The Sword of the Lord publication was founded by John R. Rice and has been around for over 80 years. John R. Rice has been a staple name among fundamentalists as a result of his evangelistic preaching and proliferation of books and other various publications. Rice has a long family history stretching all the way back to before the Civil War. Rice moved among the great evangelists and fundamentalists of his day including Bob Jones Sr., William Bell Riley, Stephen Paine and J. Frank Norris.
Most, if not all, of the Rice family members followed the family tradition of ministry save one – Andrew Himes. Andrew is the self proclaimed black sheep of the Rice family. Though he grew up with his grandfather John R. Rice and the other Rice family members, Andrew left the family fold when he went to college in an effort to find what he felt he had never found in the God of his family.
Since the funeral of John r. Rice in 1980, Andrew has been on a thirty year journey “back” to God. In an effort to understand his family heritage better Himes began to dig deep. The result is his new book The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family. His digging took him all the way back to before the Civil War with the migration of the Scots-Irish immigrants during the early half of the 18th century. Himes felt that in order to better understand the fundamentalist roots of his family he had to go all the way back to the beginning. He states:
My intention is to explore the roots of Fundamentalism in America in a critical, thoughtful, and honest way, using the history of my own family of Baptist fundamentalists as a rich source of insight (p. v).
In the second part of the book Himes painstakingly documents minute details about the early American history of the Rice family. Throughout the book Himes beautifully weaves his own history in the Rice family with that of the entire Rice family. Reaching all the way back to the transition from the 16th to 17th century, Himes gives a short history of how the Rice family wove their way through some of the most major historical movements in American history and how they played a role in some of the most influential events that shaped the American religious, social and political landscape.
Historically, Himes points out that the Rice family came from what might have otherwise been thought of as an unlikely mix. He states:
The children of the English Puritans and the children of the Scots-Irish Presbyterians in the south found common ground in the struggle to create a new democratic republic and oppose a monarchy that was working at cross-purposes to the evident will of God. The roots of the 20th century American fundamentalism can be discerned in the confluence of these two streams of immigration, culture, and history. A unique American expression of evangelical Christianity emerged – profoundly democratic, anti-royalist and anti-clerical, militant and missional, convinced that Gods was on the side of Americans (p. 29).
Of particular interest to readers, especially contemporary self-identified Fundamentalist, is the deep seeded involvement of the Rice family (and pre-fundamentalists for that matter) in the slave trade of the 1700′s. The Rice family moved from anti-slavery Tennessee to Missouri in order to live out their pro-slavery mindset and theology (p. 37). Eventually by the late 1800′s it seems the Rice’s removed themselves from the slave trade only because of the results of the Civil War (p. 78). However, while the Rice family may have been out of the slave trade, the racism that supported it would follow them for years to come.
Part three of the book deals with the pre-history of the Fundamentalism and role the Rice family played in shaping it. Himes traces a number of theological factors that he feels played a role in founding and moving early Fundamentalism forward amidst the rise of modernism.
First, premilliennialism was the eschatological view that shaped the way fundamentalist Christians engaged within the cultural evils of their day. Himes labors to show how historically new premillennial eschatology was compared to more historically received views like amillennialism. Himes fells that this kind of eschatology necessarily downplays the involvement of Christians in and concern for societal and cultural reform. He states,
Darby’s followers assumed that any attempt to reform society according to Christian principles was both fruitless and heretical. They believed the Kingdom of Heaven to be a literal place where God reigned on a literal golden throne and where Christians went to live for eternity after death (p. 106).
Therefore, according to Himes, this new eschatological view turned Christians away from seeking to bring cultural renewal through the gospel to focusing primarily on the fate of one’s soul. Himes attempts to note what he might call a fair distinction among premillennialists in this regard:
For many premillennialists, God was both an angry God and a God of love, a God intolerant of sin and eager to forgive. They believed Christians should be concerned both with social reform on earth and the fate of one’s soul in the afterlife. For the most extreme premillennialists, however, no other problem on earth truly mattered compared to saving souls from a literal and eternal hell – not poverty, injustice, hunger, inequality, ignorance, disease, slavery or war (p. 108).
Another notable foundational shaping factor to early fundamentalism was the rise of modernism and theological liberalism. While the fruit of the 16th and 17th century scientific revolution had produced great economic, social and cultural progress, it also had effects on Christianity and the interpretation of the Bible. Himes feels that the higher critical method of interpretation was actually a “broadening” of Biblical understanding (p. 115). This higher critical method influenced many Christians who were “more willing to accept new ideas that had emerged” from it and “tended to be more politically progressive, more attuned to the ‘social gospel,’ and more intent on the message of social justice they discern in the teaching and life of Jesus (p. 117).”
Perhaps the event that had the most notable negative impact on Christianity at this time was the Scopes Money Trial of 1925. The unfortunate results of this trial had a devastating blow on conservative Christianity. Himes notes:
Over the next several years many in the fundamentalist movement in America embarked on a sorrowful and indignant, half-century-long retreat from public life. Within a few years after the death of William Jennings Bryan, the view among fundamentalists had become more consolidated (173).
