[in the interest of full disclosure, the reader should note that the author of the book I’m reviewing happens to be my uncle, Nevertheless I trust that this has turned out to be a fair and objective review]
John R. Rice (d.1980) was a highly influential fundamentalist evangelist, author, and publisher, as well as a friend and occasional partner of both Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell. He founded the Sword of the Lord publishing company while starting The Sword of the Lord newspaper which at its height had a circulation of over 100,000. His books and tracts have seen millions of copies sold and distributed worldwide. He was also my great-grandfather.
In The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family (Seattle, Wash.: Chiara, 2011), my own uncle Andrew Himes provides a highly accessible treatment of modern fundamentalism, focusing especially on his own grandfather John R. Rice and his impact on American Christianity. In the process, Himes also provides the reader with an intimate look at his own life and spiritual journey (which, among other things, includes a stint as a communist activist, quite the contrast with his fundamentalist upbringing!) as well as some more general glimpses of Christian and fundamentalist history in the US, especially in the southern states.
Overall, Himes provides a fascinating account of John R. Rice and fundamentalism. His book is not, technically, a biography, but rather history mixed with biography mixed with personal reflection. As such he provides a highly readable discussion of fundamentalist life in the United States. In general, Himes gives the reader a fair, objective treatment of the history of the movement in the 20th century, despite the highly personal nature of the work. While his focus is, of course, on John R. Rice, the book covers everything from early Texas history to Jerry Falwell to the Scopes Monkey trial. In addition, Himes calls out for Christians to set aside racial bias and focus on orthopraxy in order to truly embrace the example of Christ
The book is well-written, well-researched, and thoroughly enjoyable. Some caveats remain—I would question some of the ordering of the material while suggesting that the book could have narrowed its scope significantly. In a few places, I believe Himes is careless and even inaccurate with his statements (especially when dealing with broader Christian history and theology), and Himes levels some harsh criticisms against dispensationalism and premillennialism that are neither (in my opinion) fair nor relevant to the book as a whole. Yet these concerns should not deter the reader from the usefulness of the book both as a description of fundamentalism in the 20th century and as look into the legacy of John R. Rice and The Sword of the Lord.
The next section will offer an overview of the book, the second section will provide a critique, and the final section will give my own reflections on the legacy of John R. Rice. Those who have already read the book may wish to skip to the second section.
1. Book Summary
The author, Andrew Himes, was raised in a fundamentalist family, the son and grandson of Baptist preachers. In contrast to my own father (Andrew’s brother), who followed in the family tradition of ministry, from his teenage years Andrew left his family’s faith, became a communist, attended University of Wisconsin-Madison against his family’s wishes (even becoming the student body president), and generally became the “black sheep” of the family. In his later years he reconciled with his family while nevertheless possessing distinct views on religion, politics, etc. when compared to his brother and sisters.
His book, The Sword of the Lord, operates on 4 levels. On one level, Andrew Himes begins most of his chapters with a personal narrative detailing his own memories of John R. Rice, Rice’s ministry, or his own upbringing in a fundamentalist home. Much of the book, then, deals with personal anecdotes that shed some light on John R. Rice’s life and impact. On another level, Himes deals extensively with the general history of the Rice family, including discussions on the history of Texas, the Rice family’s participation in the civil war, etc. On a third level, Himes provides the reader with a general history of Christianity in the 20th century, including the conflicts between Fundamentalism, New Evangelicalism, Modernism, etc. Finally, Himes focuses on John R. Rice himself, his ministry, legacy, and interaction with other prominent Christians including Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham.
Himes’ book is divided into five sections. The first section serves as an introduction to the book as a whole. The first chapter details his own highly personal account of the funeral of John R. Rice (including how he was “strategically” placed next to Jerry Falwell at the post-funeral meal, perhaps as an attempt to “influence” him!) The second chapter deals with the very definition of fundamentalism, the use of the term, and the fact that the word itself has “gone out of favor” in some circles (p. 13). Here Himes argues that although fundamentalism has played a key role in modern American theology and society, the term (and the Christians it represents) is generally viewed negatively by society as a whole. Himes closes the chapter by arguing that although on the one hand “fundamentalism was a rational, and emotional, response to a dangerous world where you needed to know who was a sheep and who was a goat,” nevertheless one is forced to ask “what happens to fundamentalism when its original enemies have succumbed to the passage of time . . . .what does fundamentalism evolve into when the children of fundamentalists turn out to be more interested in following Jesus and practicing Christian love than arguing over arcane points of doctrine?” (15-16).
