Lewis Sperry Chafer

Personal Information


Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952) was a well-known American
premilleniarian, dispensationalist, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary,
writer, and conference speaker. Chafer was born in Rock Creek, Ohio, the second
of three children born to a graduate of Auburn Theological Seminary, a
Presbyterian/Congregational institution in New York. His father, Thomas
Franklin Chafer, was a Congregational pastor, and Thomas and his wife, Lomira
Sperry Chafer, were devoted, caring parents.

Thomas Chafer's battle
with tuberculosis, however, brought a constant strain to the family as
pastorates were chosen with the hope that a more beneficial climate would
assuage the disease. The battle was lost in 1882. Aside from the pain and loss
of his father, which brought severe sadness and uncertainty into an otherwise
music-filled, joyful home, two important events occurred that would shape the
young man's life. First, though rarely mentioned, he was converted to Christ
under the tutelage of his parents at the age of six during his father's first
pastoral charge in Rock Creek; and, second, in the context of his father's
death he heard an evangelist named Scott, who was suffering with tuberculosis
also, who challenged him to a career in Christian service.

financial uncertainty, Lomira, a schoolteacher in the Rock Creek schools,
determined to provide for the family. When the eldest, Rollin Thomas Chafer,
finished elementary school, she moved the family to South New Lyme, Ohio, where
the children entered the New Lyme Institute, a preparatory school under Jacob
Tuckerman, the man who has been instrumental in their father's conversion at
Fanner's College in Cincinnati. Then the family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where
Lomira managed a boarding house so that the children could attend college.
Initially, Lewis entered the preparatory school attached to the college (1889)
and then the Conservatory of Music of Oberlin College. He studied music in the
conservatory for three semesters, fall and spring 1889-90 and the spring of
1891. There are no indications that Chafer took religious studies at Oberlin
College or elsewhere.

Financial constraints prevented further study.
Beginning in the fall of 1889, he associated with A. T. Reed, an evangelist
under the auspices of the Congregational Church in Ohio, as a baritone soloist
and choir organizer in the meetings. During these years he gained enormous
insight into the work of the traveling evangelist. In 1896, he married Ella
Lorraine Case, whom he had met at Oberlin College, and the two formed an
evangelistic team (Lewis preaching and singing with Lorraine playing the
organ). They briefly settled in Painesville, Ohio, where they served as
directors of the music programme of the Congregational church though they
continued to travel, often with other evangelists such as Wilbur Chapman and A.
T. Reed.

In 1889 Lewis became the interim pastor of the First
Presbyterian Church of Lewiston, New York, although in the fall of the year he
began a two-year ministry as an assistant pastor in the First Congregational
Church of Buffalo. The initial year appears to have been an apprenticeship with
a view to his formal ordination as a minister in the Congregational community,
which took place in April 1900.

The circumstances of Chafer's move to
Northfield, Massachusetts, in 1901 are not at all clear. It is reasonable to
assume that he became increasingly well known within evangelical circles
through his ministerial gifts and within the Congregational ranks by his
ordination and pastoral associations. Residing at Northfield, where he operated
a farm and his wife served as organist at the annual conferences, Chafer
continued to travel in evangelistic endeavours, particularly in the winter
months. In 1904 the Southland Bible Conference was inaugurated in Florida, a
counterpart of the Northfield conferences; Chafer was president of the
conference after 1909. Through the Northfield conferences, the Chafers met an
array of prominent evangelicals from both sides of the Atlantic, among them G.
Campbell Morgan, F. B. Meyer, A. C. Gaebelein, James M. Gray, and W. H.
Griffith Thomas.

By far, however, the most important contact was with
Cyrus Ingerson Scofield, then pastor of the Trinitarian Congregational Church,
Moody's church, in Northfield. Chafer found in Scofield a clear, biblically
oriented teacher, and the two were thereafter bound together in ministry for
two decades. Scofield lead the younger Chafer into his particular understanding
of the Scriptures, as well as into a change of careers. No longer an itinerant
evangelist, Chafer progressively joined his mentor as a travelling Bible
teacher, increasingly becoming a central participant in the Bible conference
movement. Gradually, through enlarged exposure in the major Bible and prophetic
conferences, the publication of books and articles, and teaching in short-term
Bible institutes, Chafer emerged in the early 1900s as a quiet, energetic
leader of one segment of the emerging evangelical movement.

