Required Reading: Growing Up Un-Absurd with The Sword of the Lord

How can we get along with fundamentalists if we don’t embrace fundamentalism?  More specifically, how can we tolerate religious people who will not tolerate others?

Many voluble ex-fundamentalists out there (see a few examples here and here) wrestle with this question.  Some are angry, some bemused, some both.

Andrew Himes’ Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family (Seattle: Chiara Press, 2011),  offers a unique vision into the world of both fundamentalism and ex-fundamentalism.

Himes is the grandson of John R. Rice.  He was born in 1950 into one of the leading families of post-World War II fundamentalism.  The Reverend Rice led the branch of separatist, revival-based conservative Protestant evangelicalism, the branch that clung resolutely to the label ‘fundamentalist.’  In this sense, Himes’ meaning of ‘fundamentalism’ differs from the broader, cultural traditionalist definition we use at ILYBYGTH.

Himes broke bitterly with his family tradition in high school, but over the years, he came to embrace a more complicated relationship with his family’s vision of fundamentalism.  As Himes puts it, his grandfather remained “one of the kindest, funniest, and most honorable people I knew.”  But Rice also embraced “downright silly” notions of cultural separatism—no card playing, no movies, no short hair for women.  Even worse, Himes argues, his grandfather supported racial injustice in America and imperialist injustices in Southeast Asia. (5) The central dilemma for Himes is the same as it is for ILYBYGTH: How can we love someone whose ideas and policies seem so radically different from our own?

In his attempt to understand fundamentalism and his family, Himes tells the long story of evangelicalism in American history.  Indeed, those familiar with American religious history can safely skip the second and third parts of Himes’ tale.  Himes writes with an engaging style, weaving his own experiences into this long history.  However, his reliance on secondary sources leads him to make a few minor errors.  For instance, he repeats the story that John Scopes of the 1925 “monkey” trial had been teaching evolution for years, (179) when in fact Scopes had a very tenuous record of classroom teaching at all.  Also, Himes overstates the novelty of the Scopes trial in 1925. (180)  By that time, the notion of a media-grabbing “Trial of the Century” had been pioneered by the experiences of dramatic stories like Leopold and Loeb.  These are minor missteps in a tale that sweeps centuries of American history.  However, Himes’ book is also marred somewhat by a number of distracting typos and unclear footnotes.

These quibbles aside, Sword of the Lord is a great introduction to the world of separatist “Big-F” fundamentalism in the later twentieth century.  ILYBYGTH readers will likely appreciate several contributions of Himes’ work.

First of all, the intimate world of John R. Rice offers an eye-opening perspective into life in fundamentalist America.  To cite just one example, Himes tells the story of his childhood spent with colorful evangelists such as C.B. “Red” Smith and Apostle the Premillennial Horse.  This passage is so revealing I’ll quote it at length:

The summer after I turned 12 [c. 1962], C. B. “Red” Smith came to the Bill Rice Ranch and brought along Apostle the Premillennialist Horse.  On the first night of the camp meeting in the open-air tabernacle at the Ranch, Brother Smith himself stepped up to the pulpit and led the singing for the first gospel song.  He was a tall man with curly brown hair, a pink, whiskerless face, and laugh wrinkles around his eyes.  He tilted back his head on the high notes and pointed his chin down at the floor on the low notes, and held back nothing.

            “When we ALLLL get to heaven,” sang Brother Smith, “what a DAY of rejoicing that will BE!  When we ALLLLL see Jesus, we’ll SING and SHOUT the victorEEEEE!”. . .

            “We’ve got a guest speaker in the house tonight,” said Brother Smith with a big grin that showed off a gold-capped tooth.  “He’s a good friend of mine, and he’s come all the way from Jonesboro, Arkansas.” . . .

“Please allow me to introduce Apostle the Premillennialist Horse,” said Brother Smith with a twinkle in his eye.  “Apostle, say hello to all the folks out here.” . . .

            “All right now, Apostle,” said Brother Smith, “what’s our chapter and verse for tonight?”

            Apostle tossed his head, then picked up his right forefoot and stomped deliberately, four times in a row. . . . Apostle shook his head, cocked his ears as if considering, then began stomping his foot again, with Brother Smith counting right along with him: “One, two, three . . . fourteen, fifteen sixteen! Amen!  So that’s Thessalonians chapter four, verse sixteen, is it Apostle?” . . .

            My great-uncle Bill Rice stepped up to the pulpit, waved to the woman seated at the piano, and launched into a spirited rendition of an old revival favorite: “Give me that old-time religion, give me that old-time religion, give me that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me!”

In addition to this kind of illuminating vignette of life growing up in a fundamentalist family, Himes also illustrates the difficulties of changing cultural identities.  For Himes, rejecting fundamentalism meant more than an intellectual decision.  It was more than a theological awakening.  He remembers spending teenaged hours “staring at the animals in the Racine [Wisconsin] Zoo behind rusting iron bars in their drab concrete cages.  I woke in the early morning hours crying piteously, half-remembering the fragments of a dream in which lost souls were dying and God was among the missing.”  (141)

In his youth, Himes swung to the opposite cultural pole, embracing Maoism and leftist radicalism.  In the end, he concluded that he had only “traded in one form of fundamentalism for another, equally rigid, dogmatic, and wrongheaded.” (294)  As a teenager, though, Himes’ transformation pushed him into a “deep pit of self-righteousness and suicidal despair.” (266)

Finally, Himes’ book offers a sympathetic yet critical biography of Himes’ grandfather John R. Rice.  Himes implies that Rice’s doctrinal rigidity may have been a result of his hardscrabble origins.  After all, a childhood spent motherless, left alone to tend for stock animals every year at Christmas, might have led to what Himes calls Rice’s childhood “fear of death and hell—an unsaved boy confronting the terrors of solitude and unknown dangers in a little house under the arc of the great Texas skies.” (105)  That kind of analysis may make sense in Rice’s case, but it doesn’t help us understand the strength and durability of separatist fundamentalism in America.  After all, many ardent fundamentalists had no such childhood, yet they embrace a strict doctrinal orthodoxy.

Childhood trauma aside, Himes offers a fascinating glimpse into his grandfather’s intellectual world.  For instance, Rice was a relative moderate on issues such as race.  In Rice’s time and place, that meant an eventual disavowal of the vigilantism of the Ku Klux Klan.  It meant an insistence that God created all people equally.  But it did not include an embrace of social equality or of the Civil Rights Movement.  As Himes describes, Rice condemned the grisly murder of Emmett Till as a result of interfering activist African Americans. (258)

Rice was also a firm cultural traditionalist, insisting consistently on traditional family life, aggressive anti-communist foreign policies, and anti-abortion activism.  Finally, Himes chronicles the many splits and dissensions among conservative evangelical Protestants.  Rice eventually broke with Billy Graham over Graham’s ecumenism.  Later, Bob Jones Jr. broke with Rice for Rice’s willingness to be yoked with non-fundamentalists.

Those hoping to get the flavor of life in this fundamentalist subculture would do well to read Himes’ book.  By the time of his writing, Himes had overcome much of his bitterness against his grandfather’s faith.  Himes succeeds in his effort to paint a loving portrait without endorsing his grandfather’s ideas.

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  1. Required Reading: Growing Up Un-Absurd with The Sword of the Lord « I Love You but You’re Going to Hell » Jason Coleman

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