The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family (Review)

Whenever I start to read a book about personal experiences in Baptist Fundamentalism, I tend to approach it with a certain amount of anxiety. The reason for this is twofold: 1) a fear that it will not affirm my own experience and 2) a hope that the book will treat the subject matter with the correct balance of honesty and respectfulness. As a I read The Sword of the Lord by Andrew Himes, I realized that my initial nervousness was completely unfounded.  What I found was a history lesson that was both affirming and accurate but also warm and personal.

The Sword of the Lord is indeed a history book. As one might imagine, it contains the requisite amount of facts, figures and details as the author tells the story of how the ethos of an age and the events of the last two centuries spawned the religious movement that we now know as Baptist Fundamentalism. But through that larger narrative is woven a more personal tale:the story of the Rice family and how its influence shaped the person of John R. Rice (the author’s grandfather) who is, perhaps, more responsible than any other single individual for the shaping of modern fundamentalism.

Opening with a description of the immigration of the Scots-Irish, then continuing to the Civil War,  and then through the Southern Reconstruction and into the modern era, Himes tells the tale of fundamentalism in the South by drawing from his own family history and his own personal experiences as a young man. What emerges is a powerful narrative that puts a personal face on events that may otherwise seem distant. From R.A. Torrey and Billy Sunday to the “Texas Tornado” of J. Frank Norris, and then to John R. Rice, Bob Jones Sr., Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell, the tale of  Baptist Fundamentalism gives a detailed analysis of  “how we got here” from the roots of historic fundamentalist thought.

Through the book, race plays a large role in Himes’ recounting of Fundamentalist history. Segregationist theology, KKK involvement, blatant racism, and outright hatred were part and parcel of the Southern brand of fundamentalism from which John R. Rice came. His was  a movement often more interested in “saving souls” than the practice of justice or mercy. Himes faces this awful truth with unflinching honesty but also is careful not to try to dismiss any individual as being “just a racist” choosing rather to show this evil in the context of the larger picture of both the movement and the individuals in it.

The story concludes as Andrew Himes gives us a look into the last days of John R. Rice as he stood sorrowing at the divisiveness and rancor within the fundamentalist camps and trying to pull warring factions back together into a common cause. Yet, his pleas for unity ultimately fell on deaf ears as the splits and divisions between the Sword of the Lord, Bob Jones University, Jerry Falwell, and Billy Graham created increased isolation and opened the doors to the fragmented fundamentalist circles that we see in the modern day.

The story of fundamentalism is an amazing tale full of blood and thunder, prophets and liars,  sinners and saints. But Himes gently reminds us that it is the story of real people as well — people like his grandfather, John R. Rice. He paints the picture of a man who was flawed and fallen but a man who loved people and loved his God in the same imperfect and struggling way that is common to all mankind. It is a personal story both tragic and glorious of  Fundamentalism and a family who has journeyed through it.

If you’d like to read it, you can check it out on Amazon.com

I received an advance review copy of this book for free through a generous offer from the author. All of the content of my review, however, is my own. Any disagreements anyone might have with my review will be settled the old-fashioned way: via flame war on the forum

89 thoughts on “The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family (Review)”

  1. Sounds interesting, but is there anything on the northern branch of Fundamentalism? That is where I grew up and I have been wanting to learn a bit more of the history of Fundamentalism as told from someone outside my local IFB College. Will save my pennies to grab a copy.

    1. this leads to some of the confusion when people broad brush the IFB – the old Northern Baptist/CBA/GARBC crowd in the northern midwest are a distinctly different breed from the Falwell, Rice, BJU fundamentalism and all that. There is overlap and inbreeding, but its still has pockets of normalcy that is just not seen in the south, plus much of that southern fundamentalism has moved into the north along with people moving to Ohio, Detroit, etc for industrial jobs. In certain parts of Metro Detroit, you can visit churches that seem to have been wholly transplanted from WV or Kentucky, and theres some scary stuff out there. That is a totally different thing from the more organic northern Baptist churches that have been there for 100-150 years and may have stayed somewhat distinct from much of the fundy qualities of the more sutherin churches.

    1. Growing up IFB is frustrating as a white or black person. But imagine being brown in an IFB church. I couldn’t attend a new church without someone asking me if I was “legal”, if I was related to their doctor, or better yet, if I’m from the same country as the 9/11 terrorists. My being born and raised American was not enough. Yeah, racism and xenophobia is alive and well in Southern Fundamentalism.

