NASHVILLE (BP) — The late Francis Schaeffer was known to pick up the phone during the early years of the Southern Baptist Convention’s conservative resurgence. Paige Patterson knew to expect a call from Schaeffer around Christmas with the question, “You’re not growing weary in well-doing are you?”
Patterson, a leader in the movement to return the SBC to a high view of Scripture, would reply, “No, Dr. Schaeffer. I’m under fire, but I’m doing fine. And I’m trusting the Lord and proceeding on.”
To some it may seem strange that an international Presbyterian apologist and analyst of pop culture would take such interest in a Baptist controversy over biblical inerrancy.
But to Schaeffer it made perfect sense.
He believed churches were acquiescing to the world, abandoning their belief that the Bible is without error in everything it said. A watered-down theology left the SBC with decreased power to battle cultural evils. To Schaeffer the convention was the last major American denomination with hope for reversing this “great evangelical disaster,” as he put it.
Thirty years after Schaeffer’s death, Baptist leaders still remember how he took time from his speaking, writing and filmmaking schedule to quietly encourage Patterson; Paul Pressler, a judge from Texas with whom Patterson worked closely during the conservative resurgence; Adrian Rogers, a Memphis pastor who served three terms SBC president; and others.
By the early 1990s, conservatives had elected an unbroken string of convention presidents and moved in position to shift the balance of power on all convention boards and committees from the theologically moderate establishment. But at the time of Schaeffer’s annual calls, the outcome of the controversy was still in doubt.
“I strongly suspect that he was afraid I would not hold strong,” Patterson, now president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, told Baptist Press. “He had seen so many people fold up under pressure that he assumed we probably would too. So he would call and ask for a report.”
A worldwide ministry
Schaeffer was born in 1912 in Germantown, Pa., and was saved at age 18 through a combination of personal Bible reading and attending a tent revival meeting. Within months of his conversion he felt called to vocational ministry and eventually enrolled at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where he studied New Testament under J. Gresham Machen and apologetics under Cornelius Val Til.
Schaeffer withdrew from Westminster before he graduated to attend the more fundamentalist-leaning Faith Theological Seminary in Wilmington, Del. In keeping with early 20th-century fundamentalism, Schaeffer emphasized separation from the world and personal holiness. Among the practices he opposed were theater attendance and dancing. Schaeffer retained his fundamentalist commitments through 10 years of pastoring in the U.S. and then service as a Presbyterian missionary in Europe.
In the early 1950s, however, a crisis of faith led Schaeffer and his wife Edith to begin engaging culture with the Gospel rather than shunning it. They founded a retreat center in Switzerland called L’Abri — French for “the shelter” — where he studied culture from a Christian perspective and engaged young people with the claims of Christ.
L’Abri grew and was featured in TIME magazine in 1960. Soon Schaeffer emerged as a popular author and speaker, explaining how western civilization had departed from a Judeo-Christian worldview and setting forth Christianity as the only solution to societal ills.
Schaeffer “wakened the cultural consciousness of the evangelical community,” Bruce Little, director of the Francis Schaeffer Collection at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP. The Schaeffer Collection includes all of the apologist’s personal papers and has been digitized by the North Carolina seminary.
“He thought that man’s dilemma was that man was fighting against the evil of the day, but he wasn’t winning,” Little, who also serves as senior professor of philosophy at Southeastern, said. “Schaeffer thought the answer to this is found in the Scriptures.”
From a Christian worldview perspective, Schaeffer wrote and spoke about such topics as the environment, abortion, art, literature, music, intellectual history and denominational decline. In the 1970s and 1980s, audiences packed auditoriums across America to hear him speak. He died of cancer in 1984.
Southern Baptist connections
Schaeffer’s interest in engaging culture made him particularly appealing to Southern Baptist conservatives. He helped provide them with a “battle plan” to fight cultural evils and what they perceived as theological drift in their denomination, Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, told BP.
