I remember the first time I left a family conversation, excused myself to the bathroom and cried. I think I was in 7th or 8th grade. Great Uncle Charlie had stopped by my Memaw’s house for a cup of coffee and a chat. I don’t know why I was there and I don’t remember anything about the conversation. All I remember is that my grandmother’s brother used the “N” word several times without blinking an eye. And no one around me seemed phased. But I, two generations removed, with only a fourth of the Texas drawl they owned, felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I looked around at my grandparents. Surely someone would take a stand. Surely they understood that of all the words that shouldn’t be used, this was the one that broke God’s heart the most. Nothing.
Whatever statement Uncle Charlie had been making about an entire race of people was over. They were on to the next topic. I wanted to scream. I wanted to tell him what I thought of him. How could he be a deacon in his church? How could he not know that God loves all people? I left the table. Took deep breaths and wiped my eyes in the bathroom. Came out and kept my mouth shut.
Racism is a deep rooted, twisted, broken story in our country. And it’s a story woven through the Christianity I was raised in. When I first read a descriptor of The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family, a book by Andrew Himes about the Fundamentalist movement, his grandfather, and his own faith journey, I knew I would resonate with his story. What I didn’t know was that Himes would offer me a glimpse into my own family’s history, something that would both infuriate me and also soften me toward Uncle Charlie with his cup of coffee in my grandma’s kitchen. Grace and truth.
The Sword of the Lord could be called a book of the history of faith in the South or a memoir of one man’s journey to understand the Fundamentalism of his childhood and his response to it. It could be the biography of the founder of Modern-day Fundamentalism, as told through the eyes of his grandson. Whatever we call it, it’s the story of a man who has come from a family of Fundamentalist Baptist preachers, who chooses to leave that version of Christianity behind in search of a “faith” where people of all races are welcome and justice is pursued on their behalf. It’s the story of a boy who fully embraces all the tenants of Fundamentalism but has no words or support for the movement of his heart toward the black children first brought into his segregated middle school. As he watches white children throw plastic bags of their own urine at the two black children huddled together in the hallway, he cries for them and despises himself for doing nothing.
But Himes begins his book further back than Integration. He begins with the Civil War. We see the formation of the Southern Baptist Church, when the southerners who believed slavery had been ordained by God broke off from the abolitionist Baptists from the north. (As a Southern Baptist-raised girl, that story was incredibly shocking to me. I had no idea.) He tells the story of his Scots-Irish southern family, slave owners, who lose their way of life as a result of the war and who make their way to Texas to escape the post-war devastation and for the promise of cheap land.
Himes is obviously interested in offering us a bigger story than simply the life the of his grandfather, the book’s eventual protagonist, who goes on to mentor Billy Graham and Jerry Fallwell, and who publishes a widely circulated Christian newspaper called “Sword of the Lord” that helps shape the Fundamentalist movement of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s (eventually leading to the political Religious Right). This is a book about history, and a book about the deeply ingrained suspicions we carry within us about the “other.”
So much of what I read were “aha” moments for me. Moments when I recognized that I came out of my childhood faith with a confusing sense that God didn’t care about the created things of this world. All he cared about were souls. (Why did he give us bodies then? I wondered in high school. Why did he make the world so beautiful if it didn’t actually matter to him?) I found myself grasping for the first time that many of my life-determining spiritual influences were the result of a list of “Fundamentals” that a group of frustrated conservative Christians in 1910 had agreed upon in order to (according to Himes), “draw a clear line of demarcation between themselves and the modernists” who were subscribing to a more liberal theology (132).Over and over in the book, Himes refers to the Fundamentalist idea of “Separatism,” a notion of having nothing to do with Christians who do not adhere to those fundamental beliefs. Suddenly, I understood why I worried (in 3rd grade!) that Amy Grant might not be a real Christian because I wasn’t sure if she was Baptist. (What put that notion in my little brain?!) That’s why I kept my distance in high school from any of the “immoral” kids.
But to focus only on the negative things would be to miss out on Himes’ ability to tell this story with compassion and honesty. As readers we are drawn to his grandfather John R. Rice and we understand why Himes begins his book with his drive in 1980 to his grandfather’s funeral. Himes weeps in his car, knowing his choices in life had disappointed his grandfather, but also loving the man his grandfather was. We are allowed to see that nothing is all bad or all good, that everything and everyone is complex. John Rice is beloved and in love with Jesus, despite his being wrong about a lot of things. Himes is able to write his grandfather’s life (and his own complicated feelings about him) with kindness and respect. We watch Rice develop as a character, following him to the end of his life as he becomes a man who has slowly evolved with the changing patterns of our country, a man who regrets the Fundamentalist tendency toward division and derision, a tendency he himself helped build.
This story is also the story of Andrew Himes and the faith that shaped him into a man of progressive politics, a father of a grown daughter, a man who seems to still be struggling to define what he believes about Jesus and how that belief marks him. As fascinating as the story of Himes’ family is, what feels most incomplete in this book is Himes’ story itself. The moments we are given with him are the most compelling: His drive alone to his grandfather’s funeral, the black sheep of the family who weeps for his grandfather and who is set beside Jerry Falwell at the funeral reception in hopes that Falwell might somehow woo him back to faith. We experience Himes’ memories of sharing the “Plan of Salvation” (and using a pamphlet written by his grandfather in doing so) with the customers on his newspaper route, or the heartbreak of his moments of recognizing his ingrown racism and the racism of his family.
I found myself longing to stay in those places with Himes and often disappointed when I had to return to the other story he was telling. It’s not that the story of his family or even of Fundamentalism of the South isn’t fascinating; it’s simply that Himes never gives enough of himself in those brief glimpses of his life. We know that he leaves the Fundamentalism of his family and we notice some the experiences that light the path out of his grandfather’s shadow, but we don’t get to watch it.
Despite that, what I take from this book is a compassion for the development of my family’s faith, a story that I’m still telling. Aren’t we all shedding the broken patterns that were passed to us and struggling to put on a sort of hope and faith that is not only free of hatred and injustice, but is also teeming with a longing to restore what those before us had a hand in breaking? What this book gave me was more than the story of where I come from, but a reminder of the calling we all share: To build something beautiful out of the broken pieces of our history.