A wonderful new book about Fundamentalism

A wonderful new book about Fundamentalism June 8, 2011

I capitalize “Fundamentalism” because here I’m talking about the movement.  Increasingly I am adopting the practice of distinguishing between two sense of many religious labels: the movement of that name and the ethos described by that label.  For example, evangelicalism is an ethos shared by people in virtually every denomination.  Evangelicalism (with a capital E) is the post-WW2, post-fundamentalist movement initially led by Billy Graham, Harold John Ockenga, Carl F. H. Henry, et al.

The wonderful new book that I highly recommend to you is The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family by Andrew Himes (foreword by Parker J. Palmer) (Seattle: Chiara Press, 2011).  Himes is the grandson of John R. Rice, one of the leaders of the Fundamentalist movement in the 20th century.  This is the biography of a family that, through that family’s history, traces the origin and evolution of Fundamentalism in America.  It is gripping, vivid, insightful, mostly accurate (I have a few quibbles with details) and especially emotionally moving to those of us who grew up in this religious milieu.

A few months ago here I engaged in conversation about “fundamentalism” and “Fundamentalism” with some folks.  One challenged me to read this book and I agreed if he would send me a complimentary copy.  I received it and read it in a few days.  (I want to thank that person for sending it to me gratis, but I don’t want to name him here although he’s welcome to identify himself if he wishes.)

The book jumps around some, so at times it’s hard to follow the chronology, but it begins with the distant ancestors of the author and his grandfather John R. Rice, publisher and editor of The Sword of the Lord magazine who died in 1980 and age 85.  His life, recounted in detail in the book (although it is not strictly speaking his biography), was inextricably entwined with 20th century Fundamentalism of which he was, with Bob Jones and Carl McIntire (unfortunately not mentioned in the book) one of the notable leaders.

Himes’ book alternates between vignettes of the lives of his ancestors and their fundamentalist friends and associates and mini-essays about American and especially Southern evangelical Christianity.  It also contains chapters about Himes’ own life without being his autobiography.

My own interest in this subject and what kept me reading almost non-stop is more than my interest as a historical theologian especially interested in the history and theology of American evangelicalism (and Evangelicalism).  Primarily it was the similarity between Himes’ family and faith community and my own growing up.  (Himes left it as did I without it leaving us!)  I grew up in Pentecostalism and many Fundamentalists rejected us, but we shared with this genre of American Christianity most of its ethos.  (Movement Fundamentalists rejected us because of our belief in and practice of speaking in tongues, divine healing through the “gift of healings,” prophecy, etc.  We rejected them because of their outspoken criticism of us AND because we were not as seperatistic as they.  I grew up surrounded by adherents of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches [GARBC] and we did not get along even though we shared a great deal in common.)

I was almost moved to tears by some of Himes’ memories about growing up in a church where he often didn’t feel completely comfortable–especially in his later teen years.  But more of that later.

Himes’ book begins with the “Scots-Irish” immigration to the colonies and migration into the Appalachian region.  His distant ancestors were mountain men and women whose descendents moved to Texas.  Himes recounts in vivid detail, based on intimate research (family records, memories and journalistic records), his ancestors’ social and religious contexts in the South including their memberships in the Ku Klux Klan.  (His great-grandfather was a member who also served for a time in the Texas legislature.  His grandfather, John R. Rice, was not a member or sympathizer of the KKK.)

One theme running throughout The Sword of the Lord (the book under review here, not the magazine) is the close connection between early Fundamentalism and racism including anti-semitism.  Himes tells in vivid details and with many quotations from journals, diaries and sermons about lynchings and hate speech aimed by fundamentalists against blacks, Catholics, Jews and other minorities.  A theme of the book is that Fundamentalism, including his own beloved grandfather, did not do enough to counter that current of hate among its ranks.  One could easily draw the conclusion from the book that Himes believes Fundamentalism (at least until recently) was inseparable from ultra-conservative social attitudes that embraced and fostered racism.  He provides quotations from his grandfather’s and his grandfather’s Fundamentalist associates demonstrating conclusively that, if they did not personally hate blacks and Jews, they did not sympathize with their struggles for equality.  John R. Rice believed in the equality of all people, but he harshly criticized the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s and especially Martin Luther King, Jr. (who he called an infidel and socialist, etc.).

According to Himes, the Fundamentalist movement was riddled with ironies and inconsistencies.  Many of its leaders were the most loving, gentle and kind people to everyone around them (including in his grandfather’s case blacks) while at the same time spewing vicious epithets and rhetoric of exclusion against everyone who disagreed with them.  Especially interesting are his insider’s accounts of his grandfather’s falling out with Billy Graham in the 1950s and then his grandfather’s falling out with Bob Jones in the 1960s.  One thing is clear about that.  Himes believes that John R. Rice’s rejection of Billy Graham, with whom he was very good friends, was NOT only over the latter’s inclusion of “modernists” in his crusades beginning with his New York crusade in 1957.  It was ALSO over Graham’s integration of his crusades even though Rice did not state that publicly as a reason for their parting of the ways.  Apparently Rice believed in the principle of “separate but equal” but was not entirely consistent in his own practice because he invited black church choirs to sing at some of his own evangelistic crusades.