      1. these same viewpoints exsist in the north as well. i can’t believe some of the things i heard in church. When i visited the south (summer camp/ camp meeting) i was REALLY horrified by some of the stuff i heard in churches.

  2. //a fear that it will not affirm my own experience//

    Very honest of you Darrell. But at the same time, even if it doesn’t affirm your experiences, it doesn’t diminish or discredit your story (not that you didn’t know this already). 🙂

  3. When I was a student at an evangelical college years ago, we would occasionally pass around a copy of Sword of the Lord that some student picked up somewhere. It was always a sort of curiosity . . . we’d read it and roll our eyes.

    John R. Rice’s nephew was one of our professors. He acknowledged that Rice loved the Lord, and he had a measure of fondness and respect for him, but he definitely didn’t share Rice’s fundamentalism. When he retired, he and his wife moved South and joined one of the most liberal churches in the SBC (now very much ex-SBC).

  4. Good review, Darrell. I’ll save my pennies to buy the book (maybe when it’s available used at some point). I grew up in the northern version of fundamentalism, but there was a lot of unaccountable racism in my family that I never really understood (nor do I yet understand). Maybe I’ll find some answers in the book.

  5. In the 70s my dad interviewed at the SOTL for a job as an artist. We had a tour of the place, and the Ranch and met one of the Rice’s. (I was 8 or 9 and don’t remember who.) My dad who had severe arthritis turned the job down b/c he couldn’t stand the heat/humidity. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seriously thanked God that we didn’t grow up there.

  6. I have been in at least 3 IFB “circles”. I find mostly revisionist history going on to prove why they are the only right ones out there. Perhaps this book is objective, it would be rare.

    1. The author is not a fundamentalist nor even a Christian. And this is not so much an attempt to speak to all of fundamentalist history as it is a look at the parts related to John R. Rice and the Rice family.

      I think it does a fair job on that point.

        1. There are some books out there. George Marsden has written a couple about Fundamentalism dealing with the movement as a whole (Fundamentalism and American Culture, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism). A book about the Bob Jones brand worth reading is “An Island in the Lake of Fire” my Mark Taylor Dalhouse. Neither is “evangelical” like a Fundy would see it, but the books are good for info on the movement from an outside perspective, not like a “Standing without Apology” type of book. If you would like an outsiders perspective of the school directly, Al Franken has a funny chapter in his book (I don’t remember the title, and I don’t have time to look it up) about Bob Jones.

        2. I didn’t know much of anything about Himes or his non-Christianity. I find the conversation outside the faith to be far more illuminating to how well what a movement is doing is being received. Fundies would argue the more they can offend the better they are doing, I’m fairly hostile to that notion.

        3. Really? Especially growing up GARBC
          with close relatives (too close) from BJU
          who are “christians” but loving and accepting…?
          versus people who do not claim to
          have a personal relationship with God
          who do love and accept me…and don’t think
          I’ve bought a ticket on the bullet train to hell…
          For some reason, the later mentioned folks don’t seem to have a need to make sure I see the world from their point of view..and how refreshing!
          “Just the facts mam, just the facts”.

        4. sorry…my post is too direct and I didn’t mean to jump on you BJU student.
          RobM said it much better than I did

        5. I, too, believe that the discussion from a non-Christian who was so close to the key players offers an undeniably unique perspective. I am looking forward to reading it.

      1. Actually I would like to see a history on the families of the movers, shakers and empire builders of the American IFB movement. I know Billy Sunday’s family was a mess, yet his empire continued to grow. How many families have been sacrificed on the altar of Full time IFB Christian service? How many of these men have ruined their families all while claiming as Peter did in Matthew 19, “Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.

        It would be interesting to know how many families were ruined due to some full-time Narcissist’s warped claim of living by Luke 14:26, If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
        Think it would be an interesting history to research.

        1. This is something I’ve always wondered about, as well. I, for one, can attest that my family was all but torn apart by fundamentalism. I’m still hanging in there by a thread, but I can’t say the same for some of my siblings.

        2. And how many of us have been used up by the obsession that one must be busy busy busy all of the time “for the Lord” or risk losing our reward?

        3. @Susan, I like how Paul explains that the single person can serve God more whole-heartedly, but the married person has to please their spouse. People focus on Jesus talking about hating your spouse or your children and don’t evaluate what He might have meant in light of all of Scripture.