In the process of introducing the book and asking these questions, Himes introduces the reader to two topics that factor heavily into his own perspective on fundamentalism: politics and race. Regarding the former, Jerry Falwell and the “Moral Majority” are, of course, a major part of fundamentalism’s legacy, but Himes also discusses how politics in fundamentalism goes back much further. Regarding the latter issue, Himes himself marched in the civil rights movements of the 60s and thus is very sensitive to how fundamentalists have interacted with racial issues.
The second major section (chs. 3-8) of Himes’ book deals with “Revolution, Slavery, and War.” Himes traces the origins of both the Rice clan and Fundamentalism from the Scottish and Irish immigrants to America in the 18th century, immigrants who were at odds with the dominant Church of England of their homeland. In chapter 3, Himes discusses the impact of both the Great Awakening and the Revolutionary War on America in general, and the Rice family in particular. In chapters 4-5, Himes discusses the issue of slavery in America and its prevalence within the Rice family. Chapter 6 then details the theological ideologies that clashed in the civil war while tracking the Rice family’s involvement in that same war. Chapter 7 discusses the results of the civil war and the strong pro-southern ideology (including the influence of the Ku Klux Klan) that was to impact the Rice family. At this point, Himes also begins to concentrate on his great-great grandfather, Will Rice (the father of John R.), and his change from sinner to evangelist. Will Rice was converted in 1889 and soon attended both Baylor University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, feeling that he was called to preach. Chapter 8 is an excursus of sorts, dealing with the ideological struggle of social justice within American Christianity
Section 3 (chapters 9-18) deals with the life and ministry of John R. Rice, as well as the various conflicts between modernism, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism in the 20th century. Chapter 9 deals with the boyhood of John R. Rice, including his conversion and baptism. Chapter 10 takes a break from Rice’s life and focuses on the rise of Billy Sunday, his influence on evangelists in the 20th century, the struggle among evangelicals regarding the relationship between social reform and the Gospel, and the rise of dispensational and premillennial theology. Chapter 11 deals more with the conflict between modernism and evangelicalism, as well as the publication of The Fundamentals. Chapter 12 focuses once again on the issue of race in the south, discussing in-depth the trial of Leo Frank, the impact it had in Georgia, and the resurgence of the KKK (during this trial, Will Rice’s 2nd cousin, governor Joe Mackey Brown, was the governor of Georgia).
Chapter 14 continues to focus on the development of fundamentalism as well as evangelical perspectives on nationalism and America’s involvement in WWI. Chapters 13 and 15 focus on John Rice as he goes from Decatur Bible College to completing a degree at Baylor University to enrollment in the grad program at Southwestern Baptist Seminary and his subsequent call to evangelism as opposed to pastoring.
Chapter 16, entitled “Unfortunate Associations,” details the influence of the KKK on Texas politic and the Rice family itself. Himes discusses how Will Rice (John R.’s father) became a KKK member in 1920 at 61 years of age and was supported by them for a seat in the Texas state senate. Chapter 17 focuses on the Scopes Monkey Trial and its influence on the development of fundamentalism.
In chapter 18, one of the key chapters of the book, Himes once again focuses on the life of John R. Rice, detailing the beginnings of his successful evangelist career. Himes discusses Rice’s relationship to J. Frank Norris (early on a friendly one) and how both came to leave the Southern Baptist Convention. Himes also further investigates the role of race in the life of both Rice and Norris. Himes declares, “Will Rice’s son John would always be troubled by his father’s membership in the Klan,” and eventually, in 1943, John Rice would actually oppose the KKK in print (p. 195). Nevertheless John Rice would, to a certain degree, continue to be influenced by his family’s southern heritage as well as fundamentalism’s general aversion to social issues. Thus, “John R. Rice as an individual was thoughtful, warm-hearted, and caring . . . however, John R. Rice and his fundamentalist brethren would henceforth be missing from broad movements for social justice, against racial discrimination,” etc. (p. 198).
