Lewis Sperry Chafer Was an Extraordinary Educator

by Bernard R. DeRemer

Versatile” inadequately describes Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952). He served variously as farmer, evangelist, musician, Bible teacher, pastor, mission board secretary, author, and editor. Of course his crowning achievement was as seminary founder, professor, and president.  Wilbur M. Smith, of Moody Bible Institute and other schools, paid tribute to his enormous and perhaps unequalled “contribution to the theological education of young men, especially in equipping them with a love for the Word of God and a knowledge of how to expound it properly….” Other testimonies are legion.

Born at Rock Creek, Ohio, Chafer grew up in a godly home and early came to know the Lord. He studied music at Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music; later he would author a number of hymns. At Oberlin Chafer met Loraine Case and they were married in 1896. She became “the greatest working element in my life” because he so valued her criticism. She wrote a number of hymns, including “None of Self and All of Thee.” After a stroke, she was an invalid for three years before her homegoing in 1944.

Chafer’s public ministry began as evangelist and musician. During this time he observed, with some misgivings, the methods of many popular evangelists of his day. Later he wrote True Evangelism, which decried “an undue emphasis upon methods in modern evangelism,” while stressing the vital importance of prayer and “an entire dependence” upon the Holy Spirit. The book was attacked in some quarters but has been mightily used for decades.

During the last quarter of the 19th century, Bible and prophetic conferences were widely popular over the country. One of the most outstanding was at Northfield, Mass., home of the great evangelist D. L. Moody. There Chafer came under the influence of such giants as G. Campbell Morgan, F. B. Meyer, A. T. Pierson, and many others.

Increasingly, Chafer realized that his best gifts lay in Bible teaching and in writing. His association with Dr. C. I. Scofield (see “Evangelist Lands a Whale,” Pulpit Helps for October, 1999) profoundly impacted his life and ministry along these lines. Chafer himself likened this relationship to that of a father and son.

After prayer, Chafer dedicated himself to a lifetime of biblical study. What enormous contributions he was destined to make! The Sunday School Times called him “in a real sense the successor to Dr. Scofield…and among the most eagerly sought Bible teachers in the U.S.”

In 1916 Chafer moved to East Orange, N.J. There he lectured at Philadelphia School of the Bible, worked at the Fulton Street Mission in New York City, and wrote extensively. One of his classic works, He That Is Spiritual, appeared in 1918. “True spirituality,” he noted “is that quality of life in the child of God which satisfies and glorifies the Father [and] brings celestial peace and joy to the believer’s own heart.”

As early as 1921 Chafer was burdened to found a seminary, during the period when modernism was making savage inroads over the country. But it would not occur immediately. In 1923 he became pastor of the First Congregational Church, Dallas (now Scofield Memorial Church). He was named secretary of the Central American Mission (now CAM Int.), begun by Scofield.

Chafer with others founded the Evangelical Theological College (now Dallas Theological Seminary), which opened in 1924 with 13 students. Dr. A. C. Gaebelein and Dr. H. A. Ironside were among the distinguished visiting faculty. It was interdenominational, and drew students from major denominational groups in this country and beyond. It was, of course, thoroughly conservative theologically. While enrollment grew steadily, some years saw financial struggles, as the school was getting established and building a base of support. In the fall of 2001, Dallas enrolled 1,647 students, including extension sites in other cities.

A significant advance for the institution was acquiring in 1933 publication rights to Bibliotheca Sacra, America’s oldest theological journal. Chafer became editor in 1940 of this “voice of scholarly dispensational premillennialism.”

Perhaps Chafer’s crowning literary accomplishment and greatest achievement was his eight-volume Systematic Theology, the culmination of many years of teaching and writing. The epochal work has been called unprecedented “in content, purpose, and scope.”

After surviving earlier heart attacks, Chafer continued active to the end. He went to be with the Lord in June, 1952, while on a trip to Seattle. With his keen mind and spiritual vision, he “left an indelible mark upon his generation. The monuments of his labor continue….”

Seven of his nine books are still available, an amazing and perhaps unique tribute, since most books are “stone cold dead in two years.” They include True Evangelism and He That Is Spiritual; Systematic Theology, now revised and condensed in four volumes; Grace; Satan, His Motives and Methods; Salvation, God’s Marvelous Work of Grace; and Epistle to the Ephesians.

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