Part four addresses the beginning of Fundamentalism. With all of the blows conservative Christianity was dealt, it is from this that Fundamentalism as a movement emerged. It is within Fundamentalism that the Rice family is most remembered. It is on the heels of the Scopes Monkey Trial that “John R. Rice began his full-time career as a revival evangelist in 1926 (p. 174).” It was from his first church in Dallas, Texas that Rice rose to fame and eight years later, in 1934, founded The Sword of the Lord publication. While Rice was close friends with J. Frank Norris, noted famous fundamentalist preacher of the Southern states, it was the success Rice received from his new publication that eventually drove them to part ways (p. 194).
Interestingly enough, in the early days of Rice and The Sword of the Lord publication, Rice was close friends and ministry partners with Billy Graham. Rice and Graham met each other in 1940 at Wheaton and Rice became Graham’s mentor (p. 202). Though these two men enjoyed great success together, they eventually were driven apart as Graham would later join forces with what was known as the ‘new evangelicals’ and men like Carl F. Henry and Harold Ockenga through Graham’s new publication Christianity Today (p. 229-30). Despite much pleading with Rice, Graham was unable to convince him to remain ministry partners. That Graham was a public figure, his separation from Rice dealt a devastating blow to Fundamentalism and Rice’s famous publication, The Sword of the Lord. The fall out resulted in the subscription of The Sword to plunge from 106,000 to 66,000 (p. 230). “Fundamentalists themselves were back in the wilderness (p. 230).”
Over time though, The Sword was able to regain their support and by 1970 they had over 130,000 subscribers (p. 257) and would later reach over 300,00 (p. 259). Rice was back in business. Despite fall out with Bob Jones Sr. (p. 260), Rice was able to make alliances with Jerry Falwell and became a shaping force behind the founding of the Moral Majority (p. 266).
At the end of Rice’s career he seemed to be torn over the mass separation that Fundamentalism had produced. During his last message in 1980, Rice preached from John 10:16 in which he reminded The Sword of the Lord conference listeners that Jesus had other sheep from other folds. Rice said,
The truth is there are a lot of other people who are God’s people and they’re my people too…..What about all those others, the people you don’t like very much? Do you love the people of God who don’t see things like you do? How about Billy Graham? I pray for him every day (p. 270).
As Himes has shown us, the Rice family has a long and deeply American history which touches some of America’s greatest political, social and religious aspects.
There are a few concluding thoughts I have on the book and Himes presentation of his family and Fundamentalism.
First, while some of the facts that Himes presents may not sit well with some ardent Fundamentalist supporters, they are true. They did own slaves and were supporters of segregation. No one is free of things they or their family has done and neither is Fundamentalism or the Rice family. Himes tries to bring both the bad and the good to light as it pertains to his family.
Second, while Rice does attempt to offer a balanced view of his family history, there is clearly a race agenda for Himes. In fact, the race issue appears in almost every chapter in the book. I assume that it would have been almost impossible for Himes not to do this because he was/is a strong defender of racial equality which began when he was 14 and has been a driving issue in his life (p. 40-41; 155-56). Himes fight for racial equality is definitely good but his families opposing view on it dominates his account of their history (p. 35-68; 156-62).
Third, while at times I was literally laughing at the descriptions of Fundamentalism as Himes experienced it (p. 8-15 – especially since much of it was true in my experience), at other times I was in total disagreement and even shocked at the inaccuracies. This inaccuracy is most clearly seen in the chapters called “Billy Sunday and the Premillennials” and “The Fundamentals“. In these two chapters Himes gives his summary of the modernist and conservative view of theology especially as it pertains to the doctrine of Scripture. Himes says,
The final list of canonical books was still being sharply disputed in the 16th century during the Reformation, and to this day Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox theologians disagree about the list. Most of the manuscripts that formed the basis of the Bible we have today date from the Middle Ages, and almost none of these were fully identical (p. 115).
That the books of the canon were still being “sharply disputed” during the Reformation is grossly exaggerated if not totally false. Sure, Luther thought the book of James was not inspired and other fringe groups/people disputed the authenticity of other books of the Bible. But the majority of the church recognized the 66 books of the Bible as inspired and authentic by the end of the 4th century as any Orthodox Church historian will attest to. There are other places within the pages of “The Fundamentals” that characteristics of both conservatives and liberals are inaccurately mixed and confused. In light of how well much of the research is done for most of the book this part is severely lacking. However, the way some things are worded causes me to think Himes has sympathies for modernists and liberals. Presenting facts is one thing, but how you present them can show your hand which I think is what Himes does.
Fourth, akin to Himes emphasis on the race issue, Himes greatly emphasizes the social involvement and non-involvement of the Rice family and Fundamentalism. Again, this coincides with Himes personal life journey of seeking to bring social reform where needed. Social reform is good but readers need to pay attention to Himes own life as a backdrop to how some of the Rice family history is presented.
Overall I enjoyed the book and learned a number of things about the Rice family, The Sword and Fundamentalism that I never knew. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of their Fundamentalist roots from one who both lived on the inside of the story but clearly writes as one on the outside looking in. This is not a primer on Fundamentalist history but rather a unique view on a unique family and movement from a genuinely unique person.
Thank you Andrew Himes for opening us to a part of Fundamentalist and American history that is perhaps sadly unknown to many within the movement and yet needs to be remembered and learned from.
NOTE: This book was provided for free and I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.