        4. I’m another one from a family sacrificed on the altar of being “busy for Jee-zus”. It left it’s mark.

        5. My family is not ruined but much danage has been done due to my foolishness of following a man, not God. I can’t count how many families I saw “sacrificed” for Christ. No one could come up with numbers because it is so easy for preachers to deflect responsibility. In one of my last exchanges with my old pastor over this very thing I ask him if he ever evaluated his ministry by looking at his congregation over the long term, not just numbers you had last sunday or how many preacher boys you have following you. He said no. I told him he should look at the children of the families that have grown up in this church and think about who is responsible. He quickly denied any responsibility of course, “I’m not pastor of your home” famous saying of his. I told him I saw it this way: There are at least 4 major influences in raising children and all 4 have some responsibility. Parents, school, church and the child himself. if you are a part of one or more of those influences you should evaluate your part from time to time and try to see if you are helping or hurting. Most families in that church have children that no longer attend any church and the few who stay are visibly withdrawn. They are there just to satisfy parents. They refuse to see.

  7. One of the very best books I’ve ever read on fundamentalism was the one written about thirty years ago by George Dollar, the BJU church history prof. Biased and gossipy, but excellent — a treasure trove of information.

    1. That is a pretty fascinating read, and it does cover the various splinters of the movement better than some of the more myopic perspectives of some of these writers

      1. Well, it’s true. Dollar is a fundamentalist himself, and tells a lot of “inside stories” in the book. That said, it contains a lot of very thorough information on the people and events that shaped the movement, and presents a clear picture, for non-fundies, of what fundamentalism is about. I think the book is good enough that it should be required reading in mainline seminaries. I’m not exaggerating. It really is an excellent volume.

        1. . . . I’ll add something to that as well: I think a case could be made (here’s a suggestion for a doctoral thesis) that Harold Lindsell’s “The Battle for the Bible” was the most influential book in American religious circles in the past fifty years. How’s that for making a sweeping statement? But I’ll stand by it.

  8. Thanks for the review. I’m going to check it out. For what it is worth SFL readers, a couple more books I recommend:

    – “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America.” – Randall Balmer

    – “From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.” Darren Dochuk

      1. He did indeed, and writes from that perspective. It’s a very good book. (IIRC, Balmer also served as the host of a PBS program with the same title.)

        Another book worth reading is Marshall Frady’s biography of Billy Graham. It’s informative, and probably the most objective work I’ve seen on Graham. Frady is critical of him where criticism is deserved, but also displays a somewhat sympathetic admiration for him.

  9. New to this website. Discovered it through Jesus Needs New PR. Nice job!
    I attend Falwell’s School in VA, training for ministry, but did undergrad work at a state school in New England, where I am from…
    Dont mean to start a flame war, but I am not sure Jerry Falwell was a fundamentalist-Conservative, yes, and proud of it, but maybe not a fundamentalist.
    Consider the Following evidence.
    First, Falwell was good friends with men such as Jessie Jackson, Teddy Kennedy, and Larry Flynt. Fundies typically dont maintian friendships with pornagraphers and liberal politicians.
    Secondly, He had very public disagrements with folks like Bob Jones on the issue of separation.
    Third, He allowed the use of “rock” and “contemporary Christian music” in the worship services at LU and Thomas Road.
    Fourth, He had good relationships with other denominations. He was good friends with Presbyterians like D. James Kennedy, and his work at PTL after the Bakker scandal put him in contact with a lot of Pentecostals, some of whom became lifelong friends of his.
    Fifth, according to some of those closest to him at the time of LU’s founding, Falwell never bought into the KJV only teaching. Yes. He used the King James, but did not teach that other translations were of the devil.
    I am not saying that Falwell wasnt influenced by Fundamentalists, or that he didnt have some fundamentalist tendencies, but I think nit would be a stretch to call him a full blown Fundy.

      1. I take it, then, that you blame the college? I find that hard to believe. Say what you want, but Fundies cannot, repeat *cannot* control people’s minds (no matter how hard they try). They cannot force someone to commit suicide, especially since most of them believe that suicide will send you to hell (another connection with Popery that they won’t acknowledge).

        That said, I will probably read this book when I can find it used. I know that my school won’t spring for it, since I might use it to teach my students that there are faults with the Baptist denomination.

        1. I’ve never met a fundamentalist who believed suicide would send you to hell if you were a saved individual.

        2. Darrel, unfortunately I have met them. They cast doubt on the person’s salvation after the fact.

        3. Exactly. Their “argument” is that no-one who is “truly saved” can commit suicide; thus, anyone that commits suicide is by necessity unsaved and, therefore, in hell.