The fourth section of the book, chs. 19-26, focuses on John R. Rice and fundamentalism in the mid-to-late 20th century. Chapter 19 examines the beginning of Rice’s rise to prominence. In 1932 Rice preached a series of revival meetings that ultimately led to 7,000 conversions and the establishment of a church. Here, “John R. Rice displayed a dramatic, emotional, and personable pulpit style. He was an old-fashioned, pulpit-pounding, sin-condemning, story-telling, hymn-singing evangelist. In an era before television dramas and sitcom, he was the best entertainment available in Dallas” (204). 1934 saw the founding of the iconic Sword of the Lord. Himes also discusses Rice’s early alliance with Bob Jones and other prominent fundamentalists, as well as the beginnings of his split with J. Frank Norris.
Chapter 20 discusses Rice’s broader impact on evangelicalism. In 1940, Rice moved to Wheaton where his daughters began to attend Wheaton College. Rice at this point began to further develop The Sword of the Lord while continuing to see great success as an evangelist (in his Chicago revival meeting in 1946, Rice, Bob Jones, and Paul Hood “spoke to almost 10,000 people at every service, every day for five weeks—an almost unheard of length for a revival in the 1940s or any other decade” [p. 225]). While at Wheaton, Rice began something of a mentoring relationship with a young Billy Graham (Graham’s “first published sermons would appear in the pages of The Sword of the Lord after Billy graduated from Wheaton” [p. 219]) and also (somewhat ironically) became one of the earliest members of the National Association of Evangelicals (in fact, the NAE’s International Commission,” headed by Harold Ockenga, would come to include John Rice, Bob Jones, and Billy Graham ). The chapter also further details the relationship between Billy Graham and John Rice, including the rise of the issue of separatism that would eventually come to divide them.
Chapter 21 provides a fascinating contrast between how John R. Rice and Billy Graham handled the issue of race. Rice, on the one hand, was heavily influenced by his Texas and southern upbringing, yet eventually came to attack the Klan and on a personal level was outraged by any discrimination against African-Americans, at one point angrily stalking out of an ice-cream shop that refused to serve a black friend of his. Nevertheless, “all John R. Rice’s thinking about race . . . was conditioned by the priority he placed on the struggle to save lost souls from the terrors of Hell. No political or racial issue could be so important”; indeed, “no question of racial justice could be allowed to subvert or contradict the struggle to win souls for Jesus” (235). The result was that Rice basically supported the status quo. Issues of segregation and racial equality, in Rice’s opinion, threatened to take the focus away from where it should be. In contrast to Rice, Billy Graham began to take a bold stand against segregation, at one point taking down the ropes separating the races at his revival meeting (1953), while later (1957) writing in an article in Ebony magazine that revival must “wipe away racial discrimination” (236-237).
In the twenty-second chapter, Himes examines the split between fundamentalism and new-evangelicalism and the related divergence between Rice and Graham. Tensions began to mount with Carl F. H. Henry’s publication of The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism; by 1955, both Bob Jones and John R. Rice had completely withdrawn from the NAE. For a while, Rice continued to enjoy a favorable relationship with Billy Graham and supported his ministry, even in the midst of attacks on Graham by other fundamentalists. As late as May 1954, The Sword of the Lord provided a positive assessment of Billy Graham’s revival meetings in London. Yet “hidden in The Sword’s coverage was Rice’s deepest fear—that Billy Graham might trade away his fundamentalist purity for larger crowds, greater acclaim, and a more transitory impact” (243). The final blow to their partnership came in 1957, at Billy Graham’s massive New York crusade. Rice, through the Sword, declared that he could not support Graham’s crusade “because it would be held under the auspices of the Protestant Council of New York,” an organization filled with “modernists and liberals” (p. 246). The separation seems to have been mostly cordial, but it was nevertheless significant. The parting of ways of fundamentalists from the NAE created two distinct groups of conservative Christianity: “In one camp were the neo-evangelical schools and institutes such as Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, and publications such as the new Christianity Today. In the other camp were the diminished ranks of the fundamentalists, most prominently led by The Sword of the Lord and Bob Jones University” (248).
