For over 75 years, a small, independent newspaper has been the face of fundamentalism in America. John R. Rice founded The Sword of the Lord in 1934 and continued to manage the paper until his death in 1980. After Rice’s death the fundamentalist movement fragmented and the paper has lessened in influence, although it still represents an old-fashioned, fundamentalist faith.
In a new book released this week, one of John R. Rice’s grandsons, Andrew Himes, takes up his pen to tell the story of fundamentalism from an insider’s perspective. Himes grew up within a leading fundamentalist family in the hey day of American fundamentalism. His book The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family includes personal encounters with several big names widely known even outside of fundamentalism. Himes tells a story his mom related of Billy Graham moving a piano in their home when he was a sophomore at Wheaton College. On the occasion of John R. Rice’s death, Himes himself attended the funeral and ate a meal afterward with Jerry Falwell, then just embarking on his dream of establishing the Moral Majority, soon to be known as the Religious Right.
Himes traces the roots of the Rice family back to the Revolutionary War and interweaves personal accounts of his ancestors’ lives with an account of the historical background of fundamentalism. He explores the sociological elements of the Scots-Irish people and the Southern mindset during and after the Civil War. His family ended up in Texas, where the Civil War lived on as the great lost cause. Himes also details the beginnings of American evangelicalism and the influence of the 18th century revivals on fundamentalism.
The book is more intriguing when John R. Rice comes on the scene and we hear of his mentor, J. Frank Norris. When William Jennings Bryan died suddenly after the conclusion of the Scopes trial, J. Frank Norris picked up the mantle of the leadership of the fundamentalist movement. Norris’ fights with the Southern Baptist Convention eventually included his young protege, who followed Norris out of the SBC. Himes traces the career of John R. Rice from his early days of evangelistic crusades in various towns in Texas to his national prominence as a leader in fundamentalism and even a member of the National Association of Evangelicals. Rice’s early days included numerous revival crusades in small towns throughout the South. It seems he often built a tabernacle for the meetings, and a few months later would leave behind a new Fundamentalist Baptist Church (they always had the same name), unaffiliated with any convention. Rice eventually took to radio and various newspapers to help expand his reach. He moved to Wheaton soon after he broke with Norris (who seemed to grow jealous of John R. Rice’s influence). Rice then became a mentor for Billy Graham, and the tale of Rice’s painful parting with Graham is told from Rice’s vantage point. We then learn of Rice’s conflict with Bob Jones in the 1970s.
The history itself is fascinating and the book is well documented. But Himes’ personal tale remains an enigma for most of the book. Has he lost his faith completely? What is his ultimate assessment of fundamentalism now? Why is he writing this book? These and other questions will fill the mind of any reader who views fundamentalism favorably—as standing for the truths of Scripture, even if fundamentalists may have gone awry in some respects. Himes seems to misunderstand much of what fundamentalism was about, particularly when with respect to theology. In the chapter on “The Fundamentals” he says: “However, before the end of the 18th century, few Christian theologians had claimed that the Bible as a whole was without internal contradictions, or textual and factual errors.” This is just not the case, as D. A. Carson and others have demonstrated. He also errs when in the same chapter he states that the “oldest extant texts of the Old and New Testaments were Greek manuscripts dating from the fourth century.” We have numerous manuscripts that date earlier than this and we have Hebrew OT scrolls going back to 100 years before Christ.
Throughout the book, a critique is leveled at Rice himself, to an extent, and at fundamentalism in general. Himes points out the narrowness of fundamentalism, and the political aspirations the movement harbored. The issue of race, and the notoriety of the Ku Klux Klan, which early fundamentalist leaders tolerated, is his biggest critique of the movement. The race issue plays a big role in the book. Particularly poignant is the description of the Sherman Riot in north Texas, where George Hughes, a black man, was murdered by an angry mob who also destroyed most of the town’s black businesses. One year after that 1930 riot, John R. Rice came to town with his evangelistic crusade. He preached on a lot of sins but failed to bring up the bloody riot. Himes gives some explanation for why Rice failed to confront the topic of race in the chapter entitled “The Jim Crow Challenge.” First, he claims it would have been a deviation from Rice’s primary motivation of saving souls. Second, he “could not possibly offer a critique of racial oppression in the white South without destroying his own ministry and undercutting his movement’s support for The Sword of the Lord. Even if he had been opposed to racial injustice, his Texas audience was not.” Himes does share one family story where Rice was indignant that a southern establishment wouldn’t serve a black friend of his some ice cream. Rice was a product of his time, but it is a sad fact that fundamentalism as a whole turned a blind eye to the civil rights movement.
