Spring 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 1 · pp. 135–36 

Book Review

The Religious Fringe: A History of Alternative Religions in America

Richard Kyle. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993. 467 pages.

Reviewed by Jurgen Schonwetter

The Religious Fringe is an attractive, highly readable paperback with a striking cover. Kyle, professor at Tabor College, Kansas, is not a stuffy historian who overwhelms the reader with technical historical details and statistics. He is a historian with a keen sense of fairness and objectivity. The book is user-friendly and informative. Kyle contributes significantly to research in religious movements that have helped shape America, ideologically and spiritually.

Kyle provides historical descriptions of religious groups he calls “fringe” or “alternative.” He suggests that although these groups may be “fringe” in relationship to the dominant religious groups in America today, they form a significant part of America’s ideological repertoire. The book is “descriptive history,” a “history of the occult and cults in America,” a subject which Kyle feels has been neglected in post World War II publications.

America, a place of new beginnings, of democratic expressions, of freedom of belief and religion, the haven for immigrants from a worldwide community, has become the seedbed of various religious ideologies. These grew out of the soil of discontent with Europe’s status quo, the continent from which most early American settlers emigrated. Kyle helps make sense of the complex network of connections. He addresses the questions: Who influenced whom, when and where within the American pluralistic society?

Kyle incorporates as many religious fringe groups as he possibly can by using classifications such as metaphysical and occultic movements, religious communalism, Mormonism, Eastern religious groups, Christian groups, Black religious groups, the New Age movement and psychospiritual or self-improvement groups. The Preface and Introduction (18pp) provide detailed definitions of the terms used.

A comparison can be made between The Religious Fringe and Walter Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults, a popular reader among Protestant and evangelical Christians. Martin, while also working historically, is, nevertheless, polemic, condescending, and rather preachy. Kyle’s book, on the other hand, is objective and fair to the groups described. The documentation, over 80 pages of bibliography and bibliographic notes, is impressive. Kyle draws his research from a wide variety of specialists.

Kyle does not provide handles to combat the religious fringe groups that seem to threaten the Christian church, especially in America. He {136} intends to inform, and that is basic to apologetics. The four-page Epilogue contains what Kyle perceives to be future trends of occult and occultic movements. America will continue to be more pluralistic in its religious mosaic. Groups that will have a strong presence are those “with primarily an Eastern focus and those that blend Eastern and Western ideas.” Fringe groups emphasizing spirituality will be marketable. Groups whose teaching and practice incorporate environmental issues will grow. Fringe groups presenting religious experience even to the point of irrationality will flourish. Groups with an emphasis on the demise of the human race and the collapse of civilization brought about by raping nature’s resources will be in the running as well. Post-Christian America will experience religious revival brought about in part by religious fringe groups “who thrive best in times of crisis and tension.”

The book is a helpful resource for the larger Christian community, a stimulating source for the scholar, and a unique contribution to historical research in religious movements that have shaped America.

Jurgen Schonwetter
Instructor in Christian Education
Columbia Bible College
Clearbrook, BC