Chapter 23 picks up where ch. 21 left off and further explores the issue of race within fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Himes once again contrasts Rice and other fundamentalism with Billy Graham and new evangelicals. On the one hand, Rice could be compassionate and loving towards those of a different race and recognized that all races are “blood brothers”; by 1958 Rice had clearly “set aside the racial legacy of his family and their tradition” (259). Yet, nevertheless, for Rice “It proved to be impossible to acknowledge the consequences of slavery” (256), and his “earthly racial and political ideas drove him away from the struggle for justice in the South, [but] the heavenly core of his faith was just enough to also drive him away from the Klan and his father Will Rice’s racial politics” (260). He generally supported segregation and opposed the work of Martin Luther King Jr. By contrast, Billy Graham forged a positive relationship with Martin Luther King and supported the civil rights movement. Rice’s own son-in-law, Walter Handford, when confronted with the issue of race, began to allow black children to attend via the bus ministry alongside white children and allowed an inter-racial couple to join the church. Since Handford’s church (Southside Baptist Church) was in Greenville, SC, the result was that Bob Jones University declared the church off-limits to any student, faculty, or staff. Thus Rice and other fundamentalists opposed the more open-minded perspective of their evangelical brethren. While Rice clearly was not a racist and gladly preached the gospel to all races, nevertheless he was overly-influenced by his own culture and upbringing regarding the relationship of blacks and whites.
Chapter 24 discusses how Rice moved to Tennessee, continued to wield great influence among American fundamentalism, and began to urge more and more fundamentalists to get involved in conservative politics, promoting a form of American exceptionalism. Chapter 25 narrates how John R. Rice eventual split with Bob Jones over the issue of separation while at the same time further developing a relationship with Jerry Falwell, culminating in 1979 with Rice’s enthusiastic support for Liberty University and Falwell’s fledgling Moral Majority (in stark contrast to Bob Jones who, in 1980, called Jerry Falwell “the most dangerous man in America as far as Biblical Christianity is concerned” [p. 285, citing historian Mark Dalhouse]). The emotionally charged chapter 26 details the final days of John R. Rice’s life, including his last sermon, “Jesus has other sheep,” preached in 1985 at the age of 84, mere months before he passed away. This final message, which reached out to Christians of all stripes, represented “his last public effort to leave a legacy of compassion to guide the movement he had helped to create” (290).
The book’s last section, “Revisiting the Fundamentals,” consists of two chapters that are more personal and even exhortational in nature. In chapter 25, Himes examines what is truly fundamental to Christianity and, after citing Jesus’ response to the scribe’s question on the “greatest commandment,” declares, “Jesus’s words, read carefully and in context, make it clear that the test of whether I am following these two commandments is not whether I am experiencing the proper emotions, not whether I feel good about my neighbor, or like my neighbor, or even know my neighbor. The true test is whether I allow the spirit of God to transform me and to transform how I act toward my neighbor” (298). Ultimately, then, “a fundamentalist Christian worthy of the name will be a fundamentalism that pours out the love of God for all humanity . . . a faith that seeks to transform the world in the image of a God of love who cares for the poor and the outcast . . .” Here Himes is somewhat critical of fundamentalists, arguing that many have used their beliefs to justify poor treatment of others. Himes singles out Bob Jones University, with its history of racial segregation, as an example. Nevertheless Himes points out that fundamentalism, including BJU, is changing and “younger generations of fundamentalists and evangelicals are considering how their Christian practice might be a truer and more radical reflection of their Christian faith” (300-302). Ultimately Andrew Himes’ main hope in this chapter is that the “definition of Christianity” might be “driven more by praxis than by doctrine” (302).
Chapter 28 then functions mostly a as a postscript, detailing how John R. Rice’s descendants view themselves in relation to fundamentalism and their commitment to praxis, living out their faith.
2. Book Critique
In the end, Himes’ Sword of the Lord accomplishes what it sets out to do by providing a highly accessible and fascinating discussion of fundamentalism and the legacy of John R. Rice while raising key questions regarding the nature of Christianity and one’s relationship to his or her neighbor. While I will have some negative criticism of the book (see below) overall this is an excellent source for students of 20th century fundamentalism and evangelicalism and should be considered supplemental reading for any class dealing with fundamentalism.
