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Religion & Liberty: Volume 33, Number 2

Russell Kirk’s path to Christ

Every once in a while, someone online, being either sincere or sincerely mischievous, loves to ask about the status of unrecognized saints. Who is the person most likely to be saint that the church has yet to recognize and, therefore, deserves our petitions for intercession? That list is fairly easy for me: my maternal grandfather (1907-1982); J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), whom I’ve been asking for intercession since the late 1970s; and Russell Kirk (1918-1994). You don’t know my grandfather, of course, but you do know – as a matter of public record via his letters –Tolkien and his several mystical experiences in life, his extreme devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and his religious instruction to his sons. But what about Russell Kirk, the writer of horror stories, the author of postwar conservatism, and a practitioner of the occult arts (specifically tarot) late into his adult life?

Kirk’s journey to Christian orthodoxy is a fascinating story and, at times, a fractious one. Like many poor but learned families in America and England at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Kirks had embraced an intellectual variety of spiritualism. Though descended from New England Puritans, the Kirk family had come to practice séances, ghost writings, and levitations. For all intents and purposes, the Kirk women, especially, were witches.

As Kirk grew into adulthood, he rejected the explicit tenets of Christian faith – whether heterodox, heretical, or orthodox – but he remained fiercely interested in the spiritual manifestations he had witnessed as a child. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Kirk the horror writer would not have come into being had it not been for the young Kirk being exposed to the excesses of spiritualism. He was, especially, obsessed with the idea of ghosts, an obsession that remained to his dying days.

“Some mediums are charlatans, but others possess genuine, if inexplicable and dangerous power,” Kirk argued in 1967. “I advise no one to meddle with the next world who is not very strong of mind and heart.” As late as 1973, Kirk continued to read tarot cards for guests, and he maintained his love of Halloween – “an annual occasion of dreadful joy at my house” – to the end of his life. “Kirk was old hand at telling fortunes by the Tarot, long before the art was taken up by hippies,” he wrote of himself in a publicity brochure. “My fortunes invariably are melancholy, and as invariably come to pass,” he believed. 

From his earliest memories as a child, Kirk believed in ghosts. Having been raised among deracinated Puritans, Spiritualists, and Swedenborgians, he witnessed “that uncanny business,” of automatic writing, the levitations of great-grandmothers, chairs rocking on their own, musical instruments mystically playing, and visitations from the dead (sometimes in spectral form). Séances were a normal part of his upbringing. “Henry James was a man with Swedenborgian forebears who didn’t believe in ghosts; I am one with Swedenborgian forebears who DOES believe in ghosts,” Kirk wrote in a private letter to the political philosopher Eric Voegelin. “Everybody who stays here in my ancestral house of Piety Hill becomes a more fervent believer than even I am,” he continued. According to Kirk, the ghostly phenomena only increased with the passing of years, until 1975, when the house burned to the ground in a freak accident. Consumed by fire, all the ghosts departed Piety Hill, Kirk believed.

Sometime in his college years, between 1936 and 1940 – influenced by Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More – Kirk adopted a form of Stoicism as his religion. Indeed, when called into the service of the U.S. Army in 1942, Kirk bought and took with him the complete works of Plato and of the Stoics. He found Marcus Aurelius especially comforting during the Second World War. He also came to love the works of St. Augustine, even though he disagreed with most of the saint’s theological stances. Kirk wrote of his grandfather:

His high virtues were more Stoic than Christian, although he lacked not charity, either material or spiritual; such habits and customs had run in the family, ever since Abraham Pierce had settled at Massachusetts’ Plymouth in 1623. Puritanism among the Pierces had faded to the shadow of a shade by the 1920’s, my grandfather and his household never attending any church – although the domestic circle’s ways might have been approved by Free Methodists, no strong drink ever being drunk nor any cigarette ever smoked in that commodious bungalow by the railroad tracks. There occurred no family prayers and no domestic sermonizing; all teaching was by example, not by precept, and it prevailed. Two or three generations earlier, the family’s sojourn in the Burnt-Over Country of northern New York, seedbed of strange dissents, seems to have left the Pierces with no dogmata but belief in a divine power, in a life eternal, and in personal rectitude. Tradition, adherence to this tradition, was the sheet-anchor, and it held.

Taken with the Stoic conception of the Logos as well as St. Augustine’s description of the City of Man and man’s many follies, Kirk came to a sort of monotheism in the fall of 1942, while stationed in a Utah desert chemical weapon’s facility. Strangely enough, his awareness of monotheism came on a hike into the desert wilds. In a private letter to his best friend, he wrote:

I’ve grown to endure the country in true Stoic fashion, and take a certain pleasure in feeling that I’m a tough inhabitant of one of the most blasted spots on the continent. There’s enough leisure here, and that’s a lot; the winters are said to be dreadful, but I have found fears exceed realities here, as everywhere. Already we have very cold mornings and evenings, and as I write a great sand-laden wind very chilly, is howling around the shacks of Dugway. Coming here tends to make me lean toward the Stoic belief in a special providence – or, perhaps, more toward the belief of Schopenhauer that we are punished for our sins, in proportion to our sins, here on earth; for I’d been talking of Stoicism for two or three months before I burst into Dugway and there never was a better and sterner test of a philosophy, within my little realm of personal experience – to be hurled from the pleasures of the mind and the flesh, prosperity and friends and ease, to so utterly desolate a plain, closed in by mountains like a yard within a spiked fence, with everywhere the suggestion of death and futility and eternal emptiness. But, others, without any philosophy, live well enough here; and, as Marcus Aurelius observes, if some who think the pleasures of the world good still do not fear death, why should we?

For all intent and purposes, Kirk became Kirk the day he had this revelation.

How Kirk became a Trinitarian remains a mystery. In his personal letters, he often cited the opponents of Christianity, whom he loathed, as inspiration to become a full-blown Trinitarian. In the early 1950s, while teaching at the University of Detroit, Kirk began to take instructions on becoming Roman Catholic from a Jesuit priest. For whatever reason – and, frankly, it’s not clear from the historical record exactly why – Kirk decided not to take the final step to be baptized and confirmed in the Roman Catholic faith.

However, nearly a decade later – in the early 1960s – Kirk fell in love with a devout Roman Catholic, Annette Courtemanche, and, in 1964, just prior to his marriage to her, he fully converted and became Russell Amos Augustine Kirk. Not surprisingly, his confirmation saint was Augustine, and, throughout the remainder of his years (1964-1994), Kirk remained deeply immersed in the Roman Catholic tradition. Kirk firmly believed in his faith intellectually, and few men (or women; especially regarding his wife Annette) would ever reach similar heights of charity. The Kirks not only housed the homeless and the unwanted (sometimes as many as 30 refugees from Cambodia and Ethiopia at a time), but they gave away substantial sums of their income to the poor and needy. Rarely, in my life, have I encountered souls as charitable as the Kirks. This was where Kirk’s winding path to Christ ultimately led him.

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Dr. Bradley J. Birzer holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College as well as the Director of the American Studies Program, and Associate Professor of History. Dr. Birzer teaches courses on the Civil War, the American West, and twentieth century Christian humanism. He is the author of several books, including, "American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll" and "J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth". Mr. Birzer is also the co-founder of the online publication, The Imaginative Conservative.