on May 25, 2011
At the expense of sounding cliché, I inhaled Andrew Himes' book, The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family, like a breath of fresh air. My own experience in fundamentalism left me gasping for that pure gospel air that you only seem to find in the high mountains of early Christianity, not in the dense smog of personal agenda. It is primarily for this reason I found the book so refreshing. Himes' treatment of his subject matter kept me turning pages all the way to the end. He represented fundamentalism, his family, and the issues surrounding both with great dignity and near-forensic clarity. The keen insight of the movement from his insider's perspective, served-up with humility, and absent of even a hint of rancor for fundamentalism was, without a doubt, a compelling attribute of the book. Further, his presentation of historical events, as much as I was able to ascertain, was accurate and easy to follow, making this book a historical resource worthy of consideration for any serious student of the history of Christianity in America.
The most enlightening and instructive element, however, was the way the book chronologically revealed the context in which early fundamentalism was born. I'm not referring, necessarily, to the modernist-fundamentalist debate that thrust it into the main-stream, but rather the movement's emergence from Scots-Irish Calvinists bent on racial bigotry eventually thrust into a war for the purpose of defending their lifestyle. I was helped by several things to which I was personally naïve before reading Himes' book and I trust it will be a tool in the hands of those who desire to make serious inquiry into the truth of the history of fundamentalism. Himes states,
My own Rice ancestors were Calvinists and Presbyterians...Their successful life in Missouri was destroyed by the Civil War... Like their neighbors, they built large-scale hemp plantations farmed by numerous Negro slaves...The traumatic experience of the Civil War and its aftermath in the 19th century was the incubator of Christian fundamentalism in 20th century America... The white population of Texas from before the war, then, was never truly beaten, never truly surrendered, and was never brought violently to terms with the new realities... And it was Texas that turned out to be especially congenial to the development of Christian fundamentalism in America.
That culture framed, as Himes so candidly informs us, the stage on which the contemporary fundamentalist movement dances even today. He illustrates remarkably well a separatist movement, by its very nature, and as well intentioned as it may be, will eventually separate things that should remain unified. While, throughout the book Himes remains extremely careful and gracious toward his fundamentalist family, particularly toward his grandfather, John R. Rice, and grandmother, Lloys Cooke Rice, he makes very certain to show us how Rice's break with Billy Graham "boomeranged." At one of his final preaching engagements, Curtis Hutson refused to acknowledge his plea for unity among the brethren. Himes' own account proves beneficial here:
Rice had planned at the end of his sermon to ask his audience to join in singing "The Family of God," a song well loved by many evangelicals... He'd had some cards printed up with the words of the song, and a pledge he wanted all those present to sign, promising to love everyone Jesus had loved... Unfortunately, the meeting was under the control of Curtis Hutson, the man Rice had chosen to succeed him as editor of The Sword of the Lord. Hutson was more extreme and "separatist" in his beliefs than Rice, and he was afraid some of the fundamentalists present would conclude that John R. Rice had gotten weak in both his mind and his separatism. Hutson collected the cards and forbade anyone to pass them out.
Later, Rice sat in his wheelchair with three of his daughters and wept with disappointment and sadness. He felt that his last public effort to leave a legacy of compassion to guide the movement he had helped to create had been defeated by Hutson's refusal. A spirit of discord, disdain, and disapproval that fundamentalists had incubated against liberals and modernists, in the end, and particularly on that day, boomeranged to poison the relationships among fundamentalist allies.
(Reviewer's Note: Interestingly, and ironically, Hutson later wrote a pamphlet titled, Unnecessary Divisions Among Fundamentalists. Further, this same "boomerang" principle, called sowing and reaping in Scripture, was also demonstrated in a dissertation by John M. Frame, titled, Machen's Warrior Children, an account of J. Gresham Machen's ministry in the Presbyterian denomination where Machen, who thought he was earnestly contending for the faith, was, in fact, developing contentious spiritual children who would later fragment the Presbyterians.)
Although, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I finished it a bit uncertain where Mr. Himes ended up making his homestead in the vast Christian landscape. This was the one area that, to me, seemed a little weak since the objective of the book seemed to indicate a new view of fundamentalism was needed. I feel Mr. Himes could have provided more clarity as to what the reader's conclusion should be, unless it was his designed intention to not, then he nearly succeeded. If that is the case, I feel a little like I would about Ayn Rand's works: great premise; poor conclusion. The one chord of clarity, however, that resonated with me as to what a possible clue might be was his statement,
Following Jesus evidently requires much more than orthodoxy or platitudes about love. It requires orthopraxy: placing Christ's incarnation of love and justice at the center of your life and Christian practice.
If by this he means that a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ should in fact compel a person to not only propagate the gospel, but also to love and show justice as a practice of life, I sense it is much closer to and at least nearer the foothills of the kingdom of God, than historic American fundamentalism.
I highly recommend Andrew Himes book, The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in American History. You won't be disappointed.