How God Uses a Family and a Home A Tribute to Edith Schaeffer (1914-2013)
On Easter Saturday this year a very old lady died in Switzerland. She was 98; and though she had been born in China and brought up in the United States, the great bulk of her life and service to Christ was spent near Lausanne, in Switzerland. Edith Schaeffer has been an inspiration to me since my earliest days as a Christian. She has been a model for me of concern for the lost, of love for young people in need of guidance, and of generous hospitality at considerable personal cost. I love her for setting the standard of Christian discipleship high – much higher than we are inclined to set for ourselves. It was my dream to visit L’Abri, her home in the Swiss Alps, all my student years. I never made it there, though through reading her books I could picture the kind of place it was. But my student days, the late 70s and early 80s, are a long time ago now; and perhaps, being younger than me, you have never heard of this amazing lady. It’s for you that I write this tribute to her.
Edith’s Early Life
Edith was born in August 1914; the month World War One broke out. Her parents were George and Jessie Seville, American Presbyterian missionaries serving in Wenchow (near Shanghai) with the China Inland Mission. These were the days shortly after the Boxer Rebellion, which had seen 58 CIM missionaries brutally murdered. They were also, still, the days when unwanted baby girls were left exposed to die – Edith remembered them crying, many years later, when she was teaching young western women why abortion was wrong.
Because Jessie needed medical care the Seville family returned to the U.S. when Edith was 5 years old; and so she grew up in north-west Philadelphia (only a few blocks away from the young Francis Schaeffer). Hers was a happy home, with loving parents and good friendships with her two sisters. Her father supplied a number of pulpits, and served in missionary organisations. During her teenage years increasing liberalism in the Presbyterian church led to the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Her parents were involved in both of these developments; and Edith was accustomed to discussion of theology and church life. She completed high school, and in the summer she graduated, she met Francis, who had just finished his first year of college in Virginia.
Both of them had recently believed in Christ. They met at a young people’s meeting on a Sunday night; and Francis was impressed with Edith’s outspoken defence of the faith as she answered what had been said by the (liberal) speaker. “Who is that?” he asked. Their walk home afterwards was the beginning of a three-year-long courtship. They wrote many letters to each other as Francis completed his study in philosophy and theology at college in Virginia, and as Edith began a degree in domestic science at a local Christian college. This training – while she did not finally complete her degree – was to prove very useful to the Schaeffer family in the years ahead. Edith became an expert dressmaker and a highly-organised and accomplished homemaker. Cooking, gardening and home decorating were skills she used to the full, on a limited budget.
The Schaeffers married in 1935 after Francis’s graduation, and set up home together in Philadelphia, where Francis began his study for the ministry at Westminster Seminary. Soon there was further theological turmoil. Francis was one of a group that split from the OPC to form the more fundamentalist Bible Presbyterian Church. This church began a new seminary in Wilmington, Delaware, so they moved there to complete his studies. Francis was ordained a Bible Presbyterian minister, and they began their ministry in Grove City, central Pennsylvania.
Their life’s pattern was really established here. They worked hard, caring for the congregation, and befriending local children from non-Christian families so that they could introduce them to the gospel. Francis used to barbecue sausages and invite the children in to enjoy them. Three years on, they had two daughters and the church had been well-established. They then accepted a call to another church, in Chester, Pennsylvania; and two years after this Francis received a further call, to a larger church in St Louis, Missouri. They accepted this one, too. It was now wartime.
The St Louis ministry was a significant one, both in the church, and evangelistically, in the wider community. They and their congregation were very hospitable – there were lots of meals and open homes. Edith loved her ladies’ Bible class. It started when the aunt of one of the little 5 year old girls in her Children for Christ class asked if she would give a book review of the Bible for her ladies’ literary club. Edith saw this as a most unusual request – but perhaps an opportunity for the gospel. She told the aunt “you may not want me – I believe the Bible to be true, not just a book.” “Oh please come, we want something vital”, the aunt replied. So, on the day, she began a survey, or “bird’s eye view” of the Bible. After half an hour she stopped, but they begged her to continue... And again, after an hour. The outcome was that the club voted to change its name and became a Bible class, meeting in a library! (This survey of the Bible was often used by Edith over the years to teach others, and was ultimately the basis of her book, Christianity is Jewish.)
All this time the three Schaeffer daughters were watching what their parents were doing; and learning themselves to be good friends, good witnesses and hospitable Christians. Francis and Edith encouraged them, and taught them through their words and example.
