Monday, September 5, 2011

The Sword of the Lord

Andrew Himes is the grandson of Fundamentalist Evangelist John R. Rice. Himes’ book, The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Religious Fundamentalism in an American Family, traces the history of Fundamentalism alongside the history of his family and his personal journey from being raised Fundamentalist to atheism and then back to some form of faith.

Himes’ maternal grandfather, John R. Rice, was descended from hardy Scots-Irish pioneers who settled in the back country of Appalachia during the colonial period. These people were staunch Presbyterian Calvinists and fiercely independent. Himes recounts how one of his ancestors was a member of the “over the mountain men” who crossed the Appalachian Mountains and wiped out a British detachment at the Battle of King’s Mountain, South Carolina during the American Revolution.

A group of historical re-enactors portray the "Over the Mountain Men"

Gradually, the family migrated westward during the 19th century, eventually settling in Missouri. In Missouri, Himes’ ancestors became wealthy planters and slave owners. Losing all their wealth during the Civil War, Himes’ family then moved to Texas.

Alongside this family history, Himes gives a great summary of American Religious History on the Frontier. At the time of the American Revolution, the Baptists were a small, persecuted sect which dissented from the established Church of England. It was on the frontier in the early 19th century that the Baptists and Methodists, with their revivalist missionaries and “circuit riding” preachers, really made a big impact and became the dominant Protestant groups in the United States. Great mass revival meetings were held in the back woods of Kentucky and Tennessee which drew hundreds of people.

An early 19th century Revival Meeting

According to Himes: “The explosion of churches and membership in the new Methodist and Baptist sects was directly connected with the personal freedom and personal responsibility demanded by the Age of Enlightenment. The evangelicals were both religious revolutionaries and political revolutionaries. They were in “enthusiastic” rebellion against the stultifying formalism of the Church of England, demanding a direct relationship with God unmediated by the hierarchy of the established church. And, along with the Deists, the evangelicals demanded an absolute right to freedom of religion and conscience as enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

Pre-Millenial Dispensationalism

A large part of Fundamentalist belief is the end-times theology called “Pre-Millenial Dispensationalism.”

“Ever since St. Augustine systematized the doctrine in the fourth century, amillennialism had been the prevailing view of Christian scholars, traditions, and theologians. The term amillennialism referred to the church’s rejection of the belief that Jesus Christ would have a 1000-year physical reign on earth. Amillennialismm held that the thousand years referrred to in Revelation 20 was a symbolic number, and the “millennium” mentioned was a symbolic period in which Christians should work to realize the Kingdom of God on earth, striving for justice, loving one’s neighbor, serving the poor, and generally embodying the love of Christ. Amillennialism was a principal doctrine of the Catholic Church throughout history, and was the dominant view of the Protestant Reformation as well, defended by Martin Luther and John Calvin among many others, and it continues to be the view of most mainline American Protestants in the 21st century.

Begninning in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, many American evangelicals were persuaded by the doctrine of postmillennialism, which posits that Christ’s return to earth will take place only after the Millennium, a golden age of peace and prosperity in which Christian principles will prevail. Postmillennialism is inherently optomistic, believing that good will triumph over evil, and that the expanding Kingdom of God will defeat Satan’s forces. Christians are required to be reformers, remaking human society in the image of God’s love and righteousness. Throughout the 19th century, evangelicals used the doctrine of postmillennialism to justify social activism to end slavery, expand human rights, seek equality for women, establish public schools, and reduce the exploitation and abuse of laborers.

However, an opposing movement sprang up in the early 19th century. In the 1830s, British preacher John Nelson Darby concocted a new set of doctrines that became known as premillennialism. This literal interpretation of selected passages in Revelation insisted that Jesus would return to earth before the millennium of his reign on earth and transport Christians out of the world before its descent into horrible global suffering and massive bloodshed. . . . Darby taught that according to the Bible the history of the world since creation could be divided into seven different eras, or “dispensations,” and his system became known as dispensationalism. The sixth dispensation would be signaled by the “Rapture,” in which all the Christians alive and dead would be taken instantaneously to Heaven, followed by “seven years of tribulation” on earth and ending with the “apocalyptic” battle of Armageddon, a climactic struggle to destroy an evil person known as the Antichrist and institute the seventh dispensation - the millennial reign of Christ on earth.”

Pre-millienial Dispensational theology is a big reason that Fundamentalists pour all of their energy into “saving souls” and very little effort on social concerns such as aiding the poor. Since the world is ending soon, this world is not worth trying to save. Christians who concentrate on social justice concerns are seen as theological liberals who are probably “not really saved.” According to Himes, “Darby’s followers assumed that any attempt to reform society according to Christian principles was both fruitless and heretical.” This attitude has passed over into Fundamentalism. For American Fundamentalists, the tenants of Darby’s Pre-Millennialism was passed on through the footnotes in the extremely popular “Schofield Reference Bible.”