From 1906
to 1910, he taught at the Mount Hermon School for Boys, instructing in Bible
and music (his first published book was Elementary Outline Studies in the
Science of Music, 1907). In 1906, he left the Congregational community to join
the Troy Presbytery, Synod of New York, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),
reflecting his discomfort with liberalizing trends in the denomination and
Scofield’s ecclesiastical sympathies. In these years, he published two
additional books, Satan (1909, Scofield wrote the foreword) and True Evangelism

His close identification with Scofield increased in the second
decade of the century as Chafer moved to East Orange. New Jersey, to join the
staff of the New York School of the Bible, an agency that distributed
Scofield's increasingly popular Bible correspondence course, written in 1892,
and an office for the coordination of conference activities. As a member of the
"oral extension department" of the "school," Chafer began a rather extensive
travelling conference ministry throughout the South.

In 1913, he
assisted Scofield in founding the Philadelphia School of the Bible, apparently
writing the curriculum. Due to his growing southern ministry, Chafer joined the
Orange Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1912. In 1915, he
published The Kingdom in History and Prophecy, a work endorsed by Scofield and
dedicated to Chafer's father. It was a defence of pretribulational,
dispensational premillennialism. Several other works followed: Salvation
(1917), He That Is Spiritual (1918), Seven Major Biblical Signs of the Times
(1919), and Must We Dismiss The Millennium? (1921).

declining health, resulting in increasingly limited itinerant ministry, brought
another shift in the sphere and nature of Chafer's work. Moving to Dallas,
Texas, in 1922, he became pastor of the First Congregational Church, which had
been founded in 1882 by Scofield (it was renamed Scofield Memorial Church in
his honour during Chafer's pastorate in 1923); Chafer pastored the church from
1922 to 1926 in addition to increased conference speaking. Further, he became
general secretary of the Central American Mission, a missionary society founded
by Scofield in 1890. He transferred his ministerial credentials to the Dallas
Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1923.

During this
period, Chafer founded the Dallas Theological Seminary (originally, the
Evangelical Theological College) in 1924, serving as its president as well as
professor of systematic theology from its inception until his death in 1952.
Though he resigned from both the church and the mission, he continued a
rigorous conference ministry; his publications mushroomed. In addition to
regularly contributing to evangelical periodicals, he wrote Grace (1922) and
Major Bible Themes (1926). After the seminary acquired Bibliotheca Sacra in
1933, a journal with roots in the early nineteenth century, Chafer wrote
numerous articles that, combined with portions of his books, were published as
his largest work, Systematic Theology (1948). The advanced age, the burden of
carrying on a school without secure financing, the growing turmoil over
Scofieldian dispensationalism in his own Presbyterian church, and the death of
his wife in 1944 were factors that progressively limited his public ministry.
After 1945, the operations of the school devolved to his executive assistant,
John F. Walvoord. Chafer died due to heart failure while on a conference tour
in Seattle, Washington, in August 1952.

Chafer's contribution and
lasting legacy to American evangelicalism in the twentieth century was
enormous; he stands with his mentor, C. I. Scofield, as well as his successors,
John F. Walvoord and Charles Ryrie, as a proponent of the Bible conference
movement's distinctives from the late nineteenth century, which emerged as an
integral and influential subsegment of twentieth-century evangelicalism, the
premillennial dispensational camp. In essence, Chafer's contribution to the
ongoing life of the church can be seen as the broadening and deepening of the
Bible conference movement. This can be illustrated through both his
institutional and theological contributions.

Institutionally, Chafer's
legacy is the creation of Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924; it represented
an extension of the Bible-conference emphases at the postgraduate level of
education, just as the Bible institutes extended them at the undergraduate
level. Chafer's vision for a ministerial school began with his contact with
students at the Mount Hermon School for Boys. His travels under Scofield’s
auspices lead to contact with numerous pastors (whom he consulted about the
deficiencies of their formal ministerial training), denominational colleges,
and seminaries, particularly throughout the South. He came to believe that the
unique emphases of the Bible conference movement-intensive English Bible
instruction, dispensational premillennialism, and the victorious Christian life
teachings-were the additional ingredients, when added to an otherwise standard
seminary curriculum, that could adequately prepare Christian missionaries and
pastors-a combination of ingredients he described as "a new departure" in
ministerial training.
The stress on the English Bible provided the content
of the minister's preaching; dispensational premillennialism was the
intellectual grid for interpreting the Bible; a mild Keswick holiness emphasis
on two works of grace in the believer's life (as well as the distinction
between obedient and fleshly Christians as spiritual states) provided the
ground for a right relationship to the Holy Spirit, the source of power in
ministry. The goal of the institution - to place men into the mainline churches
after training in an independent school - proved illusive, however. Though the
school was deeply influenced by Presbyterianism - Chafer and Scofield were both
ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as were most of the early faculty
- the distinctive ideas of the Bible conference movement were not accepted by
many Presbyterian leaders or by other mainline denominations as useful
preparation for the ministry. They increasingly viewed the emphases as
antithetical to historic Presbyterianisim. In the 1930s and 40s, Presbyterians
in the North and South became openly hostile to dispensationalism. As a result,
graduates of the seminary found placement in the mainline churches difficult.

