My grandfather was John R. Rice, founder of the Sword of the Lord newspaper, evangelist, author of scores of books, and mentor to thousands of younger preachers from Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell. Several generations of my family have embodied the history of fundamentalism through the American Revolution, the struggle over slavery and the Civil War, the South in the wake of that war and the First World War, and throughout the 20th century.
As a youthful family rebel, I struggled to understand both the positive impulse that gave birth to fundamentalism as well as its darker side as I was growing up in my prominent Southern fundamentalist family and later as I tried to find my own way. I believe that understanding fundamentalism is essential for understanding America and ourselves.
Fundamentalism has its roots in the Scots-Irish who migrated to America in the 18th century, bringing their stern Presbyterianism and deep love of individual freedom to shape the new republic as they settled throughout the American South.
My ancestors, who came to the United States as part of a wave of Scots-Irish immigrants, settled in Tennessee and fought in the Revolutionary War; moved to Missouri to establish prosperous hemp plantations, own black slaves and fight for the Confederacy, and then fled as refugees during the Civil War to Texas where they lived a marginal existence as dirt farmers, ranchers, and preachers.
My great-grandfather was a Baptist preacher and Texas state senator, as well as a prominent leader of the Ku Klux Klan. He left his descendants a complex inheritance: a deep and abiding faith combined with the burden of outmoded 19th century Southern attitudes toward race, religion, and politics.
Fundamentalism emerged as a distinct and full-fledged movement following World War I, just as my granddad, John R. Rice, was answering his own call to Christian ministry. A crucial turning point was the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, an apparent defeat for the movement which had the effect of concentrating leadership in the hands of Southern conservatives and driving it “underground” and out of sight for most Americans.
As a young seminary student, pastor, and then full-time evangelist and radio preacher by the late 1920s, John R. Rice played an increasingly significant leadership role in the young movement.
In 1935, John R. Rice founded the influential Sword of the Lord newspaper, and over the next four decades became a significant national leader of fundamentalists through the many books he authored, the conferences he organized, and the thousands of younger preachers whom he mentored, including Billy Graham, Bob Jones, Jr., W.A. Criswell, and Jerry Falwell.
Over those decades, the fundamentalist movement built new institutions (networks, schools, publishers, and seminaries), experienced rapid growth and geographical re-distribution, and jettisoned its debilitating Southern burden of racist theology. By the 1970s, my grandfather had helped prepare the Christian fundamentalist movement to give birth to the Religious Right.
In 2010, a new generation of evangelicals is reshaping what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Evangelicals are re-exploring the “fundamentals” of the faith in a post-fundamentalist world. We are remembering how Jesus said that all of his teachings could be encapsulated in a single directive: to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.
As I tell at the end of the book, my friend John grew up on an island off the coast of Florida. John’s metaphor for God, beautifully expressed, is an ocean: “We are the fish in the ocean, living and dancing in and below the waves, drinking and breathing God. The currents in the ocean are the Holy Spirit, moving us here and there through our watery universe, teaching us to swim, training us to lift a fin here and twitch our tails there, waking us up to love for each other, living within God and discovering God within ourselves.”