To begin with, Himes is as excellent writer. Whether he is discussing his own spiritual journey, the history of Scottish and Irish immigrants in Texas, or the interaction of John R. Rice and Jerry Falwell, Himes provides an enjoyable writing style that engages the reader on many different levels.
Furthermore, for the most part, Himes’ work is well-researched. He draws on primary source material such as personal letters, sermons, and eye-witness accounts while also relying on the best secondary sources including George Marsden’s uneclipsed work on fundamentalism and dissertations by Howard Edgar Moore (George Washington University) and David Keith Bates (Kansas State University)
Himes’ discussion of John R. Rice and fundamentalism provides a valuable treasure trove for the student. While not quite a biography and not quite a history, it is nevertheless both an invaluable biographical resource on John R. Rice’s legacy and an important look into the history of fundamentalism in the 20th century. Himes provides a perspective on both Rice and fundamentalism that cannot be found elsewhere. Christians should not allow any theological differences to get in the way of the value that this book possesses.
Furthermore, there are two areas where Himes’ discussions can prove helpful to fundamentalists (of which I would still include myself as a member, so long as you let me define the term properly!) First of all, Himes’ sensitivity to the race issue should cause us to stop, think, and reflect on past failures. Fundamentalists were, in my mind, wrong to oppose de-segregation, interracial marriage, and the civil rights movement in general. Sadly and ironically, for a movement that placed such emphasis on non-conformity to the world’s culture, we let ourselves be molded by our own worldly backgrounds when it came to race. This is most apparent in the discussion of ch. 23 of how Walter Handford was vehemently opposed by fundamentalists for allowing black kids in with white kids and permitting an inter-racial couple to join in membership. Had fundamentalists been more progressive and, indeed, more biblical about the race issue (seriously, hasn’t anybody ever read the book of Ruth or Numbers 12:1 or Acts 17:26?), fundamentalism would today have an even greater impact on others with the Gospel. This is not to say that fundamentalism as a whole was racist, for I would argue that generally they were not. Yet the fact remains that, in my opinion, fundamentalism fought on the wrong side of the battle. Fortunately the modern fundamentalist is generally more biblical on the race issue; while some prejudices may remain in some areas (just like any culture, religious or otherwise), the average fundamentalist church is “de-segregated” and will often have at least some people of a different race. Indeed, one extremely fundamentalist evangelist I heard even bragged that he had walked out of a church in the deep south after learning that it deliberately stationed deacons at the front door to keep out those of a different race. Nevertheless, Himes shows that this has not always been the case for fundamentalists (though it should be pointed out that fundamentalism has traditionally had a very heavy emphasis on missions, and many fundamentalists such as my father have gladly given up associations with their own race to serve those in a different country).
Secondly, Himes offers us a very valuable reminder that orthodoxy without orthopraxy is not true Christianity (cf. James 1:26-27; 2:8-9, 26). In this area I do not believe we have failed as much as with the race issue. Despite the “fire and brimstone” preaching so common in the fundamentalist pulpit, many fundamentalists have still cared for the neighbors and reached out to those in need. John R. Rice, for example, once paid the way for a young preacher from Africa to go through Moody Bible Institute. Nevertheless the fact remains that in all my years in the States, listening to countless fundamentalist sermons, issues of personal purity and right doctrine were preached quite frequently while orthopraxy and kindness to one’s neighbor was preached a disproportionate amount of times, despite being such a prominent theme in both the Old and New Testaments. Furthermore, Fundamentalists, in reaction to Walter Rauschenbusch, have often shied away from any discussion on how to treat the poor. Those who dared to discuss such issues in a positive manner were often severely criticized. When I was going to seminary and attending a fundamentalist church in Pennsylvania, for example, the pastor preached a series of Bible-based sermons on the poor, noting that in the past when he had done so other fundamentalist churches had been quick to characterize him as preaching “the social gospel.”