The Fundamentals

During the 19th century, literal belief in the truth the of the creation account of the Book of Genesis was challenged by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Belief in the literal truth of many Bible passages was also challenged by the “higher criticism” coming out of Germany.

“For example, higher critics considered how the four gospels relate to each other, and found discrepancies and contradictions that called into question various traditional beliefs about their authorship.”

Christians who had no problem with modern theories such as evolution and who embraced higher criticism of the Bible were labeled “modernists.”

“The controversy between modernists and conservatives became increasingly bitter over the last years of the 19th century and into the first two decades of the 20th. More and more, Protestant Christians began to feel that they were being forced to take sides in what was rapidly becoming an historic split. . . .

On one side were Christians who were more liberal in their outlook and more willing to accept the new ideas that had emerged from “higher criticism” and study of the Bible as an historical text. They also tended to be more politically progressive, more attuned to the “social gospel,” and more intent on the message of social justice they discerned in the teachings and life of Jesus.

On the other side was a growing chorus of conservative voices expressing dismay at these new ideas of the mainliners. The conservatives claimed to represent the historic Christian faith, in opposition to the modernists, who they believed were betraying and abandoning orthodox Christian beliefs. They were more focused on individual sin and the need for individual redemption and salvation. They were more prone to emphasize the importance of saving individual souls from a literal and fiery hell than the need to transform human societies on earth.”

(As an aside, in line with Fundamentalist Protestants, during this period, the Catholic Church began requiring all clergy to take an oath against “modernism” and rejected all forms of higher Biblical criticism.)

Between 1910 and 1915, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles published a set of 12 booklets called The Fundamentals, which tried to set forth the beliefs that conservatives believed that all Christians should hold. These included “the inerrancy of the Bible, the Virgin Birth and deity of Jesus, the belief that Jesus died to redeem mankind’s sin, the physical resurrection of Jesus, and the literal truth of the miraculous elements in the Bible.” These booklets are the origin of the term “Fundamentalist.”

The Texas Cyclone

Himes’ grand father John R. Rice, was a protégé of Reverend J. Frank Norris, the firebrand and rabidly anti-Catholic pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, Texas. Dubbed “The Texas Cyclone,” Norris was in favor of Prohibition and opposed to anything which he thought was “modernism.”

Reverend J. Frank Norris "The Texas Cyclone"

“Norris viewed the greatest threat to Prohibition as coming from the Catholics, whom he viewed with the greatest suspicion. From his pulpit and newspaper, as well as in dozens of radio broadcasts, he unleashed floods of viturperation on immigrant communities - from Germany, Italy, and Ireland, and other countries with large Catholic populations. These immigrants, he said, were the demon spawn of the Antichrist himself. “The Roman Catholic Church knows allegiance only to the Pope,” he wrote. “They would behead every Protestant preacher and disembowel every Protestant mother. They would burn to ashes every Protestant church and dynamite every Protestant school. They would destroy the public schools and annihilate every one of our institutions.” In accusing Roman Catholics of trying to take over public education, Norris said, “When the time comes that they seek to dominate and control the free institutions of this country, then it’s high time that every man speak out as a true-blooded American citizen.” Norris claimed that Catholics could not possibly be real Americans because the Pope was the authority for Catholics in all spheres, in the voting booth as well as the confessional.

. . . he also saw the battle against modernism as a continuation of the Lost Cause of the South, as a rebellion against the German rationalism and secularism that had already conquered the North, and as a stand against the Roman Catholic papist conspiracy that threatened the whole country.”

Norris’ most infamous act was to shoot and kill a Catholic businessman who confronted Norris about his attacks on the Catholic Mayor of Forth Worth, Texas. Tried for murder, Norris contended that he had acted in self-defense against the unarmed man. A Fort Worth jury took only a short while to find Norris “Not Guilty.” Norris was also a staunch supporter of the Ku Klux Klan and worked untiringly to elect candidates endorsed by the Klan to office in Texas. Himes comments: “Fundamentalists like Norris were calling for a new struggle to preserve Southern values, Southern religion, Southern culture, and the Southern way of life.”

Norris took the young evangelist John R. Rice under his wing and provided patronage and support. Even though the Southern Baptist Convention remained theologically conservative throughout this period, Norris thought that its leadership was “too liberal” and “too modernist.” Norris apparently threatened to leave the SBC one too many times, because he and his First Baptist Church of Fort Worth were finally involuntarily thrown out of the SBC. Himes recounts that a group of leading Texas Southern Baptists visited grandfather and warned him to separate himself from Norris or he, too would be excluded from the SBC. Rice refused and followed Norris into becoming an “Independent Baptist.”

