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Fall 2017 · Vol. 46 No. 2 · pp. 195–205 

An Unlikely Scholar

Richard G. Kyle

What happens when the Christian faith and scholarship encounter each other? Do they support or undermine one another? My experience has been yes to both these alternatives. In the process of acquiring five degrees and writing twelve books, ninety plus articles, and over seventy review articles I have not had a crisis of faith. By that I mean that I have never seriously questioned the historic Christian faith: the authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the faith of the ancient creeds and church councils. On the other hand, I have largely rejected some specific interpretations of the Christian faith. For example, my training and research has led me to discard many aspects of dispensationalism, fundamentalism, and popular evangelicalism.

The biggest challenge to Christian faith I encountered came in my research regarding apocalyptic ideas and popular evangelicalism. These books point out the superficiality that has engulfed the evangelical faith.

My position has been that of Professor of History and Religion at Tabor College (now Emeritus), a position I largely enjoyed for forty-one years. I am also an ordained minister, and I regard teaching at a Christian college a form of the ministry. While two of my degrees are from divinity schools, my focus is not biblical studies. Rather my specialty has been religious history, especially the Reformation and American religion. During my teaching career, I have taught over twenty courses. But my {196} research has largely been confined to the two mentioned areas. Aside from research and teaching, my Christian faith has also been shaped by other developments: travel, family relationships, athletics, certain individuals, and my church background.


During my formative years, my religious background was the Plymouth Brethren denomination (the closed variety). My parents, especially my mother, saw to it that I attended numerous church functions, including children’s services on Wednesday and Friday evenings, plus Sunday school and church. Such a background impacted me two ways. On one side, I encountered some serious Bible teaching, leading me to fully embrace the historic truths of Scripture. On the other, this Bible instruction promoted a very narrow brand of dispensational fundamentalism. Plymouth Brethren embraced dispensationalism and its division of biblical history into seven distinct ages during which God addressed humanity in different ways. The Scofield Reference Bible, not just any version of Scripture, was the biblical standard. Scofield’s copious notes were regarded as holy writ (I still have my childhood Bible).

One example of my thinking at that time involves the events of October 1956. Israeli forces struck swiftly, rolling the Egyptian army back across the Sinai Peninsula. British and French forces seized the Suez Canal. The Soviet Union threatened to intervene on behalf of Egypt. Were these the opening shots of Armageddon? I thought so. As a teenager raised in a Plymouth Brethren congregation, I firmly embraced premillennial beliefs regarding the Antichrist, rapture, tribulation, Armageddon, and the millennium.

With great anxiety I went to the house of a leading elder (Plymouth Brethren do not have paid pastors). He assured me that believers would be raptured before Armageddon. This helped to assuage my anxieties. Still, the thought of the elect consisting of only 144,000 gave me pause for concern. Was I one of the 144,000? Considering that nearly two thousand years of Christian history had passed, this seemed like a very small number. President Eisenhower also relieved some of my anxieties. The American presidential elections loomed on the horizon, and he was not about to allow Armageddon to complicate his reelection. So, desiring to avoid a crisis with the Soviet Union, he pulled the rug out from under the Israelis, British, and French and refused to support their invasion of Egypt. Thus the crisis passed, and Armageddon would have to wait for another day.

But my interest in end-time ideas did not pass. At that young age my eschatology was quite limited. I knew of only one view—dispensational {197} premillennialism. Since then I have learned about the many ways people see the end of the world. My horizons were first broadened when my family left the Plymouth Brethren church and expanded further in divinity school. By means of courses in theology and Christian history, I learned about the variety of ways Christians have viewed the world’s end. All of this culminated in writing two books on end-time ideas: The Last Days Are Here Again and Apocalyptic Fever.

The impact of my Plymouth Brethren background was not limited to eschatology. By any standard, the Plymouth Brethren must be regarded as part of the fundamentalist movement. As such they believed Scripture to be inerrant and should be interpreted rather literally. Viewing the world and even mainline Christianity as decadent, they required strict separation from the world. While my parents were quite “liberal” by Plymouth Brethren standards, the church advised members not to watch television or go to the movies and to dress very conservatively. Young people could not go to dances. Women were especially impacted. In addition to restrictive dress styles, they were not to dye their hair or use makeup. Moreover, they were to keep silent in church. For these and other reasons, my parents left the Plymouth Brethren church about the time I began college.