Thus, despite what I imagine to be many key theological differences between us, I believe that much of what Andrew Himes’ writes in chapter 27 should be seriously pondered. If we as fundamentalists cannot be viewed as compassionate “do-gooders” by the world, then we are, to a certain degree, failing in our mission (cf. 1 Peter 3:8-18)
I do, however, have a few areas of concern for Himes’ book. To begin with, my only major critique of the book as a whole concerns the arrangement and inclusion of material. Himes’ book works on multiple levels: personal memoirs, history of the Rice family in the south, history of John R. Rice, history of fundamentalism in the 20th century, etc. All of this is good and relevant to his work, and no matter what he is writing on Himes proves an engaging author. The problem, however, is that (1) some material seems to be out of place, and (2) he spends too much time on broad subjects that detract from his overall focus on John R. Rice and fundamentalism.
Regarding the former, Chapters 13 and 15, for example, focus mostly on the early years of John R. Rice, while chapter 14 contains a discussion of fundamentalism in the early 20th century (e.g. J. Frank Norris, the Fundamentals, and early evangelical thoughts on World War 1). Ultimately, chapter 14 disrupts the narrative of 13 and 15. The reader is bounced around from John R. Rice to other topics and then back to Rice again. On the one hand this isn’t a problem when Himes has a consistent and recognizable pattern. Beginning each chapter with his own personal memoirs on his upbringing or spiritual struggles is a brilliant move that engages the reader and opens them to Himes’ own perspective. Yet much of the book seems to switch topics at whim; just as the reader is getting involved in the life of Rice, Himes will switch to his perspective on broader fundamentalism or evangelicalism. Similarly, chapter 8, with its discussion of deism, the Social Gospel, and Christianity’s engagement with culture may possess a lot of material that is important, but it is unclear how exactly chapter 8 fits within the broader outline of the book and whether or not it truly helps the reader transition from chapter 7 to chapter 9. This is not enough to cause the book to truly suffer, yet I believe the material could have been structured better (perhaps by more clearly differentiating between the material on Rice, fundamentalism, Christianity in general, southern history, etc.).
Regarding the second issue, most of the material Himes includes in the book is indeed relevant to some degree to Rice’s legacy. Yet I question whether or not he should have spent so much time on some of it; indeed, sometimes the book tries too hard to be a “History of Christianity in the 20th century,” which I don’t think was the author’s initial intent. Was it really necessary, for example, to devote an entire chapter to the Scopes Monkey Trial? Granted Himes’ account is preferable to Hollywood’s Inherit the Wind, but hasn't the even been covered in enough books? The entire chapter, in my opinion, could have been condensed to one paragraph that quickly pointed out its relevance for fundamentalism as a whole, and even that would probably have served only to remind most readers of something they already knew. Other parts of the book which were not directly related to Rice and his legacy could also, in my opinion, been trimmed significantly, and the result would have been a shorter yet more streamlined narrative.
Those are the only critiques I have of the book as a whole, and neither of them diminishes too much from the book’s overall value. The following points focus on particular parts of the book.
While Himes’ book is well-researched, there are a couple areas that puzzle me. In endnote 12, he cites a Wikipedia article on Samuel Doak, and this stands out like a sore thumb in the midst of his excellent citations of primary and secondary sources. While I do not doubt the general accuracy of a Wikipedia citation, nevertheless Wikipedia is generally not considered a good academic source, and surely there must have been some other source Himes could have used!
More importantly, at times Himes’ fails to give us a citation when we would expect one (e.g. second paragraph of 147 [simply mentioning the name of the journal is not enough]; statement by Mordecai Ham on page 192; last paragraph of p. 245; etc.). This prevents the reader from carrying out his or her own primary research.
At just one point I believe Himes is somewhat unfair in his discussion of Rice.