The fundamentalist inclination toward separation began to spiral out of control toward the end of Rice’s life. It got to the point where John R. Rice saw the need to stand up for a less strident fundamentalism. Himes shares the account of Rice’s last address at a Sword Conference in August of 1980. Rice’s text was John 10:16, and he spoke of the other sheep that Christ has. In the chapter “Jesus Has Other Sheep,” Himes quotes at some length from Rice’s sermon. The quote helps us see where Himes is heading with his book.
Do you love the people of God who don’t see things like you do? How about Billy Graham? I love Billy Graham. I pray for him every day…. I read recently that Pope John XXIII wrote out a wonderful meditation, and he said, “Lord, I’m that prodigal son who said he wanted to come home from the hog farm to his father.” He said, “Lord, I’m that publican in the temple who prayed, Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” And my heart went out to him and I said, “Amen!” When I get to Heaven I’m going to put my arm around him! Would you be glad to see someone saved who doesn’t agree with you?… In John chapter 13, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.” Of course, Jesus meant you and your little buddy, didn’t he? No he didn’t! He meant the rest of ‘em too. If you’re going to love like a Christian, you’ve got to love everybody Jesus loves.
The ironic twist to this sermon is that Rice had planned to end his message by having the audience sing Bill Gaither’s song, “The Family of God.” The lyrics start with, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.” Curtis Hutson, who was Rice’s successor at the Sword, made sure that didn’t happen.
At the conclusion of the book, Himes describes a meeting with his uncles and aunts where he asked them about fundamentalism. He was surprised when they didn’t claim to be fundamentalists. One of his aunts said it this way, “You know, those people who claim to be ‘fundamentalist’ nowadays wouldn’t want to be associated with us, either! They’re what Daddy (John R. Rice) would have called, ‘ultra-fundamentalists,’ arrogant and self-righteous, very sure of themselves.” Himes singles out “the lack of Christian love for others” by those claiming to be fundamentalists, as being the key reason why John R. Rice’s children eschew the fundamentalist label.
Himes doesn’t tell us exactly where he lands with respect to religion, although he keys in on love as being of primary importance. He concludes the book with what he’s learned from his “post-fundamentalist” family: “Honor truth. Love well. Live your faith.” Wise advice, for sure, but something is lacking. Fundamentalism today is a many-headed, varied movement, but the uniting factor throughout fundamentalism is a passion for the truth of Scripture. There is a simple dedication to the Bible and the gospel of Jesus Christ that is truly commendable. Evangelical Christianity today shares a common lineage with fundamentalism, and many conservative evangelicals would be described as fundamentalists by the average American. So I’m not too keen on becoming “post-fundamentalist,” if that means shirking a high view of the fundamentals of the faith. I do agree that Christian love and the expansive spirit that John R. Rice exhibited is largely missing in today’s fundamentalism. Himes is right to push us on these points. But the truth of Scripture and the gospel of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ remains an essential “fundamental” in the life of any Christian.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even if at times some of the back-story seemed to take too long to develop. The topic was of great interest to me, and the more I got into the book the more intrigued I became. There are bits and pieces of history that will be new to almost any reader, and the personal stories from the recollection of the Rice family are fascinating. For fundamentalists, this book will challenge your perspective of the history of your movement, but it won’t be a slap in the face. Himes is not out to attack fundamentalists, he is simply sharing his family’s history. His historical account educates and informs those not familiar with the history of fundamentalism, and if anything ugly is uncovered, the fault is not his. Rather than ignoring the past, we can seek to learn from it. May we all redouble our efforts to be always reforming our church practice and our personal lives into greater conformity to the truth of God’s Word.