“The one thing I heard growing up in Southern Baptist churches that was just plain wrong went something like this,” Land, former president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said. “We’re Southern Baptist. That means we don’t get involved in anything controversial. We just preach the Gospel.”
As a corrective to that notion, Schaeffer “made it very clear to us that the Bible is true seven days a week, 24 hours a day and its truth is to be applied to every area of life,” Land said.
Along with theologian Carl F.H. Henry, Schaeffer was the key intellectual influence on leaders of the conservative resurgence, Land said. When conservatives started to be elected as the executives of Baptist institutions, Henry spoke at Land’s inauguration at the Christian Life Commission (the ERLC’s precursor), R. Albert Mohler Jr.’s at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky and Timothy George’s at Beeson Divinity School in Alabama.
“If Schaeffer had still been alive, we would have had him come,” Land said. He noted that Schaeffer was “close” to Rogers and “admired” by Bailey Smith, two conservative SBC presidents. Edith Schaeffer and Patterson’s wife Dorothy were close friends and travelled together in the early 1980s speaking on the importance of the home.
Clark Pinnock, a former New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary professor who mentored conservative resurgence leaders before taking a leftward theological turn in his own thinking, served on Schaeffer’s staff at L’Abri.
Another Southern Baptist to feel Schaeffer’s personal influence was James Parker, professor of worldview and culture at Southern Seminary. After reading works by Schaeffer and spending two months at L’Abri during his doctoral studies at Basel University in Switzerland, Parker decided he wanted to open a center for evangelism and discipleship like Schaeffer’s.
In 1992 Parker founded the Trinity Institute, a nonprofit study and retreat center near Waco, Texas, where he tutors individuals in the Christian faith and hosts conferences exploring the integration of Christianity to all areas of life.
Schaeffer was “a paradigm for the engagement of the mind for the faith, and so that was quite inspirational and encouraging to me,” Parker told BP.
The pro-life cause was one area in which Schaeffer strongly influenced evangelicals, including Southern Baptists. With his book and accompanying film series “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” — coauthored with C. Everett Koop, who went on to become U.S. surgeon general — Schaeffer helped convince Southern Baptists that they had to protest abortion.
In a 1979 interview with BP editor Art Toalston, then-religion editor of the Jackson Daily News in Mississippi, Schaeffer said the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion was “completely arbitrary medically” in its assumption that “a human being is a person at one moment and not another.”
He added that the ruling “doesn’t conform to past rulings at all. It invalidated the abortion laws of almost every state in the union. In all these states, the people as a whole felt that abortion was wrong. But the Supreme Court says it’s right.
“Not having a Christian absolute that says the Supreme Court’s ruling is wrong because it breaks the ethic God has revealed, people took what the law says to be right,” Schaeffer said.
Prominent Southern Baptist conservatives, including W.A. Criswell of First Baptist Church in Dallas and Carl Henry, were not always pro-life, Land explained, but shifted their views as they saw the massive loss of life caused by abortion — a tragedy that Schaeffer highlighted.
Whatever Happened to the Human Race? was and is “devastating” to the abortion movement, Land said. “How anybody can read that book and not be motivated to take part in pro-life marches is beyond me.”
Little of Southeastern Seminary understands firsthand why Schaeffer was so influential. He remembers listening to him speak at Liberty University in April 1984, the month before he died. By that time Schaeffer was so weak that he was living on milkshakes and sometimes had to be carried to speaking engagements on a stretcher.
During a question-and-answer session, one student “stood to his feet and said, ‘Dr. Schaeffer, it seems to me that the church is in the 10th round. It’s bloody. It’s beaten. It’s on its knees. Is there any hope we can win?'” Little recounted.
“I can see Schaeffer now,” Little continued. “He leaned forward, brought the mic to his mouth and said, ‘Son, if you do it to win, you’ve lost already.'” Whether they win or lose, Christians fight the culture wars, Schaeffer said, “because our risen Lord has commanded us.”