        4. Markus, it was more along the lines of total despair of ever living up to the fundie standards expected of him – not just at Liberty. He was the kid who followed the rules all of the time, had a spectacular testimony of loving the Lord, and was 100 percent involved. One day he simply could not handle the pressure.

        5. Thanks for clearing that up for me. Having grown up in an IFB Church and going to Fundy U, I understand the pressure.

    1. I don’t know about a lot of what you’ve posted, but I know the statement that Jerry Falwell “was good friends with men such as Jessie Jackson, Teddy Kennedy, and Larry Flynt” is as empirically an untrue a statement as I’ve ever read. Larry Flynt was about as much an enemy as anyone could ever have for Falwell. Kennedy & Jackson had some mutual respect, but I don’t know of any friendship, more like affable opponents? Which isn’t very fundy, but it’s not and wasn’t anything you would characterize as a friendship, which is more than you can say for what I would call a true fundy.

        1. Huh. I have no clue what is going on there. The acrimony between them that existed for the 10 years or so I cared would be the exact opposite of that. Falwell often surprises (of I guess I should say surprised) me in both directions, would say & do shockingly fundamentalist & offensive things, and then unbelievably reasonable ones, and I never had a clue what was next. I knew Kennedy & Jackson had points of contact & tolerance, despite opposing politics.

        2. The fact that people were cordial to each other doesn’t mean they were what I would call “friends,” but if Flynt and Falwell both called each other friends, why should I argue with that? However, according to Flynt, their “friendship” wasn’t based on any theological, philosophical, or political agreement. You could probably say the same about Falwell vis-a-vis Kennedy and Jackson.

          Falwell, was, however, a fundamentalist. He may not have had all the trappings of some of the most extreme fundamentalists, but he preached fundamentalism and spent his life promoting it. I realize that some people here define fundamentalism quite narrowly, but except for having certain relationships with some non-fundamentalists, I don’t think there are any fundamentalist attributes he didn’t have.

          I’ve said what I think about his political career in other comments on SFL, but that’s not immediately germane here, except that he certainly did promote the racism and segregationism mentioned above for many years, soft-peddling it only when it became a liability to him.

        3. I do think that stretches the meaning of friends, but Flynt said it, and even discounting for the fact it’s written in the wake of Falwell’s passing, it’s technically correct to say that Flynt did call Falwell friend. Pretty incredible.

        4. Jerry Falwell was possessed of great charisma and had an amazing ability to reach out to his enemies. He SUED Flynt for libel and emotional distress after Flynt published a parody ad in Hustler to the effect that Jerry and his mother had an incestuous relationship. Yet he could also refer to Flynt as his friend. It’s part of the southern Baptist preacher love-every-body vibe.

  10. I just put this book on my wish list at paperbackswap.com. In general I have more curiosity than patience, so I’ll probably just end up buying it at some point.

  11. I looked Rev. Rice on the net – and I now know why my GARBC Pastor Grandpa and Grandma were the way they were. Billy Graham was evil and taught us the Afro-Americans were from Noah’s sons curse and there for we were better them. My grandma actually told me she was glad that Dr. King was killed.

    Also explains why I was told that social justice was evil.

      1. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I even understood what Dr. King did. The entire civil rights movement was entirely skipped in my upbringing. I find that so shameful now, if for no other reason than he was a major influence on modern American history.

    1. I was taught this as well, albeit not while I was at BJU (my pastor was old-school BJU). I still remember the looks I got from my seventh or eighth grade teacher when I said something along the lines of “So what if their skin was turned a different color; they’re sinners who need the Lord just like us.” I believe I was informed that – as part of the curse – they either could not be saved or it would be extremely difficult for them to be saved.
      That said, I do not think we should have a MLK Day. Instead, we should have a Civil Rights day honoring those of all races who have fought to end racism. King was a great man, but he was not alone.

    2. You really shouldn’t make up stuff and attribute it to Billy Graham. He didn’t teach any such thing and in fact was a pioneer in encouraging desegregated attendance at his crusades despite laws to the contrary.

      1. I don’t know if Billy Graham had any specific doctrine on race, but I do recall that his revivals had all races attending together, back when that was quite unusual and, in some circles, controversial.

      2. I think the poster meant to say that in addition to Billy Graham being evil the grandparents also taught that Afro-Americans were from Noah’s son’s curse etc…not that the teaching came from Billy Graham.

  12. Sorry, this is saying that crimson isn’t red.

    That Falwell wasn’t the most fundamentalist possible doesn’t mean he wasn’t a fundamentalist.

