The Man Who Introduced American Evangelicals to C. S. Lewis

Clyde S. Kilby joined the faculty of Wheaton College in 1935 at the age of 33 as an assistant professor of English and dean of men.

In 1943 Kilby read a new book published by C. S. Lewis, entitled The Case for Christianity, which changed the course of his life. It was based on two series of broadcast talks Lewis had given for the BBC and was later published as the first two sections of Mere Christianity. “I . . . read it right through feeling almost from the first sentence that something profound had touched my mind and heart.” It was like discovering “something bottomless,” and he was captivated by “the depth and freshness of his observations and the permanency of his expression.”

Kilby went on to read Lewis’s whole corpus as it was being published. Nearly a decade later, in December of 1952, Kilby—now chair of the English department at Wheaton—wrote Lewis asking if they could meet when he was in England during the summer of 1953. The two men spent an hour together at Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen College, Oxford, discussing sixteenth-century literature, art, and the Renaissance. Kilby wrote of the conversation: “in all his talk there is an incipient good humor and genuineness that makes a conversation with him a real pleasure.”

Kilby Introduces Evangelicals to Lewis

“That meeting,” Lewis’s literary executor Walter Hooper recounts, “cemented Kilby’s admiration and he became Lewis’s chief champion and defender in America. So sound were his judgments about Lewis that it was inevitable that Kilby should be referred to as ‘Dean of Lewis studies’ and ‘the godfather of Lewis interest in America.’ Certainly he did more to introduce Lewis to evangelical Christians than anyone.”

This would end up being their only meeting in person, but they corresponded over the next decade until 1962. (Lewis died in November of 1963, one week shy of his 65th birthday.)

In 1965 Kilby founded the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton, which he envisioned as a depository and research center related to the writings of Lewis and the Inklings (especially Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers).

In the summer of 1966, Clyde Kilby was making a journey back to Oxford, this time to meet with J. R. R. Tolkien (then age 74), with whom he had shared a brief correspondence. During this trip he also visited Major Warren Hamilton Lewis, Lewis’s only sibling. Kilby requested that upon Warnie’s death he might receive Lewis’s letters, manuscripts, and personal affects. Major Lewis gladly consented, and these materials formed the foundation for the Lewis collection at the Wade Center. (Warnie Lewis died in 1973.)

Mark Noll notes that “Kilby’s efforts to promote the work of these British authors made him, perhaps unwittingly, a force transforming the character of American evangelicalism.” His efforts, Noll writes, “played a major role in popularizing Lewis among fundamentalists and evangelicals, and to some extent the American population at large.”

Kilby’s Work on Lewis

Kilby was one of the first Americans to engage Lewis’s work as an object of serious literary study.

  • In 1964, the year after Lewis’s death, Kilby published one of the first critical studies of Lewis’s thought, The Christian World of C. S. Lewis. (Earlier introductions to Americans included Charles Brady’s two essays in the Jesuit America magazine in 1944, and Chad Walsh’s 1946 article, “C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics,” which became a book of the same title in 1949.)
  • In 1967 Kilby collected and edited Letters to an American Lady, containing Lewis’s side of the correspondence with a woman named Mary Shelburne, spanning from 1950 to 1963.
  • In 1969 Kilby edited a thematically arranged anthology of Lewis’s writings, A Mind Awake.
  • In 1973 Kilby co-authored C. S. Lewis: Images of His World, a pictorial book with supplementary captions and narrative.
  • Later that decade Kilby wrote Images of Salvation in the Fiction of C. S. Lewis.
  • His last project, published in 1983, was a co-edited edition of Warnie Lewis’s diaries.
  • More recently, the Wade Center has published a posthumous collection of essays by Kilby, entitled A Well of Wonder: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings.

Kilby’s Influence on Two of His Students

Two of Kilby’s students in the 1960s were literature majors Mark Noll and John Piper. Noll would go on to become one of evangelicalism’s most influential and storied historians; Piper one of its best known pastor-theologians. The two of them took Kilby’s capstone class together in their final year at Wheaton.

Noll commented on Kilby’s approach to poetry:

Kilby loved literature, he believed in the imagination, and he could quote Wordsworth with abandon. Most of all he was driven by a passion to disabuse Wheaton fundamentalists of the notion that poetry was a frill, an extra for nailing down the final point of a sermon. Poetry, proclaimed Kilby, was life. And not only life but Christian life. Through my personal fog it started to make sense. I knew I liked poems. But I had never before associated the two.

Though best known for his historical work, Noll quietly published around 30 poems in various magazine throughout his career, along with a book of poetry published by Baker in 1997, entitled Seasons of Grace.

While a student in his class, John wrote in his personal journal,

Kilby is perhaps the greatest teacher I’ve ever had—he’s helping me know how to live.

Piper writes of Kilby’s influence:

When you are being shown what you’ve always looked at all your life and never seen, it is absolutely revolutionary. Kilby was one of the greatest influences of my life, and I scarcely know what he thought about anything—politically, psychologically, theologically. It was the way he saw the world and spoke of the world. He was so alive to the wonder of things. This was incalculably valuable preparation of soul for the vision of God that would come just a few years later at seminary.”

Piper himself has written several books of poetry, some of them drawn from the annual cycle of biblical poems he delivered during Advent while pastoring Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis.

In 1976, four years before his retirement and ten years before his death, Kilby delivered a talk on “Ten Resolutions for Mental Health” at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis. John Piper, then a professor of biblical studies at Bethel College in St. Paul, was in attendance. The outline offers a taste of the sort of life-affirming wonder at God’s world that Kilby modeled and taught his students.

It closes in this way:

Even if I turn out to be wrong, I shall bet my life on the assumption that this world is not idiotic, neither run by an absentee landlord, but that today, this very day, some stroke is being added to the cosmic canvas that in due course I shall understand with joy as a stroke made by the architect who calls himself Alpha and Omega.

Kilby left his mark indeed, not only as an introducer and interpreter of Lewis and Tolkien and the Inklings to an American evangelical audience, but also upon on two young college students who would make their own significant contribution to the world of evangelicalism.


C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950–1963, vol. 3., ed. Walter Hooper.

Mark A. Noll, From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story.

Mark Noll, C. S. Lewis in America: Readings and Reception, 1935–1947.

John Piper, “15 Reasons I’m Thankful for Wheaton College,” Wheaton Alumni Magazine 8, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 22.

John Piper, “The Pastor as Scholar: A Personal Journey and the Joyful Place of Scholarship,” in D. A. Carson and John Piper, The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry, ed. David Mathis and Owen Strachan.

John Piper, “C. S. Lewis, Romantic Rationalist: How His Paths to Christ Shaped His Life and Ministry,” in The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C. S. Lewis, ed. John Piper and David Mathis.

Wade Center biography and artifact of the month.

Clyde Kilby, “A Means to Mental Health.”