On pages 196-197, Himes discusses how Rice preached in Sherman, Texas, a year after the cold-blooded murder of George Hughes by a white mob. Himes is very critical of Rice for not preaching against the racial hatred and lynch-mob violence the town had experienced, yet there is not, so to speak, enough evidence to convict Rice on this point. Himes states, “Doubtless, some of those who took part in the Sherman Riot attended his revival services—and the subjects Rice probably did not mention were as significant as her sermon topics. He likely did not preach on the murder of George Hughes . . . neither is it likely that he condemned it” (pp. 196-197; emphasis added). Himes may be accurate in his analysis, but frankly he does not have enough information to go on. He declares, “the only report of his sermons recorded that he preached, with wrath and righteousness, against the sin of ‘mixed bathing’” (197). Yet the only source Himes cites for this entire incident (Rice’s preaching at Sherman) is a secondary source, the dissertation by Howard Edgar Moore. In other words, Himes is critiquing Rice strictly via an argument from silence. No transcript of the sermon apparently exists, the only eyewitness report apparently (so far as we can determine from the evidence Himes gives us) comments on just one topic (one topic out of the plethora that Rice would have preached on), and yet Himes feels that this is enough evidence to rebuke Rice on the basis of “his failure to criticize the Sherman Riot” (197). The bottom line is that there is no way of knowing whether or not Rice condemned the violence done a year earlier, simply because not enough information exists. Himes’ analysis may or may not be accurate, but there is no way to tell.
While Himes’ work covers much of Rice’s work and fundamentalism, there are a few surprising omissions. For example, while much is said of the Sword of the Lord newspaper, very little is said about the publishing company of the same name, and scant information is given regarding the multitude of influential books and tracts Rice wrote (except, of course, for the infamous Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers). Virtually nothing is said of Rice’s work and influence overseas (at one point he preached in Japan, and his tracts have been published in many different languages). As for fundamentalist history, virtually no discussion is given of the Niagara Bible Conferences, a topic which many would argue is inexorably linked to fundamentalist history.
Finally, there are a few areas where Himes is careless in his statements. I am unhappy with his treatment of textual criticism, canonical studies, etc. in chapter 11. For example, he never attempts to define “canon”; thus statements such as “there was no complete canon dating back to the time of the Apostles” (123) begs the question as to what exactly we are talking about when we say “canon” (and, believe me, this very issue has been the discussion of countless articles, essays, and monographs).
Within the same context Himes argues that “before the end of the 18th century, few Christian theologians had claimed that the Bible as a whole was without internal contradictions, or textual or factual errors” (122), a statement which Himes makes no attempt to defend and which, in my opinion, is highly inaccurate (regardless of what one thinks of the doctrine of inerrancy). Both the concepts of historical accuracy and scientific accuracy were very much alive in theological discourse before the 1700s.
Finally, Himes is overly harsh on dispensationalists and premillennialists in chapter 10. He is critical of John Darby, arguing that Darby took “heavily metaphorical passages from the Book of Revelation, ignoring the historical context in which they were written, and stitch[ed] them together to create a distorted theological portrait . . . Revelation was part of a powerful tradition of apocalyptic literature responding to the imperial domination and oppression of Christians by the Roman Empire. Darby, however, claimed that Revelation was to be read as a factual prediction of future events” (113). To begin with, there is no law that says apocalypticism and predictions of the future cannot go hand-in-hand. Even a cursory reading of Jewish apocalyptic literature would demonstrate that the genre cannot be pigeon-holed so easily (and this writer has read extra-canonical Jewish apocalyptic literature). Furthermore, Revelation itself clearly states that at least some of the material in the book is future-oriented, as seen in Rev. 1:19—“Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this” (ESV).
As for premillennialism, Himes suggests that “premillennialism and its ‘wicked’ [Himes is borrowing the terminology of John Stuart Mill] notion of God . . . furnished the essence of fundamentalist theology in the 20th century” and that this “informed the feverish imaginings of fundamentalist Pat Robertson when he proposed that the deaths of 250,000 earthquake victims in Haiti in the winter of 2010 were God’s punishment . . .” (114-115) Yet Pat Robertson in no way represents the mainstream of premillennialism, and it is unfair to hold him next to Tim LaHaye as the paradigm of premillennialism (I’ve never yet been a member of a fundamentalist church that took Pat Robertson seriously). Perhaps Himes did not intend to do so, but one is nevertheless left with the impression that Robertson is the norm for a premillenialist. One should not critique or describe a position by focusing on its extreme elements. Furthermore, the notion of a God who literally punishes in eternal fire can hardly be tied solely to premillennial theology, as Himes implies on p. 114 (whether he meant to or not).
