A Tale of An Unusual Providence
It was on this date, May 15th, in 1984 that Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer died. We have previously written of his death, and separately have posted a letter he wrote to Dr. Robert Rayburn during the time when both men were battling cancer.
But today, in observation of Schaeffer’s passing, we want to speak not of his death, but of his new life in Christ—some interesting archival evidence of his coming to faith in Christ. This is a bit of an unusual story, admittedly with some reading between the lines, with some previously unseen details of Schaeffer’s coming to faith in Christ.
About ten or twelve years ago, as I was leaving the PCA Historical Center for the day, a seminary student ran to catch up with me and asked if I had any samples of Dr. Schaeffer’s handwriting in the Archives. I indicated that we did, but inquired further. Often when people ask a question, that question doesn’t really get at what they’re actually after. As he began to explain further, the story became more interesting.
It was the habit of this particular student–I wish now I had made note of his name–when studying in the library, when he would get tired of sitting after an hour or so, he would get up and browse through the stacks of the books in the library. Notably, and to his credit, he said he tried to be methodical in his browsing, moving from one shelf to the next, range by range, in his review of the library’s holdings. Then one day, he came to a new shelf and as was his habit, began pulling down various books to inspect them closer. This particular day, in the book he opened, he was surprised to see the signature of Francis A. Schaeffer, with a date of 1929. [the comment “Not Sound” is in a different hand]:
None of the other books on that shelf had that same signature, but there was a small slip of paper tucked into this book, with some writing on it. Putting the book back, the student had the presence of mind to seek out someone who might help confirm the signature as Schaeffer’s. On a following day, we met again and confirmed the handwriting from other examples in the Historical Center, and the student happily returned to his studies.
What is remarkable to me about this story is the background information. The book in question was a small hardback published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses! And there on the shelf with other JW publications, was another volume with an inscription from Aunt Mabel and Uncle Harrison, a couple who were in fact Schaeffer’s aunt and uncle.
From this it is easy to surmise that as Fran Schaeffer began to be interested in spiritual matters (he is usually noted as having become a Christian in 1930), others in his family might have been aware of those stirrings. This aunt and uncle had probably heard that he had begun to read the Bible, and so looked around for something they could contribute. It might be a stretch to conclude that they were themselves JW’s, but it is at least curious that they apparently continued to gift several JW publications over the years.
And that slip of paper. Was this among Schaeffer’s earliest testimony to his new-found faith? Perhaps so. It reads:
If you can’t read it, this side of the paper reads:
“Studying his word, and doing his work is the only thing I enjoy now”
“The boy him-self must choose, no one can do any-thing but guide him”
“I don’t know what I will do, but I” [incomplete–there might have been a second piece of paper.]
On the back of this paper there is this:
The writing here is easier to read:
“All have sinned and must accept Christ to be saved.”
An evangelical confession of belief, to be sure.
Finally, it is remarkable to realize that Dr. Schaeffer had these books in his possession for some years, but most likely chose to leave them behind at his St. Louis church when he moved his family to Switzerland in the late 1940’s, beginning the ministry that would become L’Abri. Some seven years later, the church relocated to the suburbs, and when Covenant College was formed a few years later, these books must have been donated to the fledgling school’s library. The books were catalogued, labeled and placed on the shelf. Students must inevitably have looked at them from time to time. Someone might have even checked them out. And yet that little slip of paper stayed tucked in that book all those years until the seminary student at the top of our story came across the book.
Words to Live By:
To think that Francis Schaeffer could have been led astray by well-meaning relatives might be quite shocking. But the Lord has given us a promise. He knows those who are His, and He will never lose even one of His dear children.
“This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”–John 6:39-40, NASB.