What about my conversion? I had two experiences, but regard my second one as the “real thing.” At age thirteen, I went forward at a Youth for Christ rally. I believed the essential elements of the Christian faith plus I had an emotional experience. The counselor at the rally said I was saved. But throughout my teenage years I lacked assurance of salvation. At age eighteen, I went to a number of church services (not all Plymouth Brethren) and asked Jesus to be my Lord and Savior. My reading of verses in John 6:37 and 10:27–29 gave me the assurance of salvation.

About this time, my family transferred to a Bible church in the area. This turned out to be a life-changing event. By the standards of the time, Horsham Bible Church was quite progressive. While conservative, the label fundamentalist would be inappropriate. In particular, the pastor, Royal Grote, had a major influence on my life. At this church, I was baptized and encountered a number of different Christian perspectives. After the Sunday evening services, each week the pastor had the young people come to his house to discuss issues relevant to the Christian faith. At times he would even bring in speakers to address certain subjects. Yes, as a young man I learned to think outside the box. And this has stayed with me all of my life. The pastor did a second thing that changed my life. He directed me to Denver Seminary (then called Conservative Baptist). Under the leadership of Vernon Grounds, a very godly but progressive man for the time, my thinking was significantly influenced. {198}

Last but not least, another activity had a powerful impact on my scholarship if not my faith: football. I am the son of a Pennsylvania steel worker who dropped out of school in eighth grade. While my mother graduated from high school, her small school in rural Pennsylvania only went to grade ten. Thus my parents never encouraged me to go on to college. (In all fairness, they did not discourage me either.) They assumed I would be a blue-collar worker of some kind, hopefully not in the steel mill or any other kind of difficult manual labor. Also, I did not take my studies seriously in high school and thus lacked the best grades. In fact, the guidance counselor at my high school advised me to join the army and shave. (At that time facial hair was seen as a sign of rebellion.) I did neither. I still wear a beard.

A great irony is that in 2003, Hatboro-Horsham High School inducted me into their Hall of Fame for educational achievements. What got me to college, and also helped improve my work ethic and self-discipline, was football. It was one of the few things I did in high school that was above average. While I had other incentives to go to college, football ranks high on the list. I went on to Kutztown University and had a successful football career, enough to receive many awards and to be extended four National Football League free agent contracts. I signed with the Baltimore Colts but was released before the season started. In 1992 Kutztown University inducted me into their Athletic Hall of Fame and, in 2015, named me to their All-Time Football Team. What does this have to do with scholarship? Without the initial desire to continue playing football, I am not certain what kind of academic career I would have had. Moreover, my faith also matured in college, largely due to my contact with other believing students.


My education ran for thirteen nonconsecutive years through five degrees: BS, MA, MDiv, ThM, and PhD. Many of the developments noted during my early years carried over. The youth group discussions initiated by my pastor continued on an even higher level during my undergraduate years. While we did not solve the world’s problems, this format did get me to interact with important national and international issues. And lifetime friendships were forged. When I would return from college, which was quite often, I would visit with the pastor and my friends.

My undergraduate studies were at Kutztown University. Here I majored in social studies and English and prepared to teach in high school, which along with coaching football, I did for several years. During my undergraduate years, I became quite active in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. These studies plus the fellowship enabled me to maintain a solid faith throughout these years. Moreover, my studies at this level did {199} not challenge or undermine my beliefs. But one question developed that would continue throughout my graduate studies: what would I major in? In part this developed because of the tight job market in history. I enjoyed history, but the job market in this area was limited.

After several years of teaching and coaching, I decided to get a master’s degree in history. Being within commuting distance from my home, I selected Temple University for my studies. In general this program met my needs. But the nagging question still persisted: Would I continue to major in history? At this point my internal debate concerned either history or religion. I did not see myself as continuing as a high school teacher and coach for the remainder of my career. Thanks to the influence of Pastor Grote, I explored the possibility of becoming a pastor. For that reason, I headed to Denver Seminary. Living in southeastern Pennsylvania for all of my life, the move to Denver was a gigantic step. While I have returned to the Philadelphia area numerous times since, this locality would never again be my home.

I just loved living in Denver. The climate, mountains, and youth culture were appealing. More important, while Denver Seminary was solidly evangelical, at this time it could not be regarded as a fundamentalist institution. Thanks to Vernon Grounds and other faculty members, Denver Seminary embraced a moderate form of evangelicalism. I encountered no teaching that challenged my essential beliefs. Still, peripheral doctrines such as premillennial dispensationalism were not accepted by all faculty and students. The seminary upheld the historic faith and promoted evangelicalism while still advocating social concern. In commenting on this balance, President Grounds once said that “Mennonites were a necessary corrective” to mainstream evangelicalism. By that, he meant that Mennonites balanced the historic faith with discipleship and care for the less fortunate. During these seminary years, I primarily attended Baptist churches and, shortly after graduation, was ordained by Lakewood Baptist Church. (While at Tabor, this ordination was recognized by the Mennonite Brethren church.)

