Edith Schaeffer, founder with her husband, Francis Schaeffer, of a Swiss commune considered the theological birthplace of the American religious right, and author of many popular books that helped define conservative Christian family values for a worldwide evangelical audience, mainly female, died on Sunday in Huemoz, Switzerland, where she had lived most of her life. She was 98.
Her death was confirmed by her son, Frank. Mrs. Schaeffer and her husband, both Americans, were prolific and well-known Christian authors. Mr. Schaeffer, who died in 1984, was an early prophet of church engagement in public affairs. Jerry Falwell cited his writings as major influences in his decision to found the Moral Majority.
Mrs. Schaeffer wrote more than two dozen books, including "Hidden Art" (1971) and "What Is a Family?" (1975), describing her vision of women's domestic role in the battle with secular humanism and declining morality, as fundamentalist Christians defined the prevailing threats to humanity in the postwar world. That role, she said, was to make one's home a work of art, she wrote in "What Is a Family?": "There needs to be a homemaker exercising some measure of skill, imagination, creativity, desire to fulfill needs and give pleasure to others in the family."
Her husband's writing, which was more theoretical and polemical, had greater influence. But the community Mrs. Schaeffer and her husband founded, L'Abri Fellowship -- part seminary and part spiritual think tank -- which served as the laboratory for the ideas in the books they both wrote, was by all accounts an equal partnership. The Schaeffers had worked for a decade throughout postwar Europe as missionaries for the Presbyterian Church of the United States when they broke with leaders of their mission in 1955 and established L'Abri (French for shelter). It was conceived as an open Christian community where visitors, Christian and non-Christian, could stay as long as they wished, attend lectures given by Mr. Schaeffer and other Christian thinkers, and discuss life's ultimate questions with fellow seekers. (Guests, who numbered more than 100 at a time by the late 1960s, paid a small fee to stay in the Schaeffers' sprawling chalet and helped with the household chores. Operating costs were underwritten by donors in the United States and Europe.)
In the '60s, when L'Abri's guests included backpackers, hippies and even celebrities like Timothy Leary and Eric Clapton, Mrs. Schaeffer was known for maintaining a seamless five-star-hotel level of comfort for guests occupying L'Abri's simple rooms, while Mr. Schaeffer delivered many of the lectures that became the basis of his most influential books, including "Escape From Reason" (1968) and "How Should We Then Live?" (1976).
In a 2008 biography, "Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America," Barry Hankins, a professor of history and religion at Baylor University, wrote, "Without L'Abri, Schaeffer would never have drawn the audience that made his many books possible." And without Mrs. Schaeffer, he added, "there would have been no L'Abri."
The Schaeffers' son, Frank, a novelist, illuminated Mrs. Schaeffer's contributions further in a 2011 memoir, "Sex, Mom & God," portraying his mother as the skilled and uncowed handler of her moody husband, whose tirades and sometimes violent temper tantrums she endured and kept hidden from L'Abri's shelter-seeking guests. The domestic perfection she described in her books was to some degree "Edith Schaeffer fantasies," he wrote. "Our actual family was a model of dysfunction."
"However, Mom was no hypocrite," he wrote. "She was just forgiving."
Edith Rachel Seville was born in Wenzhou, China, on Nov. 2, 1914, to Christian missionaries, George and Jessie Seville, who returned to the United States with her and her two older sisters when Edith was about 5. After a peripatetic childhood as her parents moved around the country doing missionary work, she met Francis Schaeffer, a seminarian, at a church meeting in Philadelphia. They were married when she was 17 and he was 19.
After postings in the United States, they were sent to Switzerland by the Presbyterian Church in 1947. When they began L'Abri, most Christian leaders saw keeping a safe distance as the best strategy for dealing with secular public affairs they considered immoral and corrupting. Mr. Schaeffer's writings, advocating direct engagement in the public realm and even civil disobedience in service of moral causes, made him a leading theorist of the Christian right, particularly the anti-abortion movement, until his death in 1984.
Besides her son, Mrs. Schaeffer is survived by three daughters, Prista Sandri, Susan Macauley and Deborah Middelmann, as well as 15 grandchildren, 35 great-grandchildren and 2 great-great-grandchildren.
In an interview, Professor Hankins described Mrs. Schaeffer as a bit of a paradox. "On one hand," he said, "she held a very traditional, biblical view about women's subservient role. On the other, she was assertive, even competitive with her husband.
"She embodied marriage equality," he said. "She would never use the term, of course, but in some ways she was the model of a sort of evangelical feminism."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.