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Who was Lewis Sperry Chafer?

Lewis Sperry Chafer

Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871—1952) was the primary founder of the Dallas Theological Seminary (1924; then Evangelical Theological College), an institution widely considered the academic front-runner of dispensationalist theology. Besides serving as the college’s first president and principal theologian, Chafer was a musician, evangelist, and frequent Bible conference speaker. Although he wrote many popular books on prophecy, evangelism, and Christian living, Lewis Sperry Chafer’s most enduring work was his eight-volume Systematic Theology, the first theological textbook framed within a dispensational, premillennial view.

Chafer’s early years were spent in Rock Creek, Ohio, where his parents, Thomas and Lomira Chafer, raised three children. His father, a Congregational church minister, died of tuberculosis when Lewis was eleven. Beginning at age six, when he first professed his faith in Jesus Christ, Lewis felt a call to ministry and an interest in music.

After the family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, in 1888, Chafer studied music composition and conducting at Oberlin College and Conservatory but never graduated. Instead, he began ministering as a gospel singer and choir director for A. T. Reed, a Congregational evangelist. From 1891 to 1896, Lewis sang and ministered full-time at revival services with Reed and other evangelists.

In 1896, Chafer married Ella Loraine Case. The two had met while studying music at Oberlin. Soon, they organized their own evangelism team, with Lewis in charge of preaching and singing and Ella accompanying him on the piano. Over the next ten years, the couple traveled around Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, holding revival services that eventually took them into the southeastern states.

During this time, the Chafers caught the attention of Dwight L. Moody’s associates, Ira Sankey and George Stebbins. After serving briefly as assistant pastor of the First Congregational Church in Buffalo (where Lewis was ordained in April 1900), the Chafers relocated to Massachusetts to participate in Moody’s Northfield Conference while continuing their revival ministry. In 1904, Lewis Sperry Chafer helped start Moody’s Southfield Conference in Crescent City, Florida, overseeing it until 1909.

From 1906 to 1910, Chafer taught Bible and music at Moody’s Mount Hermon School for Boys in East Northfield, Massachusetts. During these years, he transferred membership to the Presbyterian Church, an affiliation he kept for the remainder of his life. Through his involvement in the Northfield Conference, Chafer came under the teaching influence of several groundbreaking fundamentalist Bible scholars, including F. B. Meyer, G. Campbell Morgan, Reuben Torrey, James Orr, James M. Gray, and Harry Ironside.

The most profound influence on Chafer’s theology came from Cyrus Ingerson Scofield, the Protestant minister and dispensational premillennialism theologian. Scofield had been president of the Northfield Bible Training School when Chafer attended classes there in 1901 during a lull in his revival meeting schedule. Later, Chafer wrote, “Until that time, I had never heard a real Bible teacher. . . . My first hearing of Dr. Scofield was a morning Bible class. . . . He was teaching the sixth chapter of Romans. I am free to confess that it seemed to me at the close that I had seen more vital truth in God’s word in that one hour than I had seen in all my life before. It was a crisis for me. I was captured for life” (Spencer, S. R., “Chafer, Lewis Sperry,” in Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, ed. Timothy Larsen et al., InterVarsity Press, 2003, p. 136).

Chafer came alongside Scofield’s ministry and eventually followed suit, holding his own teaching seminars called “Bible institutes.” Scofield made Lewis Sperry Chafer director of the Department of Oral Extension at his New York School of the Bible. Chafer also assisted Scofield in starting the Philadelphia School of the Bible in 1914 and joined the faculty to develop the course curriculum.

Lewis continued teaching the Bible, writing books, and developing a close teacher-disciple relationship with Scofield until his mentor’s death in 1921. Some of Chafer’s best-known books were written and published during this time, including True Evangelism (1911), The Kingdom in History and Prophecy (1915), Salvation (1917), He That Is Spiritual (1918), and Grace (1922), which Lewis dedicated to Scofield.

In 1922, Lewis Sperry Chafer stepped into the pulpit of Scofield’s former church, the independent First Congregational, Dallas (renamed Scofield Memorial Church at Chafer’s prompting in 1923). He was also appointed general secretary of the Central American Mission, established by Scofield in 1890.

By now, most of Chafer’s theology had been shaped and settled, and he started to conceive the vision for a non-denominational theological seminary for training ministers and Bible teachers from a broad range of churches. In collaboration with William M. Anderson, pastor of First Presbyterian, Dallas, and Anglican theologian W. H. Griffith Thomas, Lewis Sperry Chafer established the Evangelical Theological College in 1924. It was renamed Dallas Theological Seminary in 1936. Chafer served as the school’s president and professor of systematic theology until he died in 1952.

In 1940, after Lewis’ brother Rollin died, Chafer succeeded him as editor of Bibliotheca Sacra, the seminary’s theological journal. He also maintained that position until his death. Chafer, who had suffered a heart attack in 1935 and then experienced health problems again in 1945 and 1948, died of heart failure in August 1952.

Chafer was deeply admired by his students not only for his clear and convincing teaching style but also for his personal character, devotion, and graciousness. He undertook to interpret and explain the Scriptures in a systematic way. His theology emphasized three essentials that formed the basis of his educational vision: God’s grace in Jesus Christ as the focal point of salvation and the Christian faith; the importance of following the dispensationalist method to discern and interpret the Bible; and the believer’s spiritual development.

Here are some quotes from Lewis Sperry Chafer:

“When led of the Spirit, the child of God must be as ready to wait as to go, as prepared to be silent as to speak.” (True Evangelism, or, Winning Souls by Prayer, 1919)

“It may be a secret sin on earth, but it is open scandal in heaven.” (Systematic Theology, 1947)

“The church is ever in peril—and never more so than now—of the disaster which must follow when she allows men of distinction in the sphere of human attainments, who are unregenerate or unspiritual, to dictate as to what her beliefs shall be.” (ibid.)

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This page last updated: April 29, 2024