One of the books I’ve most anticipated reading this fall has been The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family (Chiara Press, 2011). The author, Andrew Himes, is a grandson of the famous fundamentalist evangelist and publisher John R. Rice. I recently had a chance to finally read the book, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Sword of the Lord is part personal memoir, part family history, and part cultural history. It’s a truly interesting book.
My own interest in American fundamentalism dates back about a decade, to my latter years of college. As I began reading widely in the field of American religious history, I found that my favorite topic was twentieth-century fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Fast forward to 2004–2005, when I had the opportunity to index the John R. Rice Papers while serving as an archival assistant in the library at Southeastern Seminary. My longstanding interest in fundamentalism, along with unfettered access to the Rice Papers and many other valuable archival collections related to fundamentalism, ultimately gave rise to a doctoral dissertation titled “The Development of Baptist Fundamentalism in the South, 1940–1980” (SEBTS, 2007). Rice is one of the key figures in that dissertation.
All that to say, while I’m not a self-confessed fundamentalist, I have a critical appreciation of fundamentalism in general and John R. Rice in particular. That’s why I was delighted to learn that Himes had written this book. I just wish it would have been available five or six years ago!
To make a long story short, Andrew Himes was the black sheep of the Rice family—a would-be preacher boy turned atheist and radical social activist. Himes rejected the Christianity of his grandfather (and the rest of his extended family), though over time he has apparently softened somewhat to the religion of his childhood. Though he appears to be more of a mainline Protestant or progressive evangelical at this point (he keeps his cards close to the chest on this one), Himes has a great appreciation for his grandfather, though he’s less sanguine about fundamentalism itself.
Historians of American Christianity will find few new insights about fundamentalism itself. Himes draws upon the insights of the standard authors in the field (especially George Marsden), adding his own mostly impressionistic interpretations to the mix. At times, Himes seems to virtually equate fundamentalism with orthodox Protestantism, an interpretation far more common among self-confessed fundamentalists and left-wing journalists than mainstream historians. He also seems to at least suggest a close connection between fundamentalism and the early Religious Right, which is far too simplistic an interpretation. While many “moderate” fundamentalists such as Rice and Jerry Falwell were identified with the agenda of the so-called New Religious Right, this was hardly the case with the more “hard-line” fundamentalists associated with Bob Jones University and similar institutions.
Having noted the tendency toward oversimplification, The Sword of the Lord is a riveting read and helpful contribution to the literature related to John R. Rice. As one who has combed through Rice’s personal correspondence, read countless editorials and books the evangelist authored, digested several dissertations and theses, and forced myself through a couple of hagiographical biographies of the famed fundamentalist, I can attest that there are anecdotes about Rice and his family in this book that aren’t available in other sources. For readers interested in Rice in particular, this book is a helpful complement to the uncritical biographies of Robert Sumner and Viola Walden and the helpful dissertations by Farley Butler, Herman Moore, and Keith Bates.
(I appreciate Chiara Press providing me a review copy of The Sword of the Lord.)