Furthermore, Himes’ harsh critique has very little to do with the overall point of the book and potentially alienates the very readers he is trying to reach (I am assuming he wishes fundamentalists to read the book). Since a large percentage of fundamentalists (though not, by any means, all of them), including this writer, are both dispensational and premillennial, Himes’ critique is counter-productive and quite inadequate. Had he truly wished to counter dispensationalism, for example, he would have had to actually read Darby (he never actually cites Darby, despite his harsh critique), as well as modern dispensational theologians such as Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, Elliot Johnson, etc., many of whom would not consider themselves fundamentalist. By then, the book would have gone a completely different direction and ultimately hindered both his excellent treatment of Rice’s legacy as well as his stirring message of orthopraxy, and many fundamentalists would miss out on a book well-worth reading. (The reader should remember the important axiom that if you are going to critique a viewpoint, you should be able to describe it in such a way that the one holding that viewpoint would agree that you’ve described it accurately [I state this with thanks to Robert E. Picirilli, who better articulates the axiom in his book Grace, Faith, Free Will])
It is significant, however, that the above criticisms are directed at areas where Himes focuses less on Rice and fundamentalism and more on Christian theology and history in general. This, perhaps, further accents my point that much of this material could have been cut, consequently improving the book.
Such critical statements, however, should in no way detract from the brilliance of Himes’ writing nor from the fact that this book represents a solid contribution to scholarship on fundamentalist history. Himes’ theological differences with mainstream fundamentalists should not hinder the informed fundamentalist from profiting from his book. Himes’ The Sword of the Lord remains an immensely valuable and highly enjoyable discussion of both John R. Rice and 20th century fundamentalism, combined with a poignant call to orthopraxy.
3. The legacy of John R. Rice: A great-grandson’s perspective.
Sadly, John R. Rice died shortly after I was born so I did not have the privilege of knowing him personally as my father and uncle did. There exists a picture where Dr. Rice is holding me shortly after I was born, but naturally I have no memory of him. He was held in high regard in my family, and when I went off to college my father made sure I had a good library of Rice books to keep me company.
It has become somewhat fashionable in academic fundamentalist circles [not an oxymoron!] to criticize Rice; some of the criticisms, I believe, are fair (even I wrote a paper in seminary critiquing his view of interracial marriage) while some are unfair or blatantly false (for example, Rice never claimed to be a scholar as some have asserted). On the one hand, from the pulpit Rice could be harsh on even conservative theological views that he disagreed with. Yet on the other hand, as Himes indicates in his book, compared to contemporaries such as J. Frank Norris, he was friendly and cordial on a personal level with those from a different theological spectrum. Indeed, one of the points of contention between Bob Jones and John R. Rice was that Rice still enjoyed the fellowship of his southern Baptist friends!
I’m not sure what Rice would think of my own academic career at this point; he may be heartened that I am attending a Southern Baptist school (after the so-called “conservative resurgence and/or takeover,” call it what you will), but perhaps scratching his head that I would be dabbling in “social-scientific criticism” for my dissertation on 1 Peter (though I imagine the Apostle Peter standing next time him, assuring him that his great-grandson is not quite as radical as it would appear).
For me, the legacy of John R. Rice that I admire and aspire to has less to do with his theology or published works or influence on fundamentalism and more to do with his ministry. The John R. Rice I admire was a soul-winner and a powerful preacher, first and foremost. Granted, his theology of soul-winning to a certain degree may have hindered him from preaching against racial injustice, etc., and I do not think this has to be an “either-or” issue. One can simultaneously preach the Gospel while recognizing the past failures of one’s race and/or culture and reaching out to help the downtrodden. Yet well all is said and done, John R. Rice loved Jesus, and he loved people of all races well enough to tell them about Jesus, and this, in my mind, is the most significant part of his life
I generally do not advertise who my great-grandfather is (and few today would care!), but a few months ago at my independent Baptist church, an older gentleman who knew Rice bought me a Bible. When giving me the Bible, he told me that John R. Rice was the only man he had ever asked to sign his own Bible because John R. Rice could never preach a sermon about hell without tears in his eyes. In this way Rice, more than many, exemplified Jude 21-23, “Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.”