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An Eighty-Year Legacy

by and Jeffrey Jon Richards on July 7, 2006 in Book Excerpts

Lewis Sperry Chafer’s life spanned eight decades, and during his career, he contributed enormously to the area of eschatology by virtue of writing and publishing a dispensational, premillennial eschatology. He experienced and witnessed a vast upheaval in American religion from the 1870s until 1952. But Chafer was no mere spectator to what was occurring religiously; he was deeply involved throughout his life as an evangelist, pastor, author, systematic theology professor and seminary president.

His father was a graduate of Auburn Theological Seminary, and he was himself awarded three honorary doctorates. Short in physical stature and slight of frame, he was fearless of spirit in controversy and debate. He was an ardent evangelist during an era when evangelism was replete with gimmickry and had acquired a reputation of charlatanism. However, Chafer continually spoke against the use of methods in evangelism and in his book, True Evangelism, voices his concern over the indiscriminate use of coercion in evangelism.

Born at Rock Creek, Ashtabula County, Ohio, on February 27, 1871, he was the son of the Reverend Thomas Franklin Chafer and Lois Lomira Sperry. THomas Franklin graduated from Auburn Theological Seminary with the class of 1864 and was the local Congregational minister. Thomas Chafer was born in 1828 and lived until 1882. Thomas Franklin’s father, William Chafer, was born in York, England, and came to the United States in 1837. Lewis’ mother was born at Rock Creek, Ohio, in 1836 and lived until the fall of 1915. Her father, Asa Sperry, was a licensed WElsh Wesleyan preacher. His maternal grandmother of Irish descent was Ann Sperry.1

Central to the entire career of Lewis Sperry Chafer was his conversion experience. Dr. John A. Witmer, who personally knew Chafer, believes Chafer was only seven at the occurrence of his conversion and that his conversion experience was the result of responding to an evangelistic message preached by an evangelist named Scott.2

After his studies at Oberlin were complete, Chafer pursued the career of evangelist for the next seven years. He had been prepared for this profession early in life because of the years he had spent in the parsonage as the son of a minister, his personal conversion experience, and the talents which he developed further at Oberlin College, a school which was very much part of the revivalistic tradition. He became an evangelistic singer until approximately the turn of the century.

Chafer was affiliated with Northfield from 1903-1909. During those years, the Northfield Bible Conference featured such biblical expositors and theologians as H. W. Webb-Peploe, G. Campbell Morgan, W. Graham Scroggie, and F. B. Meyer of Great Britain; W. H. Griffith Thomas and A. B. Winchester of Canada; and A. T. Pierson, William B. Eerdman, C. I Scofield, H. A. Ironside, and George E. Guille of the United States. In later years, Chafer acknowledged the influence of these dispensational, premillennial theologians when he wrote: The association and close acquaintance with some of the world’s greatest expositors…placed before me the ideals of expository preaching based on extended knowledge and familiarity with the Scriptures.3

From 1906-1909 and for three weeks in the fall of 1910, he was a teacher of music and Bible at the Mount Hermon School for Boys. Mount Hermon was a secondary school affiliated with Northfield which had a basic curriculum along with Bible. Chafer apparently was very approachable as a teacher and his students readily confided in him. His students found him capable, helpful and likable. He was repeatedly asked if he would consider taking a pastorate in the area and allow interested individuals to be taught pastoral subjects under his supervision.4 He did not grant their request, but the suggestion that he teach pastoral subjects became a powerful though somewhat latent force in his life. Years later he was the primary personality in the founding of a theological seminary in Dallas, Texas, Dallas Theological Seminary.

By the early 1920s, Chafer, then in his fifties, looked for rest from his strenuous ministry of Bible conference activities. However, constantly in his thinking was the need for a school to train ministers. Since the Northfield days when he taught boys at the Mount Hermon School, he remembered his students’ pleas that he might himself start a school for the purpose of training ministers. Chafer writes: “The vision of this specific type of seminary was given to me at least fifteen years before definite steps were taken to ground This work.”5

From 1924-1952 Chafer combined the responsibilities of seminary professor and president. Although enrollment grew steadily, the first years especially were financially difficult.

The seminary continued to prosper under Chafer’s leadership, and by the time of his death in 1952, the enrollment was 257. At the founding of the school in 1924, Chafer wished to keep the enrollment small, around one hundred, but he gradually became aware of the need for expansion. In the 2004-2005 academic year, Dallas Theological Seminary was the largest nondenominational seminary in the world, and with its several extensions, the seminary has approximately 2,000 students. Dallas Theological Seminary offers master’s and doctor’s degrees and is fully accredited with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Association of Theological Schools.

Chafer’s wife, Ella Loraine, suffered a stroke in 1941 which left her an invalid until her death in 1944. A second heart attack afflicted Chafer in 1945, and a third attack occurred in 1948. In May of 1952, after finishing his spring semester responsibilities at the Seminary, he visited various Pennsylvania cities that were on the Harrisburg Circuit of Bible Conferences. In June 1952, he traveled alone to Seattle and there died on August 22 in the home of personal friends, Mr. and Mrs. Robert O. Fleming. Two months later, Walvoord wrote in The Sunday School Times:

In the span of one short life was gathered the amazing career of musician, evangelist, Bible teacher, theologian, writer, editor, educator, man of faith, man of prayer, and man of deep spiritual understanding of the Scriptures. Like John Calvin, with frail body but keen mind and spiritual vision, Lewis Sperry Chafer left an indelible mark upon his generation. The monuments of his labor continue, and we trust will continue.6


  1. C. F. Lincoln, “Biographical Sketch of the Author,” in Systematic Theology, by Lewis Sperry Chafer, vol. 8: Biographical Sketch and Indexes (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), p.4.
  2. John A. Witmer, “What Hath God Wrought — Fifty Years of Dallas Theological Seminary,” Bibliotheca Sacra 130 (October 1973):292.
  3. Lewis Sperry Chafer, “Twenty Years of Experience,” Bulletin of Dallas Theological Seminary 29 (July-September 1943).
  4. Mrs. Howard Taylor, Empty Racks and How to Fill Them (Dallas: Evangelical Theological College, n.d.), p. 8. 5.
  5. Lewis Sperry Chafer, “Twenty Years of Experience,” Bulletin of Dallas Theological Seminary 29 (July-September 1943).
  6. Walvoord, “Lewis Sperry Chafer,” The Sunday School Times 94 (11 OCtober 1952), p. 870. Cf. “Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, 81, Dies in Seattle,” Dallas Morning News, 23 August 1952, p. 4.

Material from Jeffrey J. Richards The Promise of Dawn: The Eschatology of Lewis Sperry Chafer Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers 2002.

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