At the same time, numerous denominational splinter groups, independent
churches, and para-ecclesiastical organizations (Chafer supported many of them)
were emerging in the country. The seminary became the major graduate-level
source for their leaders. Thus, the distinctives of the Bible conference
movement were carried into this emerging evangelical submovement of the
American church.

In addition to institutionalizing the Bible
conference movement, Chafer systematized its unique theological emphases with
the publication of his Systematic Theology (8 vols.) in 1948, the first major
attempt to set forth the teaching of dispensational premillennialism within the
rubric of traditional systematics. What Scofield’s notes delineated in a
dispensational approach to the Bible. Chafer's theology book simply enlarged.
The work reflects Chafer's attachment to Scofield and the notes of the Scofield
Reference Bible (1909, 1917). The work became the definitive statement of
dispensational theology.

Chafer's theology, and subsequently that of
the seminary's, reflects his attachment to three somewhat diverse traditions
within historic orthodoxy: Augustinianism, Keswick theology, and (Plymouth)
Brethrenism. From the first source, Chafer's systematics is Reformed or
Calvinistic in anthropology and soteriology (i.e., the doctrines of election,
predestination, humanity's plight, and the origin and cause of Christ's
redemptive mercies). It reflects his adherence to Presbyterian confessionalism,
although he deviated from the tradition by advocating an unlimited view of the
intent of Christ's sacrifice. It is profoundly Princetonian (i.e., Warfieldian
inerrancy) in its delineation of the doctrine of the Scriptures.

the second, Chafer's understanding of the spiritual life, as put forth in He
That Is Spiritual, reflects a view that Warfield opposed. It was essentially a
counteractivist understanding of the relationship of the Spirit and the
believer relative to the duty of spiritual progress (i.e., a stress on the
believer's duty to be rightly related to the Spirit as the cause of growth),
rather than the more traditionally Reformed emphasis on suppressionism by the
Holy Spirit (a stress on the activity of God as the cause of the believer's

Finally, reflecting the influence of the Brethren
movement, which made significant inroads into American evangelicalism in the
late nineteenth century through the emerging Bible conference movement, Chafer
embraced the teachings of dispensationalism, modern premillennialism, and
pretribulational eschatology.

Chafer's third major legacy, and
arguably the primary one, was his emphasis on the centrality of Christ and the
grace of God; the preeminence of Christ and Calvary was the very heart of
Chafer's religious passion. In this Chafer stands without question in the
orthodox tradition of the church. Chafer was at heart a heralder of the Gospel,
and the motto of the seminary he founded reflects this emphasis: "Preach the
Word" (2 Tim. 2:2). To effect this mission, he felt that one had to know the
Bible with intensity and affection, which implied a correct understanding of
its overall purposes (i.e., dispensational premillennialism), and one must be
in a correct relationship to the Holy Spirit (i.e., sanctified). This is
clearly seen in his career; he was involved in itinerant evangelism for over a
decade, and out of that experience he published a criticism of the errors he
found in it (True Evangelism), causing quite a stir among his contemporaries in
the field. Two works devoted to the theme of the Gospel followed: Salvation and
Grace as well as briefer statements in other works, Major Bible Themes and
Systematic Theology.

It can be argued that the centrality of Christ in
Chafer's understanding of the unfolding plan of redemption in the Bible is why
he seemed to denigrate the revelation of God in the Old Testament. The superior
light of the revelation of God in Christ caused a shadow of insignificance to
fall over the less clear revelation of Him in the Old Testament. This created
in his mind, as Scofield had seen before him, a discontinuity between the two
testaments that became a defining characteristic in his understanding of the

John D. Hannah Taken from Dictionary of Premillennial Theology,

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