Aside from my studies, something very important occurred during 1967–68, my last year of seminary: I met Joyce Kinkel. After several months of dating, we became engaged and later married. We now have been married forty-nine years. And throughout these years, she has been very supportive of my studies and ministry. Without her encouragement and patience—during my studies, teaching, publishing career, and even coaching—what success I have had would have been very difficult to achieve. During our marriage, I have taught many courses, published many books and articles, traveled extensively, and lived abroad. For her patience and commitment, I say many thanks. {200}

My educational years did not end with the MDiv degree. In many ways they just began. I acquired a PhD and then a postdoctoral ThM. After getting married, Joyce (now Kyle) and I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1968. Here my doctoral studies at the University of New Mexico focused on European history with an emphasis on intellectual history and the Protestant Reformation. While I encountered many new perspectives, my Christian faith was not substantially challenged. We attended Baptist churches while in Albuquerque, and I did considerable preaching.

During my studies, I read much on the Anabaptists but they did not become the focus of my research. I discovered that the religious ideas of John Knox had not been researched extensively. In the process, before proceeding with Knox, I read widely on the ideas of other reformers, such as John Calvin and Martin Luther. For my dissertation, I interacted with Knox’s religious beliefs. This research resulted in a dissertation, four books, and many articles. Aside from such tangible results, I spent much time studying the lives and ideas of other members of the Reformed tradition, especially Calvin. While I have never been a Calvinist, I gained a deep respect for the intellectual rigor of these reformers. And with deep regret, I lament the fact that such substance has not spilled over into the wider evangelical tradition, including many Mennonite churches. My research at New Mexico was largely directed by professors Warren Wagar and Donald Sullivan. And here my interests in both history and religion came together. For the remainder of my career, my research focused on religious history.

Normally, the PhD is one’s terminal degree. This was not the case with me. During my first sabbatical at Tabor College, I went to Princeton for postdoctoral work at both the seminary and university. To my pleasure, I discovered that I could arrange my courses and studies plus some summer work to acquire the ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary. By now Joyce and I had a family, so we packed up and went to Princeton for the 1979–1980 school year. My research interests by now had broadened to include various aspects of American religion, which became the focus of my degree. My research at Princeton thus propelled me into a major area of future study: aspects of American religious history. In fact, one of my subsequent books and several articles grew out of this research. At Princeton much of my thinking and direction was guided by John Mulder.


I came to Tabor College in 1972 and spent forty-one years there, nearly all of my professional career, as Professor of History and Religion. While I taught over twenty wide-ranging courses, I was able to teach in the area {201} of my primary research interest: religious history. And in several cases my courses were an outgrowth of my research. Thus, while I taught many subjects outside of my research areas, research was not marginal to my teaching career as it has been with so many scholars. Along with teaching, I regard research at a small college as a form of ministry.

My Tabor years also included coaching football. I was not hired to coach and did not do so my first year. But in those years coaching positions, especially assistant coaches, were part-time assignments. Having a football background, by my second year at Tabor I was asked to coach. My teaching load was not reduced. Coaching was a “moonlighting” assignment. But with the modest Tabor salaries, such income was welcome. If I was going to “moonlight,” I preferred to do it in an area I enjoyed. So for three months of the year, I did no serious studying except to prepare for my classes the next day. When combined with teaching and coaching, I became nearly a stranger to my family. On the positive side, hopefully I influenced some young men to be better students and human beings. Yes, this coaching did not end in one year; it went on for twenty—nineteen as defensive coordinator and one year as interim head coach (because the new coach never showed up).

