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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  • Thanks for the book recommend. I will have to read it because of my own personal experiences with the movement during the 70’s on the gulf coast of Mississippi.

  • Dr. Olson, your review of the Sword of the Lord (book) was absolutely terrific. I think the book–and your review–make an important contribution.

  • andrewhimes

    Dr. Olson, thank you so much for this wonderful review of my new book! I appreciated reading about your own life story and how it paralleled mine. I want to be clear that I do not believe there is any automatic or natural association between racism and fundamentalist theology. Fundamentalism is simply a human philosophy, and fundamentalists are flawed like all humans. But many fundamentalist are deeply opposed to racist practices and are profoundly motivated by love toward God and their neighbors. Finally, your criticism that I left Carl McIntire out of my book is justifiable; the book would be more comprehensive if I included McIntire. The reason I did not was partly personal; John R. Rice broke with McIntire before I was born, and I grew up regarding McIntire as a marginalized extremist and something of a loner, estranged from other fundamentalist leaders. I concluded in writing my book that McIntire’s legacy did not play a significant role in the resurgence of fundamentalism or the Religious Right in the 1970s and 80s.
    Gratefully yours,
    Andrew Himes

  • james petticrew

    Roger I am amazed at how far our stories have parallel features. I was brought up Pentecostal in Scotland.There wasn’t any of the social attitudes linked to that kind of fundamentalism. In fact, strangely as we were in a ship building town most of the people would have been Labour Party socialist supporters. We never saw a black person so that wasn’t an issue. our issue was catholicism and we were sure they were all going to hell. I was warned time and time again about too much “book learning” with dire stories of young men who lost their faith in the pages of a systematic theology.

    I later backslid and came back to the Lord when taken to St George’s Tron Church of Scotland by my now wife. This was a large evangelical and reformed church of Scotland the pastor was Eric Alexander who was a close friend of Boice and I think preached his funeral? Alexander’s preaching certainly sorted me out!

    I started attending a local Nazarene church when we got married and found out I was a natural Arminian and Wesleyan, in fact I would claim to have gone through the experience of entire sanctification under Alexander;’s ministry. I am sure he would be embarrassed by that! Though my later theological study led me read a lot of the Puritans whom he was devoted to and I noticed a stream within puritan theology which sought some sort deeper experience with the Spirit. This was more pronounced in Dr Martin Lloyd Jones.

    Nazarene Theological College helped me to move beyond my more fundamentalist theology. I do find it interesting that a “folk theology” level many of the beliefs of this kind of fundamentalism still hold on even in Nazarene churches over here.

    Anyway nothing to do with the book but was interested in the Boice connection

  • Fred

    I would very much like to read the book but I was more interested in your personal account than the review itself. Have you written a personal history?

    I grew up in a little community Bible chapel in northern MN and many of your comments took me back home. We were fundamentalists but were suspicious of the “Holy Rollers.” I sang Heavenly Sunshine every Sunday for ten years, attended church Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening, and was heavily involved in YFC. Curiously (and sadly), I came out of that knowing very little about the Bible.

    • rogereolson

      I beat you by one! We went to church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Tuesday evening and Thursday evening! And, of course, every evening whenever we had a week of revival meetings with an evangelist (which was frequent). I remember taking a pillow to church many times so that I could sleep on a pew while people prayed around the altars long into the night or stood around talking long after the service ended.

      • Fred

        Lucky stiff. We had a fire-brand for a pastor who would have called me by name if he had caught me sleeping in the pew.

        Anyway, we also used to attend old fashioned camp meetings where families would meet for a week of swimming, fishing and hell, fire and brimstone preaching. Everyone would leave pumped to serve the Lord.

        • rogereolson

          Right. But in our case the boys and men swam separately from the girls and women. Swimming with the opposite sex was called “mixed bathing.” One conservative pastor challenged a less conservative one about this. (They were both really fundamentalists.) The conservative to the less conservative: “I hear you allow mixed bathing at your church picnics.” Less to more: “Mixed bathing? We don’t even allow them to swim together!” 🙂

          • Fred

            Whoa. Maybe we were closet liberals.

          • james petticrew

            Nazarene preacher in the 60s at a large denominational gathering in Glasgow thumps the pulpit and says “I want to see you young Nazarene women without thos trousers on!” 😉

          • rogereolson

            That’s hilarious! Did that really happen? I’m sure it could have. Oh, the stories of preachers’ pulpit mistakes I could tell! I think I’ll start a threat about that–just to break the monotony of summer for some of us. A little humor could do us all some good.

