"Awakening the Lay Evangelical Mind: Francis Schaeffer, James Houston, and the Christian Study Center Movement in North America"

Cotherman, Charles, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hedstrom, Matthew, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Warren, Heather, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Marsh, Charles, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation explores evangelical efforts to awaken and nurture the hearts and minds of lay evangelicals in North American through the development of a Christian study center movement that first garnered sustained evangelical attention in the late1960s. Inspired by Francis Schaeffer’s Swiss L’Abri and James Houston’s Vancouver-based Regent College, a network of North American study centers emerged in the 1970s offering an array of educational options within community settings that were simultaneously spiritual, intellectual, and aspirational. Based in large part on the example of L’Abri and Regent College this second generation of study centers included learning communities in places as diverse as Washington D. C., Charlottesville, Virginia, Stahlstown, Pennsylvania, and Berkeley California. Of these communities it was the Charlottesville Center for Christian Study that exerted the greatest influence on the future of the North American Christian study center movement by providing a model for a third generation of university-based study centers, which were eventually linked through their involvement in the growing Consortium of Christian Study Centers. Because many of the study centers in the Consortium are located adjacent to elite universities, their influence within evangelicalism extends far beyond the campuses they serve.

In addition to charting many previously undocumented institutional histories, the case studies presented in this dissertation also add further nuance to our understanding of late-twentieth century evangelicalism, which far too often is characterized as overwhelmingly anti-intellectual or reduced to the history of the Religious Right. The latter shift is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the treatment of Francis Schaeffer, whose history has often been flattened to include only his post-1973 anti-abortion crusade. Rather than following Schaeffer’s late-in-life turn toward political activism, this narrative examines the legacy of his earlier work among a small, but disproportionately influential group of evangelical baby boomers and shows how Schaeffer, in addition to other advocates of lay theological education like James Houston and R. C. Sproul, changed the way many North American evangelicals thought about art, culture, and higher education.

In charting the history of Schaeffer, Houston, and the study center movement they inspired, this dissertation also brings to the fore a number of persistent tensions within North American, and especially US, evangelicalism. Efforts to develop more robust models of lay theological education forced study center leaders, and to a lesser extent their students, to face tensions associated with the handling of power, ambition, mass-media, the counterculture, upward mobility, and gender. As study center leaders wrestled to balance theological convictions and the everyday demands of sustaining educational communities they sought to address these tensions in sometimes-novel ways. In the process, they launched a movement that would do much to shape the minds, social networks, and aspirations of evangelicals for decades to come.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Evangelicalism, The Evangelical Mind, Christian Study Centers, Francis Schaeffer, James Houston, R.C. Sproul, L'Abri, Regent College, Ligonier Valley Study Center, C. S. Lewis Institute, Christian World Liberation Front, Right On, New College Berkeley, Center for Christian Study, Consortium of Christian Study Centers
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