Why did I come to Tabor and why did I stay for forty-one years? While not a Mennonite at the beginning of my employment, I knew something about the Anabaptist tradition and accepted much of it. Also, several Denver Seminary professors had spoken at Tabor and had positive words to say. In particular, Tabor and the Mennonite Brethren denomination had experienced and embraced an eclectic brand of Anabaptism, one which also included other influences drawn from the Pietist, Baptist, fundamentalist, and evangelical movements. I found such a version of Anabaptism to be attractive. During my early Tabor years, president Roy Just brought in well-known speakers from Fuller Seminary and other evangelical institutions. This greatly enhanced the intellectual culture at Tabor. But there was resistance. At Tabor and in some Mennonite Brethren circles, a so-called neo-Anabaptist movement desired a purified form of Anabaptism largely free from other evangelical influences. Such a movement never caught on in the Mennonite Brethren church, which was engulfed by a wave of popular evangelicalism. While I was not a supporter of this neo-Anabaptist movement, I regard myself as an Anabaptist who is accepting of other Christian traditions. On a more personal level, two important factors encouraged me to stay at Tabor. Hillsboro is a very pleasant community, a desirable place to live and raise a family. Second, despite a heavy teaching load, I did manage to publish. Thus, I did not look at Tabor as a place where I would commit professional suicide. {202}

While at Tabor, one family issue did impact and test my faith. Joyce and I had two sons, Bryan and Brent. Both graduated from Tabor. However, Bryan, our oldest son, contracted leukemia shortly after his marriage to Sharon Miller. He passed away at the age of twenty-nine. Why did God allow this, I asked? I had no answers and attempted no artificial explanations. Rather, I became a “good Calvinist” and accepted that God was sovereign. On a more positive note, our younger son Brent went on from Tabor to Yale and Cornell Universities, where he finished his PhD. He is now Associate Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at the United States Air Force Academy.

While I taught a number of secular history courses, my research most impacted my religious history courses, which were about half my teaching load. Six courses were offered for both history and religion credit. Over the years my largest enrollments were in the course Fringe Religions, a course drawn from my book by that title. For this course, I required students not only to do the traditional academic work, but also to visit alternative religious groups in central Kansas. The same can be said for all of my religious history courses except the Reformation Era. For the classes History of Christianity, American Religious History, and Mennonite History, students were required to visit various groups outside of their own faith tradition. In particular, Kansas and the Midwest offered a number of options for the Mennonite History class. Many Mennonite churches, several Mennonite museums, Amish farms, and the Hutterite colonies in South Dakota were available. The European study tour was for history and religious credit, and we focused on Christian sites.

As noted earlier, my research focused on two areas: the Reformation era and American religion. Within these general areas, I have published on aspects of five subjects: the Scottish Reformation, alternative religions, Mennonite Brethren history, a history of end-time beliefs, and American evangelicalism. Since the articles are numerous and derived from book research, I will only note the book titles and descriptions. The Scottish Reformation publications grew out of my dissertation and focused on its leading figure, John Knox. The four titles are as follows: The Mind of John Knox (Coronado, 1984); The Ministry of John Knox: Pastor, Preacher, and Prophet (Edwin Mellen, 2002); John Knox: An Introduction to His Life and Work (co-authored with Dale Johnson; Wipf and Stock, 2009); and God’s Watchman: John Knox’s Faith and Vocation (Pickwick, 2014). These books did not follow each other consecutively and span over thirty years. They were interrupted by my interest in other subjects. Moreover, many of my journal articles relate to John Knox. In particular, W. Stanford Reid and Richard L. Greaves impacted my thinking on the Scottish {203} reformer. And yes, I believe I have exhausted my interest on Knox and am not planning to write further on this subject.

Being at a Mennonite Brethren institution, I have not ignored their tradition. However, despite having access to a library with many Mennonite Brethren sources, I have only published two books (one coauthored) and a number of articles and chapters in other books on this subject. Why? In part this is because of limited avenues for publication. All scholars hope to have their research published, and the Mennonite Brethren have few outlets for this interest. Early in my years at Tabor, I became interested in how the Mennonite Brethren related to other religious groups. This began at Princeton while taking a class on the denominational structure of Christian churches. The resulting book was entitled From Sect to Denomination: Church Types and Their Implications for Mennonite Brethren History (Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1985). My second major work was my contribution to a history of Tabor College, coauthored with three others: Tabor College: A Century of Transformation 1908-2008 (Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 2008).

During the 1980s and 1990s, I became interested in alternative religions in America. This interest first manifested itself in a class on fringe religions, drawing large numbers of students, in part because such a subject was popular at the time. Next came two books, The Religious Fringe: A History of Alternative Religions in America (InterVarsity, 1993) and The New Age Movement in American Culture (University Press of America, 1995). Being a survey book on alternative religions, The Religious Fringe became something of a textbook on the subject and, while published in the 1990s, has since been reprinted. As the title indicates, The New Age Movement in American Culture connects this development with American society of this era. This book, however, never developed a large audience, perhaps because the New Age movement lost much of its popular appeal after the 1990s.

