One of the great figures in American evangelical Presbyterianism in the 1960’s and through the 1980’s is Francis Schaeffer. Following God’s call (I believe it was during the early 1960’s), he moved with his family to Switzerland and began simply living there. Young persons from every nation flocked to him seeking answers to questions about life and its meaning. Schaeffer called his house L’Abri (Shelter). He wrote books reconnecting modern Christian experience, which had often become lost in sentimentalism or excited millennialism, to its cultural roots in the whole of European Christian history. He wrote many popular books such as “The God Who Is There” rejecting relativism and nihilism and affirming a full Christian faith in which every aspect of man’s life was to be saturated with the Spirit of God.
To me Schaeffer’s writings were a godsend. I loved and respected my evangelical friends and teachers. Nonetheless, I, saddled with a bookishness that was part of my nature, needed help from someone who lived in a larger world than popular American Baptist piety and which extended farther into the past than 1950. Schaeffer provided some of this assistance.
For a long time I subscribed and listened avidly to Schaeffer’s recorded tapes, sent out from Switzerland. By the mid-1970’s, I was beginning to be settled in my religious views. The Catholic Church was really not much of an option. Nevertheless, one tape of Francis Schaeffer’s firmly settled the matter for me. In this tape Schaeffer spoke of John Henry Newman. I knew of him only that he had written an “Apologia,” “The Idea of a University,” and that he was a convert to the Catholic Church in the context of something called “The Oxford Movement” (which I tended to confuse with Moral Rearmament which I believe also came out of Oxford).
I paraphrase Schaeffer’s tape, and hasten to aver that if I am misinterpreting what I recall him as saying, it is I and not Francis Schaeffer who must bear the blame. It is the impression made on me that is important here. Schaeffer described Newman’s conversion, I thought, as a cowardly surrender to the forces of German liberalism. Rather than remain in the light of the Reformation, Newman “crept into the dim candle-lit interior of the church, and closed the door behind him.” The image was apt for a decision motivated not by conviction but by desire for rest from strife at all costs. Newman’s conversion had not, I concluded, been honest. No one could, it seemed, become a Catholic simply because he thought the Catholic faith true. For fifteen years I never gave another serious thought to Catholicism.