    I am sure there are fundamentalists that would say that BJU is a nest of liberal vipers. I don’t mean those are that are similar to BJU, but just have sour grapes towards it. I mean people that are batship crazy.

        1. My heart is hard and my neck is stiff. I remain obstinate in my unbelief. Maybe I should change my name to Green Eggs the Apostate. :mrgreen:

    1. Yes, the Hyles crowd says this (or used to say it) about BJU… about the time that they insisted Dr Hyles answer the charges against him — he began warring with BJU and mocking them.

      Don’t know if such is being carried on today by his son-in-law.

  13. I find it very interesting that I grew up in various baptist churches in New England and attended several different Christian schools, but civil rights was never, ever discussed in any form. The only thing I ever heard about MLK Jr. from my parents was that he was a womanizer and liberal in doctrine. I guess that meant nothing he did was worth talking about. When I finally found out about the civil rights movement when I was an adult in a fundy church, teaching in a fundy school, I was determined to inform the kids in my class about it. I celebrated MLK Day and I actually had my first graders watch Obama’s inauguration. Do you know that I was the ONLY teacher in the entire school that did so? HMMM I wonder why I was laid off at the end of the year?

    1. It’s not surprising that separatist fundamentalism of the IFB sort has never touched black America. My observation has been that the majority of African-American churches — Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal — are modestly conservative theologically and left-of-center on social and political matters (though there are exceptions). I’ve never heard any black churches that espouse the sort of stuff that characterizes IFBs. It does indeed seem to be a white middle class phenomenon.

      1. Stepping back and looking at IFB from a sociological viewpoint, ie. as a type of sub-culture with its own vocabulary, norms, etc. has been very interesting. And yes, the “middle-class whiteness” of the IFB really stood out, in fact that was one of the things that made me start wondering if maybe, just maybe, all the rules of conduct where man made and not actually from the Bible. Ahh, the dangers of higher education.

  14. Good book. Got a kindle version a couple of weeks ago. 😎

    Read it through pretty quickly, even if it’s not particularly ‘easy reading.’ I.e., lots of history that some might not find interesting. However, I personally found the overview on history and culture fascinating. Makes me want to read some of the others mentioned here now. 😆

    Growing up in North Carolina, a lot of this was pretty relevant to the culture I grew up in. Even if I didn’t share the same experiences personally, it helped with some of the “where he heck does THAT come from?” questions that have popped up over the years. 😉

  15. If this review is accurate, the book is actually looking at a subset of twentieth century Baptist fundamentalism. The fundamentalism I grew up with beginning shortly after the death of J Frank Norris. While John R Rice was influential, he was not a household name in my experience.

    I owe the movement a debt of gratitude because it was a great influence on my father and used by God to turn him from a life of drunkenness when I was very young. There are other things not so good about this type of fundamentalism, though.

    One cannot paint these religious movements with a broad brush or locate what individual had the greatest influence on it.

    Thanks for pointing out this book. I’ll have to add it to my “must read” list.

    One of the best descriptions I’ve read of protestant fundamentalism for this period is Nancy T Ammerman’s “North American Protestant Fundamentalism” (1991 Pp 1-65 in Fundamentalisms Observed, Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
    Written by an outsider, she does not find a uniform movement, but a series of separatist movements united by a set of “fundamentals”. (my interpretation)

  16. Its funny that I just found this today. Last night I watched tbe PBS series God in America and it gives a pretty good overview of fundamentalism in our society. I didn’t know that Billy Graham coined the terms “godless communism” and “god fearing americans” until I saw that. It also touches upon race relations in the fifties and the evangelical community’s aversion to it based on not wanting to make waves in the church. Sad stuff.

  17. I’m rehabilitated missionary baptist from arkansas. I don’t know a lot about th IFB, but judging by a ton of comments, it was similar. We thought the southern baptists were doing the devil’s work because they were so liberal.

    I told my mother when I was young that I liked an Asian girl. She told me that what I was doing was a sin and that her “daddy” told her that we were not to be unequally yoked. I asked what that meant (seriously, I was five or six) and she told me that it meant that black people and white people couldn’t get married.

    1. The IFB is what it is.
      You can’t see it from the inside.
      Our beef isn’t with the “Fundamentals” of the faith it is with the pharisaical perversion that the IFB movement has become.

    2. I posted my review first. And then Marine posted a link to Sumner’s review. And then I posted a link to Darrell’s review. Sumner’s review is quite lengthy and begins with a count-up of the chapters in the book. But it’s worth reading. I’ll let the readers figure out why.

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