EDITH SCHAEFFER : 1914 - 2013
Every generation produces individuals who seem larger than life. Like meteors they blaze into life and become something of a wonder to those looking on. ‘What remarkable talents,’ we say, ‘what energy, what achievements’ This is what Edith Schaeffer was like and for 17 years Rochester was her home.
Like many coming to the Mayo Clinic the reasons for her arrival were hardly auspicious. Her husband, Francis, had just completed filming in Switzerland for his second major documentary series called, ‘Whatever Happened to the Human Race’. At the end of a gruelling day on the slopes near their alpine home, his dramatic weight loss over the previous week led Edith to telephone a medical friend at Mayo to seek advice. ‘Get him here as quickly as possible’ he said. So on the 9th October, 1978, Edith and Francis arrived in Rochester. Within hours he had been diagnosed with lymphoma and put on chemotherapy. It was to be the beginning, for Edith certainly, of a long association with the city and its people. Happily, Francis responded well to treatment and continued to be active and influential throughout the world for another seven years. By then Edith had moved their home from Switzerland to Rochester and it was there, on the 15th May 1984, that she heard his last quiet words… “from strength to strength” – taken from the sentence ‘they go from strength to strength till each appears before God in Zion’ in Psalm 84:7. Her days as the wife of one of the world’s most significant evangelical leaders in the 20th century had come to a close.
However, her surprise at finding herself living in Rochester was hardly her last! She seemed to specialise in surprises in fact. The next one came within weeks of her husband’s death and through what had been the major part of her life’s work, namely L’Abri Fellowship. She and her husband had founded this Christian work in Switzerland in 1955 and one of its half-dozen branches (now ten world-wide) had moved from California to Rochester to provide, amongst other things, practical support for them in their medical need. Not long after the funeral in Rochester came the new surprise - a Steinway grand-piano no less. This was a gift to L’Abri in memory of Francis Schaeffer and it held pride of place in her gracious living room. But the surprise contained yet another surprise and one which opened up a new chapter in her life. For what she quickly realised was that the actual piano involved, discovered not far from Rochester incidentally, had been manufactured the same year as her marriage – and came into her home the 6th July 1984, 49 years exactly after the very day she and Francis had their wedding - 6th July 1936! This piqued her already vibrant curiosity. So the next time she was in New York she arranged to call at the Steinway factory. Quite unexpectedly she found herself in the midst of a red-carpet-welcome and all because the company’s senior piano-voicer, Franz Mohr, had for many years been one of her avid readers and admirers. The visit began a lasting friendship and even resulted in a new book called ‘Forever Music’. Amongst other things it was a paean to the wonder of God’s creation. It also provided her with a medium to express one of the leading characteristics of her life, namely her delight in anything and everything beautiful. She herself was a beautiful woman and always dressed impeccably. When she provided meals it became an occasion not just for good food but for a ‘work of art’ – hence the title of another of her books, ‘Hidden Art’. But ‘Forever Music’ also described how God works into our individual lives – in this case via the biography and conversion of Franz Mohr himself. This in turn led to a concert with the Guaneri Quartet in Alice Tully Hall at the Lincoln Centre, NY, and to personal friendships with some of the world’s most illustrious musicians like Rudolf Serkin, Vladimir Horowitz and Yo Yo Mah.
Her ongoing life continued to be part of the ‘Rochester L’Abri’ for more than a decade and it enabled her to put her gifts of teaching, hospitality and creativity to good use. Many, for example, were the musical soirees in her living room around the Steinway. She spoke regularly at the annual Rochester L’Abri Conferences in February. But she also served as an international Trustee of L’Abri until 2001 making a grand total of 46 years within the life of the Fellowship. She also went on with her writing. Already she had completed nearly a dozen books, some of which, like ‘The L’Abri Story’, ‘The Tapestry’, and ‘Christianity is Jewish’ had sold almost as successfully as her husband’s – as they still do. The scope of her activities went well beyond Rochester, though, both within the United States and abroad. For example, she had been instrumental in the formation of the Francis Schaeffer Foundation based in New York and Switzerland and also in the Francis Schaeffer Institute in St. Louis, an adjunct of Covenant Theological Seminary. Her speaking itinerary was extensive.
Then followed another major surprise when she returned, now aged 80, to the very place in China where she had been born. Once again she found herself the subject of an official red-carpet welcome laid on, believe it or not, by the secular city dignitaries! The third and last of three daughters born to missionary parents, she was only five when they returned to the United States. Like all her memories, however, her recollections of China remained vivid and these she put into a children’s book bearing her Chinese name ‘Mei Fuh’.
For all her fizz and sparkle, however, and despite frequent displays of energy and creativity, even in old age, which left her younger colleagues in L’Abri breathless, the time came for her to return to her beloved Lac Leman in Switzerland. There she lived in a flat in a small lakeside village beside Vevey where she and her husband had spent many happy years. In due course she needed more care and one of her daughters, Mrs Debby Middelmann, with her husband, Udo, graciously provided a home in the mountains not far from where she and Francis had first founded L’Abri Fellowship in 1955. There, after a long decline in health, she died on the 29th March 2013 - aged 98.
It was a long and remarkable life – truly meteoric. But when all is said and done the best thing about Edith was who she was as a person: she never became big-headed because of her successes; she was always generous (even to a fault!); she consistently, and however inconveniently, treated all who came within her ambit with a gentleness and love both radiant and deeply genuine. In short, she was ‘real’ - a true Christian lady whose first desire was to glorify her Maker and Saviour. What she and her husband took as their life-long goal was to try to demonstrate and declare to all they met that the Bible really is true and that the Judaeo-Christian God is a kind and gracious Saviour to those who come to Him. She never swerved from that object. Nor, right until the day she died, did she ever flinch from the costliness of that call. She obeyed the apostolic summons to ‘present your body as a living sacrifice to Christ’ (Romans 12: 1). And now she is with Him. Hallelujah!
A funeral service is to take place in Gryon, Vaud, Switzerland at 2pm on the 19th April. Then, since it was their joint wish to be interred together, Edith’s body will be buried beside her husband’s grave, in Rochester Cemetery at 1pm on Thursday the 25th April. Her son-in-law and pastor, Udo Middelmann, will officiate on both occasions and all are welcome.
On the 11th May there is to be a larger Memorial service in Rochester led by Larry Snyder, who until recently directed the Rochester L’Abri. The Rev. Jerram Barrs, of the Francis Schaeffer Institute in St. Louis, will be the speaker. All details to be found on the L’Abri website - www.labri.org/rochester
Ranald Macaulay MA Cantab ------ Ranald@christianheritage.org.uk -------- The Round Church, Cambridge.