Note: Earlier this spring I received a pdf pre-release copy of Andrew Himes’s book The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family. The book’s official release date is May 16th, and my review follows:
Andrew Himes was born into an extraordinary family. He is the grandson of John R. Rice, a giant in the world of fundamentalist Christianity. Rice was a successful crusade evangelist, church planter, and the founder of a newspaper, called The Sword of the Lord. He served as a mentor to both Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell and helped found the National Association of Evangelicals. As Rice’s oldest grandson, Himes grew up in the heart of fundamentalism, planning to be a preacher like his father and grandfather before him. By the time he graduated from high school, however, he’d thoroughly rejected his upbringing and embraced Marxism (another fundamentalism he’s since left behind). In The Sword of the Lord Himes works back through his family’s history to seek out the forces that shaped fundamentalism, but never loses sight of the human beings at the center of the movement.
Let me say that as history, The Sword of the Lord is fascinating. As I mentioned in this post, Himes ties together American history, religious history and family history in ways that would be true for many of us, except that we rarely recognize the connections. I was particularly interested in Himes’s treatment of the Civil War. The myth of the Lost Cause created a people ready to embrace a militant, if often marginalized, theology. It is the Rice family history that Himes tracks, along with the history of the U.S., until it takes the reader to John R. Rice and his lengthy, influential ministry. Himes does not gloss over the destructive elements of fundamentalism, yet he testifies to his grandfather’s sincerity of belief and passionate desire to win souls. Rice was a true believer.
Of course, true believers can be the most dangerous kind, can’t they? There are places in The Sword of the Lord where it was difficult for me to not see Rice as the enemy of what I believe is the gospel. This was particularly true in the chapters dealing with his reactions to the Civil Rights movement. Like most early fundamentalists, Rice was a son of the South, raised in a wholly segregated and white-dominated society. Still, he considered himself an “intelligent and kindly” moderate on the the issue of race. To read his comments on the Emmett Till case is a stark reminder of what passed as “moderate” in the South in 1955.
…That colored boy, who attempted to embrace and to make a date with and to seduce the young married white woman, was spurred on by widespread feelings, a cocky attitude agitators have cultivated among colored people. Remember, it was down in the delta country in Mississippi, where a white woman dare not walk the streets alone at night or go anywhere alone at night because of the animosity and the standards of the large Negro population. On the part of colored people, all this agitation makes for bad incidents. It makes for cases of murder and rape. It makes for some rare cases of vengeance and cases in which offended white men, even good men, take the law in their own hands.
Given what we know about the Emmett Till case, it’s hard to read that passage with much sympathy for Rice’s perspective. But Himes isn’t really seeking sympathy for his grandfather. His own pain at the history of racism in his family seeps through these passages, but it’s also not the sum total of his grandfather’s legacy.
Over the course of the 20th century fundamentalism came to be less about a set of core beliefs than about separatism from other Christians. As Himes’ writes:
a spirit of discord, disdain, and disapproval that fundamentalists had incubated against liberals and modernists, in the end…boomeranged to poison the relationships among fundamentalist allies.
This is particularly evident in the passages on the break between Rice and his young protege, Billy Graham, and later between Rice and Bob Jones, Jr. Most poignant is the account of Rice’s last public sermon in which his encouragement to “love everybody Jesus loves” (including Billy Graham and Pope John XXIII) is seen as evidence that he had grown “weak in both his mind and his separatism”.
Those lines delivered by the elderly Rice remind me of the legendary accounts of St. John in his old age, visiting the church in Ephesus. No longer able to walk, John was carried through the crowd and delivered just one enduring exhortation: “Little children, love one another.” I’m heartened to think that at the end of his life’ John R. Rice was captivated by the love that is the center of the gospel. I’m also challenged by what the exhortation to “love everybody Jesus loves” would mean in my own life, when applied to fundamentalists. I have a dark fascination with fundamentalist Christianity; it’s what keeps me reading fundamentalist blogs even when they drive me crazy, and it’s what drew me to this book. One of the gifts of Sword of the Lord is that it humanizes those in the church that I view as “the other” and am tempted to separate from myself. The honest account that Himes give of his own spiritual and emotional journey is helpful, as he seeks to love his family even while telling the truth about his own convictions. That’s the difficult and necessary work for all of us in the church.