What Did I Discover While Researching Francis Schaeffer?

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.

I loved serving as a local church pastor at Tega Cay Baptist Church from 2009 until 2017. During my time there, the church allowed me to take a four-week sabbatical in December 2014 in order to help Dr. Bruce Little do research in the Francis Schaeffer Collection at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where I was working on my Ph.D. Not only was it a terrific academic opportunity, it also blessed me spiritually in a great way.

Francis Schaeffer’s books played a huge role in my spiritual development. I became a Christian in 1994 around the age of 17, but in my twenties I went through a terrible spiritual crisis. I was struggling with questions and doubts about whether or not Christianity was really true. It’s difficult to explain the emotional stress and anxiety I felt during that ordeal; trust me when I say that I was nearly at my wit’s end! As I see it now, there was some incorrect theology in my background which led me to wrong conclusions about what faith is, how sovereignty worked, and the role of apologetics. For instance, I thought it would be ungodly and unbiblical to use apologetics to try and strengthen my faith. Thankfully, someone in my life at that time gave me a copy of Schaeffer’s trilogy: The God Who Is There, Escape From Reason, and He Is There and He Is Not Silent. I can honestly say these books changed my life. Through his books, Schaeffer helped me come to, as I see it today, the correct understanding of faith and reason, sovereignty, and apologetics. 

As I worked through my own struggles and conquered my major doubts, I began talking openly about my struggles. I found that many others were also struggling with doubts too, and God began using me to help them work through their questions. I had always aspired to serve in ministry but had recoiled back from opportunities because of guilt over my struggle with doubt. Having overcome this struggle, I decided to follow God’s leading and leave my career in actuarial science to pursue whatever ministry He would call me to. I subsequently completed my M.Div. in 2013 and immediately started on my Ph.D. at Southeastern, which I finished in 2020.

While I was at Southeastern working on my Ph.D., I discovered with great joy that Udo and Deborah (Francis Schaeffer’s youngest daughter) Middelmann had entrusted Southeastern to hold in custodianship the Francis Schaeffer Collection. The Collection includes vast amounts of Schaeffer’s personal correspondence, his early drafts and manuscripts, books and articles he annotated, his seminary notes from the 1930s, as well as numerous audio and video items. Needless to say, this is a literal treasure trove! The Collection is stored in the archives section of the library at Southeastern. It’s not available to the public, but with permission from the Schaeffer family, researchers can access the material. You can read more about the Collection here: Francis A. Schaeffer Collection.

In the rest of this article, I’ll summarize my experience researching the Collection. First of all, at the time access to the Collection required the approval of Dr. Little who served as its director. After I was approved, archivists in Southeastern’s library (Dr. Bill Youngmark and Steve Jones) helped me find my way through all the material. The research is made much easier by the finding aid they’ve created. This finding aid is simply a massive spreadsheet that is 50,000 rows long. It lists all the paper material (letters, notes, articles, books, etc.) in the Collection but not the audio and video items. Each row represents a different item in the Collection, and some items are several hundred pages long. For example, Schaeffer took 108 pages of handwritten notes in his apologetics class he took at Westminster Theological Seminary under Cornelius Van Til in the 1930s, and this item is described in one line within the finding aid spreadsheet. It was surreal to actually hold these handwritten notes in my hand. What I found most interesting is that, in the main section of the paper, Schaeffer wrote what Van Til was teaching in his lectures, but in the margins Schaeffer wrote his own thoughts about what Van Til was saying. It was very interesting to see that right from the very beginning there were major differences between how these two men thought about God’s sovereignty, man’s responsibility, free will, the ability to respond to the gospel, and the biblical role of apologetics.

In the Collection I also found personal letters back and forth between Schaeffer and Ronald Reagan, Schaeffer and George H. W. Bush, Schaeffer and John Stott, among many others. There was a fascinating series of letters back and forth between Schaeffer and Billy Graham in which they disagreed vehemently about whether or not Graham should hold a crusade in the USSR in 1982. Graham expressed that he should go because he’d have the opportunity to preach the gospel to many who had never heard it. However, Schaeffer, along with Ronald Reagan, tried to convince Graham not to go because they feared the Soviets would use the situation to further cover up their persecution of Christians. In other words, they thought the Soviets would use the event to say, “Look, we don’t mistreat Christians at all; we even let Billy Graham come here and preach!” while behind the scenes they were torturing, executing, and sending Christians to prison camps. You can read more about how the Soviets tried to eliminate Christianity within the USSR by systematically murdering between 12 to 20 million Christians during the 1900s here: Persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union.

Overall, it was quite the monumental task to dig through the hundreds of thousands of pages of material in the Collection. The finding aid also lists what physical box and folder each particular item can be found in. Thankfully though, all of the paper material had been digitized, but not all of the audio and video items had been digitized at that time. The process worked such that when I found something in the finding aid I wanted to look at, say a specific letter from Francis Schaeffer to Billy Graham, I could access the digitized version of that item in just a few seconds. All together, I spent four weeks digging through the paper material and looked at roughly 2,000 items. I specifically made detailed notes concerning 700 items that were pertinent to my and Dr. Little’s research interests. Through my research I came to have a much better understanding of Schaeffer’s epistemology and apologetic method. From this research I ended up writing a paper that following spring comparing Schaeffer’s and Michael Polaynyi’s (one of Schaeffer’s favorite philosophers) epistemology. Every quote I wanted to use from items I found from the Collection had to be approved by the Schaeffer family because, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of personal information in the Collection. The Schaeffer family gave me permission to quote from several items in the Collection, and my paper was then published in Westminster Theological Seminary’s academic journal, which you can read here: Created to Know: The Epistemologies of Michael Polanyi and Francis Schaeffer.        

I’ve often described the time I spent researching the Collection as a spiritual experience because it was similar to reading the biography of someone whom God had worked through in a mighty way. I felt like I got to know Francis Schaeffer more intimately as I read about his personal struggles, concerns, weariness, and victories. I was inspired to see how God could use just a regular guy in such a mighty way in so many people’s lives. A lot of the personal letters are just about logistics—making arrangements for people coming to L’Abri, plans for Francis and his wife Edith to go and speak somewhere, etc. But there were also many letters from those who were searching for truth and struggling through various spiritual issues. It was humbling to read Schaeffer’s replies and how he poured out his heart to so many strangers. You can really see his love and compassion for others in his letters. Schaeffer continues to inspire me to serve Christ with everything I am.

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