I first heard of Dr. A. Kenneth (Ken) Curtis back in the late 1980s, when I was still a fresh-faced, young adult convert within the charismatic movement. That was when I discovered the wonderful magazine Christian History, which Ken had started publishing in 1982 with assistance from the talented Dr. Mark Fackler, then a professor in Wheaton College’s graduate program in communications. Christian History showed me the true depth of our spiritual heritage as Christians—water in the parched land of evangelicalism’s historical amnesia. By the late 80s I had CH in one hand and graduate school catalogues in the other, and by the mid 90s the love for church history that I first discovered in Ken’s magazine took me first to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and then to Duke University to study in that field.
Despite the tremendous early success of Christian History, Ken’s primary business had never been magazine publishing. Born and brought up in New England, Ken experienced a Christian conversion in high school that led him into youth evangelism and preparation for the ministry. Trained in ministry and mass media at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Boston University Graduate School, Ken served as a minister to students at a large Boston church and worked in radio and TV in that city.
Eventually, Ken’s twin enthusiasms for film and faith led him to pull together a partnership that created the film The Cross and the Switchblade, the story of evangelical inner-city minister David Wilkerson. The film was a success, but it drove the partnership into bankruptcy, and Ken started Gateway Films to carry on distribution of the film. When the financial storm passed, Gateway tried out various sorts of films in the Christian market (all, in those days, in 16 mm), none of them terribly successful. Then the company put out a film on the martyred proto-Reformer Jan Hus. Ken relates being “surprised and appalled” to discover how little people in evangelical Protestant churches knew about the faith’s historical heritage.
Gateway had found its niche, and the company went on to co-produce the award-winning Shadowlands—the story of C. S. Lewis’s late-life love affair with Helen Joy Davidman—and many other quality films. (Ken’s films have garnered more than 30 awards, including an international Emmy.) In 1981, during the explosive early years of the video industry, Ken founded a distribution company called Vision Video to make edifying spiritually themed videos widely available. The company now carries over 2,000 titles.
In 1989, when Christian History had grown to such proportions that it was becoming unwieldy for his small, Pennsylvania-based staff, Ken decided to sell it to a company specializing in Christian magazine publishing: Christianity Today International. When in 2002 I learned that the managing editor position at Christian History had opened up—and then when I was chosen to fill it—I was as excited as I have ever been. So many places I’ve travelled, I have met people who have been profoundly impacted by this magazine. I remember visiting a Mennonite archives in Lancaster County while we were working on our “Anabaptists in America” issue. There Christian History was prominently displayed, and an aging and bonneted archivist shared warmly about her love for it.
During my time as editor, I got to meet Ken and his son Bill and tour the red barn 30 miles outside of Philadelphia where Christian History was born. He struck me as a person of tremendous energy and vision with a pastor’s heart. I told him how, because he had followed his vision where it led him, starting the magazine in 1982 as an add-on to a video about the Moravians, he had changed my life (along with those of many other readers!).
Ken then shared with me the challenge that he was facing. In December, 2002, he had been diagnosed with lung cancer and given less than two years to live. Most doctors he spoke with believed six months was a more reasonable estimate.
In a recent interview, Ken talked frankly about what happened next:
“Soon after I was first diagnosed, I felt like I was thrust out into a vast unknown. You’ve heard the supposedly funny line for cancer patients – those who are given just a brief time: go home, get your affairs in order, don’t buy any green bananas, and it’s OK to tell the tax man, or your boss, what you really think of him. Well, soon after my diagnosis, I went to the lawyer’s office with family members to see what it meant to get my affairs in order. I felt so spaced out. I was there. I heard everything. I answered their questions. I tried so hard to look interested. But it was as if I were in another room, behind a glass wall. I was there but I wasn’t there. My world had already gone away. Or had I gone away? So much had changed beyond recognition in the way I felt—or couldn’t feel—about my life.”
What followed was grueling, but also surprising.
“I have had numerous treatments,” he said. “These have included naturalistic as well as conventional. I have had chemo and radiation. Also surgery was attempted seven years ago but was aborted when it was discovered the cancer had spread to the lymph system. Coping with the various treatments has been varied. Overall I have done remarkably well. But there is no denying the treatments exact a heavy toll on you. And it always more than you are led to expect by the doctors. I am finding that the radiation treatments that I just now finished taking have hit me far harder than those taken last year. But I have also done a lot of positive things that have helped so much including regular exercise, careful diet, juicing, building the immune system, getting ample rest, and many other useful and beneficial practices.”
In fact, though at first Ken’s energies were drained by the treatments, he soon began working on new projects, including one especially close to his heart: This was a series of film reflections on Psalm 23, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Beatitudes, for people struggling with cancer and other serious illnesses. These emerged out of devotionals he had given at Christian film conventions some years before.
“I had been originally very hesitant to talk about my cancer experience,” he said, “but by this time in 2005 it was clear to me that God had spared me, that I was living in what I called ‘bonus time.’” He made these new films out of “a sense of profound gratitude, as an offering of thanks and praise to God for his kindness to me.” Produced for a small release, the first film, “Reflections on Psalm 23 for People with Cancer,” was soon being used in English and other translated languages by people around the world facing health crises. The other two films in the series followed, and Ken heard back from many about the blessed influence his work was having on them.
As late as spring, 2010, Ken’s medical situation was mystifying his doctors. Four of them had used the term “miracle” to describe his longevity. “And doctors,” he chuckled, “are usually hesitant to use that word.” He continued to speak gratefully about the “bonus time” he was enjoying. But in December, 2010, his doctors finally recommended that he discontinue treatment and enter hospice care.
On the evening of Sunday, January 2, 2011, Ken Curtis passed on to—as is commonly said—his reward. Only I think his reward is also still on this earth, walking around, embodied in the thousands of people who have been touched by his films, his magazines, and his pastor’s heart which never stopped animating everything he did.
In 2005 I moved on from the magazine to teaching the subject at Bethel Seminary. Then in 2008, the magazine’s tens of thousands of subscribers learned that Christianity Today International, facing serious cost-cutting brought on by the recession, was ceasing publication of Christian History (by then retitled Christian History & Biography). Though the magazine continued to have a web presence, soon that too ceased.
In 2010, ownership of CH was returned to Ken’s Christian History Institute (CHI), which after the 1989 sale had continued to publish occasional books and the inspirational series of Glimpses bulletin inserts. In October, I wrote to Ken to ask whether there was some way I could help. He read God’s providence in the timing of my email (as in so many of the other events of his career) and asked me to join the team at CHI in working toward the publication of the first issue of the reborn Christian History, on the fascinating story of the King James Version of the Bible.
During the last weeks of his life, Ken’s enthusiasm to see Christian History live again poured out in a string of emails to those of us working on the project. To the end, Ken Curtis was awed by God’s many providences and honored and excited to be part of his kingdom work. I pray those who have been touched by his work will carry on his legacy in this important way: the church still needs to have its memory restored, and in Ken’s memory, no more worthy project could be undertaken.