Soon after the War, the Bible Presbyterian Church became concerned about what had been happening to the churches in Europe. They wanted to help, knowing there had been physical destruction and suffering in the occupied countries; and knowing also that Barthian theology had undermined people’s confidence in the authority of Scripture. Karl Barth had been teaching that the Christian’s faith belonged to the sphere of spiritual things, separate from the world of everyday life – and that Scripture, while true in the former sphere, may not be in the latter. The denomination decided to send Francis over to see what could be done to strengthen and encourage the European churches. In those days, travel was not as simple as booking a ticket, jumping on a plane and arriving 8 hours later. It meant a ship voyage, trains, delays and months of absence. Francis was away on an exhausting trip of several months.
The outcome was that the Schaeffers were sent to Europe in 1948 as missionaries, to help churches learn how to teach children with the good Bible materials they had written themselves. What did they find? They found churches where the Christian faith had endured in people’s hearts through tough times; but which were weakened by the onslaught of liberal theology. Edith and Francis worked hard. Based in a small apartment in Lausanne, they travelled a great deal, often having to leave their daughters with the friends they made at their new home.
Slowly, during their first year, they made many new friends. They put a lot of effort into learning French. They held little church services and invited the old ladies who lived in their boarding house. They started a Bible class for children. A local Protestant chapel attracted English-speaking tourists staying locally for services, and Francis was asked to lead a Christmas Eve service. At the end of the year, the family was tired, the children needed a change of air, and their landlady suggested they rent a chalet in the mountains above Lausanne.
Several finishing schools were situated nearby, to which British, American and French girls were sent to learn languages and a few social graces. The Schaeffers met some of them around the village and invited them for tea and cake. Edith’s angel food cakes and chocolate cakes became great attractions. The girls came readily. They talked about the big questions of life – and the Bible’s answers. Their three girls joined in and helped with translating for the French-speaking girls (as children do, they had learned the new language more quickly than their parents). The girls also invited friends home from school – for more tea and cake. And there was more talking about big questions and the Bible.
Within a year the family had decided to stay on in the mountains – the girls loved it. They made more friends with neighbours in the little alpine village of Champéry. But suddenly, they received orders to leave the canton and Switzerland (it turned out that the local Roman Catholic bishop saw their evangelistic work as a threat and called them a “religious disturbance”). It was very much a matter of urgent prayer. By now they had an established network of friends in the U.S. called their “praying family”, and many joined their prayer. They had just a few short weeks to buy a house in a canton that was willing to have them stay (conditions of their visa). To cut a long story short, this prayer was answered with only hours to spare, and so they were able to stay in Switzerland – in the little village of Huémoz.
This became the centre of their work to the present day. L’Abri, which is French for “the Shelter”, began at this time – the early 1950s. It was really an extension of their normal, hospitable family life. They had come to see that the way God was blessing their simple work of befriending the locals – children and adults – was pointing them in the direction of extending their family life in an evangelistic, apologetic and discipling way. The girls had continued bringing their friends home from boarding school – and then when Priscilla, the oldest, began her studies at the University of Lausanne, she brought her student friends with her. Soon there was a steady stream of students and other young people staying for weekends. They developed a habit of cooking and eating Saturday evening meals outdoors whenever the weather allowed. The numbers grew – and the house was really not big enough!
Bunks were added. Two ground-level bedrooms were turned into a large living room by knocking down a dividing wall. A large stone fireplace, comfy chairs and a shelf of books created what was to become definitely the most important room in the house. Francis spent many, many evening hours here talking through the big issues with those who had burning questions. His training in philosophy and theology was critically important – but so were Edith’s high teas, fresh-baked orange rolls and nutritious salads. Perhaps you think they had a big missions budget to help support them? No, quite the reverse. They had decided to live by faith, making no requests for money, just praying that God would supply their needs. Sometimes things were difficult: for one thing, Edith had a small kitchen – it was crowded when several people were in there helping her.
However, there was great fruit. By the 1960s the work had grown tremendously. Due to Francis’s books and the help they had been to many a reader searching for truth, perhaps hundreds had come to believe in Christ. As Edith hovered “around the edges” with her tea and cakes, she saw her reward in faces alight with new-found certainty. She herself contributed a lot to the lives of younger women. Some of them she befriended because they had big problems in their marriages. Or tragedy had come in the death of a child. She was very good at speaking loving, wise words of truth that really helped. As the numbers of visitors and the work grew, they took on volunteer “helpers” who would stay for a few months, a year or longer, and Edith would disciple them as they helped her in the work of keeping the home going.
As their three daughters married, and as more chalets were purchased with donations from friends, they and their sons-in-law also helped in the work. Both Francis and Edith wrote books, with the result that they became household names in the evangelical world internationally. Soon there were requests for them to speak at conferences, and to university groups in Britain and the United States. Ultimately, more L’Abris were established in England, the U.S. and Canada. Francis also made two films with the encouragement of their son, Franky. The first was a historical survey of western culture; while the second, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, was on medical ethics. He made this in conjunction with Dr C. Everett Koop (later the Surgeon General of the U.S.)
