mother having survived the Boxer Rebellion.

Francis and Edith met in 1932 at a liberal Presbyterian church outside Philadelphia, where a Unitarian was lecturing against Christ’s deity and the Bible’s authority. At that time, much of Mainline Protestantism had liberalized. At age 18, Edith was braced for debate in defense of the faith. But Francis, two years older, rose first, explaining his own transformative faith in Jesus Christ. They launched a more than 50 year partnership and marriage that was globally influential, much of it from Switzerland, where they founded l’Abri fellowship, and where she died.

In a column that was atypically moving while also more typically snide, the Schaeffer’s chronically peeved son, Franky, who has publicly excoriated his parents and their beliefs for years, honored his mother’s unfailing love while pronouncing her marriage “disastrous.” She likely disagreed.

The Schaeffers first contended against Presbyterian liberalism. After World War II, he rallied evangelicals, then very much on the cultural sidelines, against the seductively ascendant neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth. Later the Schaeffers set themselves toward creating an alternative evangelical theological framework for renewing Western culture. Many of the Religious Right’s early leaders were deeply influenced by his call to combative yet loving advocacy for what came to be called family values. Abortion was a chief cause for the Schaeffers.

Ten years ago it was widely popular among liberal elites to warn against impending theocracy, with Schaeffer having been the original godfather. Now it’s trendy to declare religious conservatism dead and almost gone, with supposedly everybody and their grandmother anxious to bless same sex marriage and all of postmodernism’s moral ambiguity and underlying intolerance.

Interestingly our new era no longer so much requires vigorous defense of Christian doctrine like Christ’s deity, which brought the Schaeffers together. The sterile certitudes of liberal Protestantism have intellectually and demographically collapsed. Postmodernism embraces transcendence and the supernatural. But it rejects absolute truth claims (except incoherently in defense of a faux “diversity”).

So the Schaeffers won some battles and momentarily lost some others. But she no doubt was pleased by the explosive growth of Christianity in China, where as an old woman she visited the old mission station of her childhood, and throughout the global south. He would be saddened but unsurprised by the West’s current cultural malaise, yet no less delighted by global Christianity’s surge, to which he contributed at least indirectly by his long, unfashionable defense of orthodox faith. I myself, like many others, read their books appreciatively and impressionably as a young man, when their themes were provocative and bracing. May God bless their memory.


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  • Seeing that cover reminded me of what an icon Schaeffer was to our generation of evangelicals. Something about that balding head, his bulbous nose, and his famous knickers, just seemed like the spiritual mentor we all needed, the wise old uncle whose face showed both serenity and a sorrow at the fallen state of the world God created good, also the courage to fight back against the evil in that world. I hope Schaeffer is already home with God and not aware of what his scapegrace son has done to trash his parents’ memory and all they stood for. We need more Francis Schaeffers, deep thinkers, people who know that ideas have consequences, that Christian thought and Christian feeling are both essential to the life of faith. Maybe the “communion of saints” will give us an opportunity to fellowship with Schaeffer in a deeper way.

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