As noted earlier, my interest in end-time ideas began as a boy in the Plymouth Brethren church but did not end there. This interest has continued throughout my academic career. I integrated such apocalyptic ideas into several of my classes, especially Fringe Religions and American Religion. As the year 2000 approached, many people believed something big was about to happen. So I anticipated this interest and wrote The Last Days are Here Again: A History of the End Times (Baker, 1998). For once in my lifetime, my timing was on target. The book came out in 1998, surveying the many apocalyptic predictions throughout two thousand years of Western history. The Last Days Are Here Again was published in three different countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Korea) under different titles. While I firmly believe in the second advent, {204} this book attempted to put a damper on speculations regarding the end of the world. Later, several end-time predictions pointed to 2011, 2012 and other dates. While these did not arouse the same interest and anxiety as did the year 2000, I wrote another book focusing on apocalyptic ideas: Apocalyptic Fever: End-time Prophecies in Modern America (Cascade, 2012). Such dates as 2011 (Harold Camping) and 2012 (the Mayan Calendar) aroused interest that was mild in comparison to the year 2000.

The last research area influential on my thinking has been the impact of American culture on evangelicalism. While all cultures have some bearing on the Christian faith, my argument in two books has been the following: popular evangelicalism has been so Americanized that we cannot tell the difference between the faith and the culture. Aspects of it are regarded as one and the same. Some examples include the following: the belief in a Christian America, regarding capitalism as not just an economic system but as Christian, seeing America as the millennial nation, turning the gospel into a form of therapy, the prosperity and possibility-thinking gospels, the megachurch and electronic church phenomena, and the influence of popular culture on music and worship. The first book, Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity (Transaction, 2006), surveys the subject chronologically from the colonial period on. The second book, Popular Evangelicalism in American Culture (Routledge, 2017), examines the subject thematically.

Another experience deeply influencing my thinking and worldview has been travel. In addition to all fifty states, I have visited seventy countries and twice taught abroad. Much of this travel has been while employed at Tabor College. This exposure to international cultures has been a mind expanding experience—one that I have attempted to pass on to two generations of Tabor students. I have directed thirty-one trips, taking over seven hundred students to thirty different countries. These trips have involved many brothers and sisters and even reached into the second generation of families. Hopefully, such international experiences will encourage students to think globally, an essential component for an educated person. I regard directing these international trips as perhaps my major contribution to the education of Tabor students.

In addition to the student trips, I did have the privilege of teaching abroad as a Fulbright scholar, first in the Ukraine and then in Belarus. Living in these countries and interacting with the students was a mind-expanding experience for me, one that hopefully I have passed on to my students at Tabor. But beyond benefit to the college and to myself, I hope that my teaching and relationships with Ukrainians and Belarusans presented a positive image of the Christian faith and of Americans in general. {205}


Teaching at a small college can be hazardous to a professor’s professional life. It often kills research beyond the terminal degree. The course load is heavy, but the real culprit can be the expectations that go beyond the classroom. Yet, if one expects to be productive over a lengthy career, ongoing research is necessary. By productive I do not mean just publications, even though they are important. It can include vitality in the classroom. And I am not suggesting that a professor cut short personal relationships with students. These are an important distinctive of the small Christian college. Allowing oneself to be involved in many institutional activities, however, can be a research killer and need not happen at the Christian college. That should be the administration’s primary concern.

Many scholars encounter issues that challenge their Christian faith. This may occur in the areas of biblical studies and science. The biggest challenge I encountered came in my research regarding apocalyptic ideas and popular evangelicalism. These books point out the superficiality that has engulfed the evangelical faith. Other books go down a similar path. As Mark Noll points out in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994), evangelicals rarely engage in any substantive thinking. In Fit Bodies Fat Minds (Baker, 1994), Os Guinness says anti-intellectualism is alive and well in evangelical circles. In No Place for Truth (Eerdmans, 1993), David Wells examines the collapse of theology in the evangelical church. Or as Thomas Bergler notes in The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Eerdmans, 2012), evangelicals have not grown up. Such problems have deeply impacted the Mennonite Brethren denomination. Instead of encouraging discipleship or even serious thinking, we often cater to the latest cultural trends.

Richard G. Kyle recently retired as Professor of History and Religious Studies after forty-one years at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas. He earned his MA in history from Temple University (Philadelphia, PA), MDiv from Denver Seminary (Littleton, Colorado), ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary (New Jersey), and PhD in history from the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque).

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