A shadowy and largely undocumented Dutchman, Barend Klaas Kuiper was among the earliest members of the teaching faculty of Calvin College, filling the role of history professor even when it was still just a Theological School. Kuiper came from a long line of Dutch Reformed Christians, and when he came to America after earning his doctorate in the Netherlands he was associated with the Christian Reformed denomination.
The longest biography of Kuiper available is a long out of print and nearly impossible to find 17-page pamphlet biography, but some things can be pieced together from the few shreds of information that remain. He was born in 1877 in Holland, emigrating to Grand Rapids, Michigan when he was in his mid-20s. He taught at Calvin College from 1900-1918, when he quit due to allegedly low pay.
After leaving the College, he worked for Eerdmans-Sevensma publishing house for a number of years, before his sudden appointment as chair of Historical Theology at Calvin Seminary in 1926. It was short-lived. He was seen leaving a movie theater, an unforgiveable sin to the ultra-conservative Dutch community, and after a big to-do he split with the College and Seminary for good.
Always a proponent of rapid Americanization, Kuiper's love of film was founded on his desire to understand the culture and attitudes of his adopted country. It was a poor excuse in the eyes of the Synod that tried him, and he left Grand Rapids altogether. He published two magnificent volumes (a biography of Martin Luther in 1933, and The Church in History in 1951), but not much else is known of the last years of his life.
In the classroom, Kuiper was as enigmatic as in private life. He was always running off on tangents, frequently came to class late or completely unprepared, was absentminded to a fault, and preferred fielding questions from students (whether or not they were relevant) to lecturing. Those who knew him said he was a man of immense talent, and hinted he was just as talented at squandering those talents as he was adept at using them.
He died in Chicago in 1961, 84 years old and alone. One writer remembers seeing Kuiper wandering the streets alone at night, or standing on streetcorners gnawing a burned-out cigar. Another writer has suggested his life should be unearthed and made into a movie, an ironic twist for one who lost so much for visits to the Silver Screen. This writer thinks Kuiper's is simply a cautionary tale about the dangers and costs of true genius.
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