This book is not a scholarly examination of Fundamentalism; it is a family history written from an insider’s perspective relying on lots of good research to fill in the details.  The one major problem I have with the book is the absence of Carl McIntire.  McIntire was a major leading of American Fundamentalism along with John R. Rice and Bob Jones and others mentioned in the book.  I don’t see how it is possible to give a 300 plus page account of American Fundamentalism and not even mention him.  One reason that’s an oversight is that, unlike Rice, McIntire separated from the “neo-evangelicalism” of Ockenga right at its beginning in the 1940s.  It took Rice and Jones and others until the 1950s and 1960s to separate from, for example, the National Association of Evangelicals.

One thing this book rightly makes clear is the key, cornerstone, distinctive doctrine and practice of Fundamentalism that separates it from Evangelicalism is “biblical separation.”  Rice and other Fundamentalist leaders believed it wrong for evangelicals to have Christian fellowship with heretics and people living unholy lives (as they defined holiness).  Jones and Rice fell out over the doctrine and practice of “secondary separation” with Jones emphatically advocating it and Rice being much less enthusiastic about it.  Secondary separation is the refusal of fellowship with fellow Christians who are having fellowship with heretics, modernists, unholy people, etc.  (I can remember overhearing debates about this among GARBC people in a Christian bookstore in the midwestern city where I grew up.)

I could go on singing the praises of this book, but instead I’ll just recommend that you buy it and read it.  It’s well worth it if you have any interest in American Christian history and especially Evangelicalism including Fundamentalism.  The material about J. Frank Norris and William Bell Riley alone is worth the price!  (They were early associates of Rice’s and warhorses of the Fundamentalist movement in the 1920s and afterwords.  Norris, pastor of Fort Worth’s First Baptist Church, pulled a pistol out of his church office desk drawer and shot an unarmed visitor to death!  He was acquitted by a jury and lauded as a great hero by his followers!)

So, finally, a few words about why I resonate so strongly with this book.  I didn’t grow up in the thick of THIS Fundamentalism, but my childhood religious milieu resembled it a lot.  We did not think Catholics were Christians.  We disliked blacks except the few we knew personally.  (Our Pentecostal church had one black member and somehow she was always the exception to everything bad my parents said about African-Americans.  “Sister Willa Jones” was viewed by my parents and our church members as not really “negro”–at least not like others.  How ironic.)  We viewed all “worldly entertainment” with suspicion.  I remember when the Grand Ol’ Opry came to our city in the 1950s and my parents condemned it because it contained characters pretending to be drunk.  My parents singled out young women in our church for special “counseling” when their skirts got too high (i.e., anywhere near the knee!).  My stepmother didn’t wear pants until she was in her 50s and then only very reluctantly.  We used the King James Bible only (in the 1950s, anyway) and the Scofield Reference Bible was considered authoritative (except for the footnotes dealing with the cessation of the gifts of the Spirit!).  We didn’t participate in politics which was considered dirty and the playground of the devil.  (I sometimes describe us as “urban Amish.”)  Anyone who drove a big, expensive car was harshly criticized for “conspicuous consumption.”  Tithing or even double tithing (with on tenth going to world missions) was expected.  I remember my stepmother saying we would eat only popcorn if necessary to pay our tithes!  (Thankfully it never quite came to that.)  We took the Bible as literally as possible, believed in the immanent rapture, were anti-evolution and anti-communist.  We were anti-Catholic and didn’t celebrate when President Kennedy was assassinated but neither did we cry over it.)  We considered Martin Luther King, Jr. a false prophet stirring up violence unnecessarily and were not upset when he was killed.  We regarded “mainline Christians” as false Christians unless they inexplicably came out openly and publicly as against their own denominations.  My parents spent many hours trying to steal sheep from mainline Protestant churches and criticizing their pastors as “liberal” and “social gospel” which was about as bad as being communist.  (I remember them singling out one Baptist pastor in town for special criticism because he was allegedly liberal.  Years later I got to know him and I still have a special relationship with him in his 90s.  He’s one of the most warm-hearted evangelical men I’ve ever known!)  When the charismatic movement began my parents regarded it with great suspicion because its leaders (mostly Catholics and mainline Protestants) didn’t leave their churches and often continued to drink and sometimes smoke after being allegedly Spirit-filled.  (Later, in the 1970s my parents embraced the charismatic movement cautiously.)

Enough said.  My Christian childhood and youth was much like Himes’.  But whereas Himes, by his own admission, fled as far from Fundamentalism as he could (to return part way in later life), I was rescued from both my fundamentalist religious upbringing and over reaction to it by my evangelical seminary professors (including strangely enough James Montgomery Boice who was my professor of homiletics!) and by my involvement in Youth for Christ (which was very ecumenical in the 1960s).

Although my childhood and youth were in a different kind of fundamentalism than Himes’ I resonated with his reminiscences and love-hate relationship with it.  To this day, I cry when I watch a Bill Gaither Homecoming Video/DVD–especially if it includes the “old timers” of Southern Gospel Music.  The songs of Albert Brumley, Jr., Ira Stanphill, Rusty Goodman, Stuart Hamblin, et al., still move me to tears when sung by groups such as The Speer Family who often came to our town for concerts at the Nazarene Campground or by the Goodmans or groups like that.  Theirs was the only music allowed in our home and I loved it and still do.  (Although, as a teenager I had my secret transistor radio that I kept under my bed so that I could listen to rock music at night and I still think the pop music of the 1960s has never been matched!)

Get the book; you’ll enjoy it if you have any interest in American Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism.

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