One of the new shapes our life is taking as Dave prepares to start grad school in a few weeks in an increase in reading and writing in these parts. I wanted to share a review Dave wrote of a book that may be of interest to those of you who have come from a religious background. As we live today in a world more polarized than ever by religious fundamentalism of all stripes, it becomes increasingly important to sort out fact from fiction and what the true history of religious extremeism is. To that end, I bring you this short review by Dave; enjoy!
The Sword of the Lord:
The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family
by Andrew Himes
Review by Dave
In naming his book after the fundamentalist weekly that his grandfather published in the mid-twentieth century, Andrew Himes is asking a question. What would it take to get someone to title his life’s work “The Sword of the Lord?” The answer is long and complicated.
The Sword of the Lord is partly memoir, partly a history of the development of southern fundamentalist culture, and partly a biography of John R. Rice. Himes set himself a daunting task in bringing all of these threads together in almost every chapter. Each chapter begins with a vignette from Himes’ life, following his journey away from his fundamentalist family and culture into an empty Maoism he identifies as another fundamentalism, and eventually back to a more peaceable spirituality that seems to be Christian, though a very different Christianity than the one he grew up with.
In the first half of the book, the chapters then connect to some aspect of the development of American Christian fundamentalism and his family’s journey within it. He starts with the evolution of Scots-Irish cultural ethos in England, Scotland and Ireland, explaining the movement toward a militant protestantism forged in the heat of political and religious marginalization there. He follows the Scots-Irish migration to the US, noting how they brought their religious fervor with them, and outlines the emergence of a religion who’s primary task was the defense of certain cultural myths and values that were under attack.
Southern Christianity and the Rice family itself was deeply impacted by the Civil War and the notion that fundamentalism could preserve the values and way of life that the military war and then the culture war threatened. Himes follows his family‘s journey from poor, abolitionist, Appalachian subsistence farmers, to wealthy, slaveholding, hemp plantation owners in Missouri. The family’s way of life was then totally destroyed by the war between the states.
The narrative moves to post-Civil War north Texas explaining it’s role as a bastion of ante-bellum culture that provided the seedbed for what became American fundamentalism. It was this preservationist myth that laid the foundation for the puritanical separatism that marked fundamentalism throughout the twentieth century. The badge of fundamentalist credibility became the degree to which you disassociated oneself from the liberals who were attacking the bible and good old fashioned “American” morals.
It was out of this context that John R. Rice started his ministry, which is explored in depth in the second half of the book. Himes follows his grandfather’s fascination with the revivalist preachers of the early 20th century and how he embarked on his own revivalist path. But his career really took shape when he focused on “The Sword of the Lord” which peaked in the fifties with a readership of over 300,000. Rice had a hand in starting the careers of Billy Graham (with whom he eventually had a very public separation) and, later, Jerry Falwell. But by the end of the seventies, his influence had waned.
Himes’ portrayal of his grandfather is fascinating in that his tone is neither dismissive nor caustic, yet, mostly through the use of direct quotes from Rice’s vast array of publications, contains an obvious critique of the fundamentalist mindset and project, particularly it’s racism toward black Americans and its defense of segregation. Intriguingly, Himes also argues that, despite his general promulgation of a judgmental, perhaps even violent faith, Rice had another movement in his life that bent toward grace and tolerance. The final scene of Rice’s ministry is a sad one in which he preaches his his last sermon to the Sword of the Lord crowd. He is old and sick. He preaches a message about being less militant in their unwillingness to work with other kinds of Christians. Rice’s successor at the ministry confiscates the notes Rice had intended to hand out so no one can have a record of it.
Himes’ book is a success. The story holds together in the end. There were times, however, when it was very difficult to read. There are whole segments that could have been shortened, there are annoying repetitive phrases and oversimplifications. To the extent that it is a history, there should have been more source referencing. As someone who loves good story telling, the book’s main weakness comes as a result of its self-publication. If Himes had had a good editor to challenge some decisions and tighten things up over-all, the book’s form could have been brought up to the level of its content.
Nevertheless, I was riveted to the pages of this book. As a reader who grew up in evangelicalism, learning more of its fundamentalist roots and seeing how and where the fundamentalist impulse still lives on within it and where it has moved beyond it was absolutely engrossing. I recommend it to anyone interested in the development of American culture, religious or not.