I attended a conservative Baptist college, several of my friends attended fundamentalist colleges, and once I had the opportunity to visit the Bob Jones University campus in person. (I thought I was oppressed being forced to wear skirts to class — these girls had to wear skirts every time they stepped foot out of doors!) What I saw and the rumors I heard about these places boggled my mind. I’ve always wondered where fundamentalism came from, how it became what it is today, and how these people really think and see the world.
Andrew Himes is the grandson of one of modern fundamentalism’s most prominent leaders, John R. Rice. He dug far back into history to trace the origins of his family and this branch of Christianity from the Scots-Irish peoples of northern England in the 1600s. In “The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of American Fundamentalism in an American Family,” he weaves stories from his own experience growing up in a fundamentalist family into the history of the movement to illustrate how it all played out in his own life.
This book is difficult to read in places – the material is painful and the history involves some of the ugliest chapters in our country’s history. The stories of the South before, during, and immediately after the Civil War were almost physically painful to read, especially when Andy painted word pictures of the fallout of that war on people’s lives on both sides of the war and for all skin colors. But he makes the important point that we can only learn from our history if we know it accurately.
Some of the most fascinating chapters, for me, were those detailing John R. Rice himself and how his faith changed as he grew older. The two most striking areas of change were his views on the relationship between church and government, and his views on separatism.
I’m quite sure that John R. Rice’s followers today would be stunned to learn that John was a pacifist in his early years, before the onset of World War I. Before the war, Baptists were staunch defenders of the concept of separation of church and state as they had suffered greatly in Europe where church and state are one, and they fought bitterly to keep government and faith apart. Christians worldwide also believed that the world and society were steadily improving, and would culminate in the perfect Kingdom of God foretold in the Bible.
But the higher criticism and modern philosophy that emerged from Germany before the war, along with the cruelty and massive casualties seen during the war, triggered an international paradigm shift. Everyone had to grapple with the horror of realizing human beings were, in fact, quite unimproved. Fundamentalists laid blame for the entire mess on Germans, modernists, and liberals and launched a full-scale attack, eventually discovering that politics and government made great weapons.
By the time World War II began, and galvanized by the attack on Pearl Harbor, Christians in the U.S. had embraced their present-day patriotism: that God was with the U.S., that this country was God’s new Israel, and that fighting on our side was fighting for God. It seems that present-day fundamentalists have no grasp of their own history and the very good reasons, based in historical fact, to keep government and military at arms’ length.
In addition to his views of God and government, John Rice’s philosophy of separatism grew and changed and eventually matured over the entire course of his life. One of the recurring themes of fundamentalism is separatism – the idea that true Christians must guard their associations carefully and never partner with anyone who doesn’t fully and correctly embrace what they identified as “The Fundamentals.” (Interestingly, Andy notes that “The Fundamentals” are not the main points of Christian faith. They are only those aspects of Christianity that fundamentalists believed to be most under attack by modernism and higher criticism in the late 1800s and early 1900s.)
Separatism is like an institutionalized version of Matthew 18, in which Jesus describes how to respond to a Christian who is sinning. Except the “sins” people would separate over would be things like inviting Martin Luther King Jr to pray at a revival or preaching in a city-wide evangelical event with churches of other denominations.
Andy takes great care not to gloss over the ugly parts – connections to slavery and the Ku Klux Klan, murders, betrayals, and separatism gone to extremes. Yet he portrays each person with compassion as individuals who, however misguided, were earnestly striving to obey what they understood Jesus to require of them. He wrote in his introduction that this book grew out of his efforts to reconcile with his family’s checkered history. He strikes a healthy balance between attacking the beliefs that were so destructive and extending grace to the people behind those beliefs.
The Sword of the Lord is not a light read, but it is well worth your time if you seek a better understanding of the people and issues behind present-day fundamentalism. I finished the book with a better understanding of my friends and family in fundamentalism, and more patience with what I see as a somewhat-misguided-but-sincere understanding of following Jesus.
Visit Deeper Story to read more reviews of The Sword of the Lord, and visit The Sword of the Lord website to read more from Andy and order your copy of the book.