Under Norris’ sponsorship, Rice would bring his “tent meeting” into a community and then help the newly minted converts to establish a “Fundamentalist Baptist Church.” Rice’s final break with Norris came after Norris had become jealous of Rice’s success as an evangelist and newspaper publisher. Rice had been invited to lead a revival in New York State. Rice received word that his invitation had been withdrawn after Norris told the sponsoring Churches that Rice was practicing “glossalalia” or speaking in tongues. (Fundamentalist Baptists are generally opposed to this practice). When Rice found out that these stories had originated with Norris, he cut his ties with him.

The Sword of the Lord and Billy Graham

John R. Rice edited a fundamentalist newspaper called “The Sword of the Lord.” In 1940, Rice moved his family and the offices of “The Sword of the Lord” from Texas to Wheaton, Illinois. Shortly after arriving in Wheaton, Rice met a 22 year old student at Wheaton College named Billy Graham.

Reverend John R. Rice

“Billy was only 22 at the time, a full 23 years younger than Rice. He had grown up in a Presbyterian church in North Carolina, and shared with Rice the full panoply of assumptions that most Southern fundamentalists carried - about race, religion, and politics. . . .

The two men met within the first year the two of them lived in Wheaton. They quickly formed a friendship. John R. Rice quickly became a mentor for the younger man. Graham was inspired by Rice’s citywide revival campaigns and became an avid reader of the The Sword of the Lord. . . .his first published sermons would appear in the pages of the The Sword of the Lord after Billy graduated from Wheaton.”

In the most fascinating part of the book, Himes recounts how his grandfather helped to launch Billy Graham’s spectacular career as an evangelist but then broke with Graham over the issue of separatism. “Separatism” is the idea that true Christians should not associate with anyone claiming to be a Christian who does not share all of the Fundamentalist positions on doctrine. “Genuine Christians could “witness” or preach to “lost people,” but it was impermissible to do so in company with anyone who disagreed in any way with the doctrines held to be core to “orthodox” Christianity.”

When Billy Graham appeared at his meetings with Episcopalians and other mainline Protestants whom Fundamentalists deemed not to be “real Christians”, Rice and other Fundamentalist leaders like Bob Jones, Jr. were alarmed. When Graham continued to defy the Fundamentalists by racially integrating his revival meetings and cooperating with “modernist” Christians, Rice, Jones and other Fundamentalist leaders declared that Billy Graham was not a “real Christian” himself and withdrew their support from his ministry.

Fundamentalism and Racism

Himes discusses the split among Evangelicals in the mid-nineteenth century over the issue of slavery. Wealthy Southern planters, like the Rice family, looked for a religion which told them that slave ownership was Biblical. The Southern Baptist Convention was established in the 1840s as a break with Northern Baptists over the slavery issue.

“Given the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura - it is only necessary to read the Bible to find God’s manifest truth - Southern preachers and theologians had an easy time justifying slavery. All one needed to do was to read the Bible with an open mind and a dose of common sense, according to them, to see that they were right. Any Bible student could easily find a dozen passages of scripture that seemed to justify slavery explicitly.”

Himes recounts how his great grandfather, Will Rice, was both a Baptist preacher and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. J. Frank Norris was violently racist and a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan. Although he publicly opposed the violence of the Klan, for the most part, John R. Rice adopted the racist views of his father and mentor.

Martin Luther King, Jr. with Billy Graham

Rice preached firebrand sermons against the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1964, Rice said “although religious infidels boost him as a Christian, Dr. Martin Luther King has openly declared that he does not believe the Bible. He is not a Christian in the historic sense of holding to the great essentials of the Christian faith, he is a ‘minister’ who doesn’t preach the gospel, doesn’t save souls.” Since Billy Graham invited Dr. King pray at his meeting held in Madison Square Garden in New York City, in Rice’s view Billy Graham was one of the “religious infidels."

Himes recounts how his father, also a Baptist preacher, was fired from pastoring a Church in Memphis, Tennessee for refusing to interrupt a service to make a black man leave. Himes also gives a fascinating account of how a Church pastored by his uncle in Greenville, South Carolina was boycotted by Bob Jones University because blacks were allowed to attend the Church.


The real fundamental of Jesus’ teaching is love of God and the unconditional love of our fellow human beings. At the end, Himes proposes a new fundamentalist movement based upon this teaching.

The Sword of the Lord is a great book. Everyone interested in American Christianity should read it. Highly Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for posting this excellent review and for helping to spread the word!