L'Abri to Mark Anniversary; Christian Movement Brought Intellectual Vigor to Evangelism

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L'Abri, the Swiss-based community that has served as an intellectual center for evangelical Christianity, celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend

in St. Louis with a conference for many of the former hippies and students who found faith within its walls.

More than 1,000 people are expected at the conference about L'Abri, which means "the shelter" in French. It began in March 1955 when Francis and Edith Schaeffer, a Presbyterian missionary couple living near Lausanne, were forced by Swiss authorities either to buy a chalet or leave the country.

At the last minute, enough money came through to buy the three-story Chalet les Melezes in the mountain village of Huemoz. What seemed like a rushed purchase in the face of an immigration problem turned out to be the founding of a movement that sent thousands of Christians into politics and the arts with the hope of influencing the world for their faith.

"Perhaps no intellectual save C.S. Lewis affected the thinking of evangelicals more profoundly; perhaps no leader of the period save Billy Graham left a deeper stamp on the movement as a whole," former University of Notre Dame professor Michael Hamilton wrote in a 1997 piece on Mr. Schaeffer in Christianity Today.

Mr. Schaeffer's writings are credited with giving an intellectual boost to evangelical Christianity in the latter half of the 20th century. His simple Christian study center overlooking the Rhone Valley has mushroomed into a network of communities in England, Korea, the Netherlands, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Sweden and a new one near Vancouver, British Columbia, which is being overseen by Maggie Curry, the couple's granddaughter.

Soon after the Schaeffers bought their chalet, their eldest daughter, Priscilla, began inviting home fellow students from the University of Lausanne. These were Europeans steeped in the philosophies of Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, Heidegger and Sartre.

As students discussed their despair and search for meaning, Mr. Schaeffer taught basic Christian doctrine. Students began flooding the place, with up to 25 of them staying every weekend by 1957. Six other chalets were added, and L'Abri developed a program of lectures, discussions and worship, coupled with half-days of doing chores.

In the fall of 1960, Jim Hurley, a 16-year-old American agnostic studying at a nearby Swiss private school, dropped by "to laugh at the fundamentalists."

"He was talking about a God he knew," he remembers of Mr. Schaeffer. "He believed in people having honest questions and him giving honest answers. There weren't any unfair questions [or] unaskable questions."

Mr. Hurley became a Christian the next spring and is now a family therapist teaching at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss.

"Schaeffer was really good at seeing the framework from where a worldview operates," he said. "Buddhists, materialists, existentialists: He'd walk up to where they were, look at the skeleton of their intellectual framework, help them think through the implications, then bring his Christian faith to where they were. …