In the early twentieth century, American archeology was dominated by radical skepticism toward the Bible. One academic leader perpetuating this approach early in his career was the famed American archaeologist, William Foxwell Albright. Yet, the establishment of an intellectual friendship initiated by an older evangelical archeologist would eventually lead Albright to abandon his radical skepticism of the Bible and pursue a more centrist position. A brief analysis of the evangelical scholar’s career who helped bring about this change can be helpful for Christian scholars today.
Melvin Grove Kyle was born in 1858 and was raised in the United Presbyterian Church (UPC) of North America.1 In 1881 he graduated from the UPC’s Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio. Retrospectively, Kyle claimed that Muskingum was at the time “one of the most conservative [Christian] institutions in the land.”2 Nevertheless, Kyle claimed that he and his Muskingum students spent lots of time at the college discussing skepticism and liberal ideas. Kyle argued that they did this so much that he and his classmates “must have seemed to our betters an unbelieving lot.” Based on the evidence it appears that whatever intellectual issues troubled Kyle, he resolved them. Kyle went on to also earn an M.A. from Muskingum and did his seminary work at Xenia and Allegheny seminaries.
Kyle was ordained in 1886 and became the pastor of Seventh United Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. While there Kyle developed a relationship with the famed scholar, Max Müller, a professor of Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania. Müller was aware of Kyle’s church and his short-term mission visits to Egypt. Consequently, he asked him to research archaeological data for him.3 Kyle did this work for Müller, the two became friends, and Kyle became a member of the University of Pennsylvania’s archaeology club, or as one profile from 1907 listed it “department.”
Kyle the aspiring archaeologist sought to connect himself to leading archaeologists. He became a friend of Sir Flinders Petrie, the famed British Egyptologist, and worked on excavations and explorations with him. In 1905 the veteran UP minister and author, James Price, wrote that the forty-seven-year-old Kyle was a “scholarly man and a close student” who “has for years been devoting attention to archaeological studies with the laudable aim of illustrating and defending the Holy Scriptures.”4 Kyle’s studies led him to publish a 1905 pamphlet, Egyptian Sacrifices: A Study of Scenes in Painting and In Sculpture.5 In 1906 William McEwan, pastor of Pittsburgh’s Third United Presbyterian Church even labeled Kyle one of the “first archaeologists.”6
In 1908, at the age of 50, Kyle’s growing reputation as a scholar-pastor led to his appointment as a permanent lecturer of biblical archaeology at Xenia. Kyle would serve Xenia one semester per year in this role until 1915 when he became a full professor. Significantly, Kyle noted that Xenia “was the first Theological Seminary in America to give distinct recognition of the new science of biblical archaeology as a separate Department of Seminary work.”7 While Egyptology and archaeology were mostly associated with the more elite American universities, Harvard and Penn, Kyle sought to make the humble Xenia a center of archaeological scholarship.
Kyle taught seminarians and participated in excavations, but also in scholarly organizations. He was active in the Bible League of North America and in this organization’s publications. Kyle also served as the archaeology editor of the Sunday School Times and developed a higher academic profile as editor of Bibliotheca Sacra, a long-standing academic journal founded in 1844 and previously published by Oberlin College, but by 1922 under the auspices of Xenia Seminary. Kyle worked with evangelical groups and publications, but in 1911 he became a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and wrote for the Journal of Biblical Literature. Kyle worked hard to operate in both evangelical and more mainstream academic forums. By 1916 G. Fredrick Wright of Oberlin College noted in his autobiography that “Professor M. G. Kyle” has been “recognized as an authority on the archaeology of Egypt the world over.”8
In 1921 Kyle served as a lecturer at the American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem and taught there again in 1926, 1928, 1930, and 1932.9 On Kyle’s first visit ASOR’s director, the famed Johns Hopkins archaeologist William Foxwell Albright, found Kyle to be a charming and tolerant biblical scholar who never argued.10 Perhaps this is why he was invited back, and a good friendship formed between Albright and Kyle. While at ASOR Kyle and Albright pursued exploration and excavation and together did work in 1924 in the southern coastal part of the Dead Sea and in 1926, 1928, 1930, and 1932 at Tell Beit Mirsim. Later, Albright wrote,
The writer used to meet Dr. Kyle occasionally, before coming to Palestine in 1919, at learned society meetings. In those days, the fact that we were apparently at antipodes about most crucial biblical and oriental problems seemed to preclude all real friendship. In the spring of 1921, Dr. Kyle came to Jerusalem… for a stay of several weeks as a lecturer in the School, during the writer’s year as acting director. The acquaintance then developed soon ripened into friendship… We seldom or never debated biblical questions, but there can be no doubt that our constant association with the ever-recurring opportunity for comparing biblical and archaeological data has led to increasing convergence between our views, once so far apart. To the last, however, Dr. Kyle remained staunchly conservative on most of his basic positions, while the writer has gradually changed from the extreme radicalism of 1919 to a standpoint that can neither be called conservative nor radical, in the usual sense of the terms.11
Kyle and Xenia with the help of Albright successfully put themselves on the scholarly map of archaeological research. Their work in pottery chronology became well known in the discipline and artifacts from these excavations were displayed prominently at Xenia—and laterally at Pitt-Xenia and now housed as the Kelso Museum of Near Eastern Archaeology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Importantly, it appears that Kyle is to some degree responsible for moving Albright down a less radical scholarly path that held to the Bible’s general historical trustworthiness.
How did he change Albright’s mind? His academic witness appeared to be marked by patience and the development of expertise. He did not seek out debate. Instead, he waited for the questions and then sought to, as he said, “answer their questions.” Many of their questions had been his questions. He also appears to have been winsome and Albright noted that Kyle was excellent at making “ill-wishers into friends.” In addition, Kyle was able to establish Xenia as a center for archaeology. In sum, Kyle was an evangelical United Presbyterian who lived out the UP motto “The Truth of God—Forbearance in Love.”
A version of this blog post was previously published as McDonald, J.S. Advancing the Evangelical Mind: Melvin Grove Kyle, J. Gresham Machen, and the League of Evangelical Students. Religions 2021, 12, 498. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12070498. Used by permission.
- John William Leonard, “Melvin Grove Kyle,” Who’s Who in Pennsylvania (New York: L. R. Hamersly and Co., 1908).
- Melvin Grove Kyle, “If the Foundations Be Destroyed, What Can the Righteous Do?” The Evangelical Student, vol. VI, 26–28, 1932.
- Nancy Lapp, “Archaeology and the James L. Kelso Bible Lands Museum,” Ever a Frontier. Edited by James Arthur Walther (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
- James Price, The History of Seventh United Presbyterian Church, Frankford, Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Privately Published, 1905).
- Melvin Grove Kyle, Egyptian Sacrifices: A Study of Scenes in Painting and In Sculpture (Paris: Librairie of Emile Bouillon, 1905).
- William McEwan, “Address Introductory to that By President Hall,” The Bible Champion, June, 439, 1906.
- Melvin Grove Kyle, “The Bible in the Light of Archaeological Discoveries,” Bibliotheca Sacra 74: 1–19, 1917.
- G. Fredrick Wright, The Story of My Life and Work (Oberlin: Bibliotecha Sacra Company, 1916).
- Moshe Davis, “Melvin Grove Kyle,” America and the Holy Land (Westport: Praeger, 1995).
- Leona Glidden Running and David Noel Freedman, William Foxwell Albright (New York: Two Continents Publishing Group, LTD, 1975).
- William Foxwell Albright, “In Memoriam, Melvin G. Kyle,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1933).