Francis died of lymphoma in 1984; so Edith has spent nearly a third of her life as a widow. She continued to serve in numerous ways in the ongoing work of L’Abri; and wrote several books in these years. But perhaps it is a tribute to the life-giving energy of Christian marriage that their greatest work was achieved together. Edith was a remarkable woman who loved God and served him as an individual. But she was also a remarkable wife; and Francis, who loved the work that God had given him, owed a huge amount to his devoted wife. None of it would have been possible without her.1
There is much more that could be said; and much that we can learn, from Edith’s walk of faith. She was an evangelist who loved people and did so much to draw them to Christ. She was a friend to so many; and through these friendships won their hearts to God. She was disciplined and faithful in prayer – so much so that I wonder if this was the key to the whole ministry of L’Abri. Nothing was too small a matter for her prayer; and the lists she drew up are a testimony to her habit of prayerfulness.
But there are two aspects of her life that I’d like to highlight – for us, in New Zealand, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. They are things we are in danger of losing if we’re not careful; and they are so basic and important that we miss the whole point of being Christians if we neglect them.
The first is Edith’s attitude to her home. It’s clear that she saw it as a base of operations for Christ’s work. It was not a fortress for her family. It was a place to make the love of God available for all who came in. It was her custom to pray that God would send those he wanted to come; and to keep away all others. This (rather unusual) prayer meant that she was able to view everyone who did come to their door as someone who was there for a special purpose. Be she tired or low in energy, this was a person to love and serve.
Sometimes this was costly, requiring a dying to self. The days were long, meaning she sometimes found herself planting vegetables by torchlight when the daylight ran out. Francis, I’m sorry to say, had a temper – and there were famous moments when he threw pot plants! She remembers once running from the house in tears, shouting that she wasn’t coming back (though of course she did).
But she was willing to devote her considerable homemaking gifts to making their home a place of warmth, attractiveness and delicious, welcoming meals. The skills of homemaking are creative ones; and we overlook them to our impoverishment. Our homes are not simply garages; and our meals should not be merely fuel for empty vehicles. Making our homes a delight to be in is a very important calling.
And there are plenty of people who are in desperate need of them. Today, fifty years after the peak of Edith Schaeffer’s work, the western world is in even more trouble than it was then. Family life is more fractured than in the 1960s, though of course what is happening now is a logical outcome of developments then. If there is one area of the Christian life that stands out like nothing else as a witness in our troubled world, it is family relationships. We still know, in a clear and unshakeable way, how to build a happy home, where husbands and wives love each other; and where children can be brought up and prepared for living in the world. The world might try to prevent us doing this in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but we can do it; and we should be looking for ways to bring the walking wounded, scarred from the battlefields of failed home life, into our own homes for real gospel help. God is especially kind to those lacking home life of their own. In Psalm 68:6 David writes that he is “the Father of the fatherless and protector of widows ... God settles the solitary in a home”. If we don’t open our homes, how is he going to do this in our day? Edith and Francis Schaeffer were prepared to give up their personal space and time to do it. Surely there are ways we can, too?
Secondly, she was a wonderful example to her children; and particularly her daughters. They saw in her a mother who always had room for “one more” at the table. They were included in her ministry. From the earliest age they learned how to tell others about Jesus so naturally that they were always doing it. They were part of children’s Bible groups, of hospitality to unbelieving families, of the whole idea of going to Europe to serve the Lord there. Once, when they invited a Scottish family back to their chalet after a Christmas Eve service, the children were very much part of their stay and the prayer surrounding it. The guests and their two children all came to Christ, one by one, following needed serious talks with Francis and Edith. Seven year-old Debby excitedly voiced the feeling they all had when she exclaimed “I can’t imagine four people all together getting saved in three days – it’s so wonderful because most people take so long!”
I sometimes think we are rather handily inclined to stress danger to our children as the “lion in the path”2 that stops us welcoming the lonely, the needy and the unbeliever in general into our homes. We don’t need to be foolish. We don’t have to leave our children to play, unsupervised, with children from violent situations. We do these things as a family; and together, parents and children, share the warmth of home life with those who might never have seen it. I also think we overplay the bad character of unbelievers – they are not all dangerous beings threatening to devour us. Most are peaceable, law-abiding people. The trouble is, not knowing many, we tend to think they must be “worse” than we are. It is one thing to expose our children to real “stranger danger” – but it is quite another to be so protective that neither we – nor they – have many non-Christian friends at all.
Edith Schaeffer was one of the truly great Christian women of our day. Like us, she was imperfect, waiting for her Saviour to rescue her from this body of sin. Yet with her passing we have lost a “mother in Israel” and it’s fitting to mourn her loss. Great lives leave legacies, however – and hers would be knowing that Christian women’s homes and families continue to be used by God to bring the lost to their Saviour.