  • Matt W

    Thank you for recommending this book and for your own autobiographical insights – doing so presents such a wonderfully nuanced picture of the American Christian experience. The Modernist vs. Fundamentalist debate that marked the 20th century needs to be examined with the kind of scrutiny that you and Himes are presenting here.

    I think it still remains to be seen what some of the fault-lines of theological debate will mark the 21st century.

    For instance, Evangelicalism (as a movement and as an ethos), as you point out is still a contested term. The issues surrounding the definition are rooted in the 20th century, and the eventual direction that Evangelicalism will go in the coming decades seems up in the air.

    • rogereolson

      Right. What will we do after modernity is gone? So much of Evangelicalism consists of reaction and accommodation to modernity. (For example, I now think that my own “anti-modernist” Pentecostal denomination was very modern in its insistence that there must be an “initial, physical evidence” of Spirit baptism!

  • You might also enjoy “Churched” by Matthew Paul Turner. In it, he tells his story growing up as an Independent Fundamental Baptist and how he was able to escape Fundamentalism.

  • gingoro

    Good post. IMO the problem with many or possibly all Fundamentalists is two fold, first secondary separation as you mentioned and second that they make too many doctrines and positions part of their fundamentals. Arminianism, Calvinism, eschatology, inerrantancy and on and on are NOT part of the fundamentals, at least as I see it. I find the Apostles and Nicene creeds do a pretty good job of expressing the fundamentals not whether or not I hold a pre, mid or post Trib raptue position. Too many of the high Calvinists include too much of their own Calvinistic position into what they consider essential or fundamental.

    Secondary separation is an unspeakable evil and causes a huge amount of grief and sorrow. I know of one case where two siblings were missionaries. One with their denominational mission board and the other with Wycliffe. But the brother and sister could not have fellowship because Wycliffe was a highly “tainted” organization and not pure like the denominational mission. As I see it this kind of thing is sin pure and simple.

    Dave W

  • I resonate with so much of this review and will get the book. Another figure for me in the fundamentalism of my early years was Oliver B Greene, the one visiting preacher who I never heard criticize blacks and the communists and in whom I did not detect the arrogance I found in other fundamentalist speakers. We had John R. Rice and Bob Jones visit our church. But unlike so many growing up in fundamentalism, I was surrounded by love and some of the mot beautiful people I ever met. I have only good memories. I left as a late teen over intellectual issues but not over emotional disappointments or even cultural tastes. And to this day I sure miss flannelgraph in Sunday School. Mrs. Troyer could tell a flannelgraph lesson that was alive and full of the wonder and glory of Christ.

    • rogereolson

      Thank you. I can honestly say the same about my churched youth–until I was in college. Then I was told not to ask questions but only to listen and learn. The Germans have a saying “Eat up, little birdies, or die.” That was the attitude of MOST of my teachers in college. And it was certainly the administration’s attitude toward those of us who dared to ask hard questions. But I have only good memories of church until I left to go to college and of Youth for Christ–a formative organization in my teen years.

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  • Brad Gsell

    It is correct that Carl McIntire’s ministry greatly declined in his later years. However, Andrew Himes’ statement that “McIntire [was] a marginalized extremist and something of a loner, estranged from other fundamentalist leaders,” is hardly fair or accurate.

    McIntire was the president of the International Council of Christian Churches (ICCC), which included thousands of Bible-believing Christians and churches from all over the world. McIntire was much more willing to recognize Bible-believing Presbyterieans, Methodists, Baptists, etc., than many of those who refused to stray far from their Baptist confines.

    I just returned from a Congress of the ICCC in Brazil (10 years after McIntire’s death), which included delegates from all six inhabited continents. Many still were speaking of all that McIntire had done to help them and how his ministry impacted their lives.

    It should be remembered that John R. Rice and Bob Jones were quite “estranged” in later years, whereas McIntire and Jones patched up many of their differences. Many of us remember when Dr. Rice and family came in the mid-70s to vacation at McIntire’s Bible Conference in Cape Canaveral, Florida, so apparently Dr. Rice wasn’t quite so harsh in his thinking as is his grandson.

    McIntire indeed had weaknesses, as do all of us, but I believe his place in the history of Fundamentalism is quite signifcant. It is interesting that McIntire’s death received far wider coverage in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and even Christianity Today than that of Rice or many other Fundamentalists.

    An interesting read is the new biography of McIntire, copyrighted in 2012. It is available through Amazon, and is entitled: McIntire: Defender of Faith and Freedom.