Book Review: The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in American History
Andrew Himes was born into one of the leading fundamentalist families of the 20th century. Himes’ grandfather was John R. Rice, dean of American fundamentalists for decades until his death in 1980, and mentor to many younger Baptist preachers including Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, as well as founding editor of The Sword of the Lord newspaper.
At the time I first read The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in American History, it was a much needed breath of fresh air.
The primary reason I found the book so refreshing was that my own experience in fundamentalism had left me gasping for that pure gospel air that you only seem to find in the high mountains of early Christianity, not in the dense smog of issue-oriented, denominational agendas.
Himes’ approach to the fundamentalist subject matter pumped fresh air into every page, drawing me to keep turning them until I suddenly reached the end of the book.
The keen insight of the movement from his insider’s perspective, served-up with humility, and absent of even a hint of rancor for fundamentalism was, without a doubt, the most compelling attribute of the work.
His treatment of fundamentalism, his family, and the issues surrounding both were offered with dignity and forensic clarity.
Further, his presentation of historical events, as much as I was able to ascertain, were accurate and easy to follow, making this book a resource worthy of consideration for any serious student of the history of Christianity in America.
I was helped by several things to which I was personally naïve before reading Himes’ treatise. The most enlightening and instructive element was the way the book chronicled the birth and development of early fundamentalism.
The movement’s emergence from Scots-Irish Calvinists bent on racial bigotry thrust them into a war for the purpose of defending their lifestyle. Eventually, armed with that same militant spirit, the modernist-fundamentalist debate would drive the fundamentalists into the main-stream.
My own Rice ancestors were Calvinists and Presbyterians…Their successful life in Missouri was destroyed by the Civil War… Like their neighbors, they built large-scale hemp plantations farmed by numerous Negro slaves…The traumatic experience of the Civil War and its aftermath in the 19th century was the incubator of Christian fundamentalism in 20th century America… The white population of Texas from before the war, then, was never truly beaten, never truly surrendered, and was never brought violently to terms with the new realities… And it was Texas that turned out to be especially congenial to the development of Christian fundamentalism in America.
That culture framed the stage on which the contemporary fundamentalist movement dances even today.
Himes illustrates remarkably well a separatist movement, by its very nature, and as well-intentioned as it may be, will eventually separate things that should remain unified.
While, throughout the book Himes remains extremely careful and gracious toward his fundamentalist family, particularly toward his grandfather, John R. Rice, and grandmother, Lloys Cooke Rice, he makes very certain to show us how Rice’s break with Billy Graham “boomeranged.”
At one of his final preaching engagements, Curtis Hutson refused to acknowledge Rice’s plea for unity among the brethren. Himes’ account proves beneficial here:
Rice had planned at the end of his sermon to ask his audience to join in singing “The Family of God,” a song well loved by many evangelicals… He’d had some cards printed up with the words of the song, and a pledge he wanted all those present to sign, promising to love everyone Jesus had loved… Unfortunately, the meeting was under the control of Curtis Hutson, the man Rice had chosen to succeed him as editor ofThe Sword of the Lord. Hutson was more extreme and “separatist” in his beliefs than Rice, and he was afraid some of the fundamentalists present would conclude that John R. Rice had gotten weak in both his mind and his separatism. Hutson collected the cards and forbade anyone to pass them out.
Later, Rice sat in his wheelchair with three of his daughters and wept with disappointment and sadness. He felt that his last public effort to leave a legacy of compassion to guide the movement he had helped to create had been defeated by Hutson’s refusal. A spirit of discord, disdain, and disapproval that fundamentalists had incubated against liberals and modernists, in the end, and particularly on that day, boomeranged to poison the relationships among fundamentalist allies.
Although, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I was a bit uncertain where Mr. Himes ended up making his homestead in the vast Christian landscape. This was the one area that, to me, seemed unnecessarily weak since the objective of the book seemed to indicate a new view of fundamentalism was needed.
Mr. Himes could have provided more clarity as to what he thought the reader’s conclusion should be. That being said, the one chord of clarity that did resonate what a possible clue might be was this statement:
Following Jesus evidently requires much more than orthodoxy or platitudes about love. It requires orthopraxy: placing Christ’s incarnation of love and justice at the center of your life and Christian practice.
If by this he means that the gospel of Jesus Christ should compel a person to love and show justice as a practice of life, as an outpouring of gospel transformation, I sense it is much closer to the kingdom of God than historic American fundamentalism. If not, perhaps he’s still camped in the suburbs.
Everything said, I highly recommend Andrew Himes book, The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in American History. It’s available right now at Amazon for just $0.99 on Kindle.
I trust it will be a tool in the hands of those who desire to make serious inquiry into the truth of the history of fundamentalism.
About Scott Postma
Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He shares valuable tips on writing and teaching, rich insights into theology and literature, and meaningful perspective on living a life of significance. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.