The Sword of the Lord

PART I. WHY WE CARE ABOUT FUNDAMENTALISM

John R. Rice and Lloys Rice with MacArthur

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.

PART II. REVOLUTION, SLAVERY, AND WAR

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.

PART III. LAUNCHING THE FUNDAMENTALIST MOVEMENT

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.

Soul Winner's Fire

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.

PART IV. REVIVE US AGAIN: FUNDAMENTALISM IN MID-CENTURY

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.

PART V. REDEFINING THE FUNDAMENTALS; 
CHRISTIANITY = COMPASSION

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.”

Review & Commentary

One thought on “The Sword of the Lord

  1. Review

     I’m currently reading a book called The Sword of the Lord:  The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family by Andrew Himes.   I snagged the opportunity to read it for review before publication, and I am loving it.  American history, religious history and family history are all bound up together in ways that would be true in many of our personal stories, except that we rarely recognize the intersections and influences.  I look forward to writing about the book after I finish it.  There is one passage in the book that’s on my mind today, though.  In a chapter entitled “The Civil War as a Theological Struggle”, Himes discusses the ease with which supporters of slavery were able to make the “biblical” case for their position.  As Himes writes, “The abolitionist argument that slavery was contrary to the Bible was much less straightforward.”

    Coincidentally, I read an article this morning at USA Today online making the same point.  Henry G. Brinton, writing In Civil War Bible Became a Weapon says,

    In the 1860s, Southern preachers defending slavery also took the Bible literally. They asked who could question the Word of God when it said, “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear +and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5), or “tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect” (Titus 2:9). Christians who wanted to preserve slavery had the words of the Bible to back them up.

    The preachers of the North had to be more creative, but they, too, argued God was on their side.

    What I keep pondering is the idea that the straightforward, common-sense reading of scripture seemed to come down on the side of slavery.  Few of us can see it in the same light at this point in history.  Even if we can readily acknowledge the passages that seem to support the slave system, we are still reading them through a social lens that find slavery both immoral and repugnant.  How can I really understand the way it must have seemed to the Christian slaveholder, in, say, 1820, reading passages of scripture like the ones Brinton cites?

    And that leads me to further questions.  Do those of us who are Christians derive our ethics from scripture, from shared social mores, from natural law, or some combination of factors (including ones not listed in this sentence)?  I’m not a sola scriptura Christian, and never have been, which makes the questions more complicated.  I hold dear the Wesleyan concept of examining questions in the light not only of scripture, but also of tradition, reason and experience.  As I said, though, it makes things more complicated.  And I’m okay with that.  The less complicated approach leads to exactly the sort of thing Himes is talking about:  supporting slavery.  And more.  It also leads to silencing women, and to seeking the execution of homosexuals and blasphemers and rebellious children.  No, I’m not just taking pot shots at the Bible by citing absurd exaggerations.  There are people today promoting the return (or continuation) of such practices because they can find passages of scripture that “plainly” support them.

    So at least we Christians have all come to agreement on slavery, right?  Well, no.  There are still Reconstructionists suggesting the return of that institution in the U.S.  It really does make you wonder how we come to our moral commitments as believers.  Is good simply what God says is good, or is it an expression of who God is?  If we find directives in scripture that seem to conflict with our understanding of the character of God, what do we do with them?  Are there “control texts” that serve as interpretive lenses for difficult passages?  How much of what we find in scripture is prescriptive, how much is descriptive, and how much may have been prescriptive in it’s original context but has a different application today?

    I’m not providing answers today, just asking questions.  I love the Bible, primarily because, as Luther said, it’s “the cradle of Christ.”  But there’s no getting away from the fact that the Bible has been used in ways that I find not just troubling but downright evil.  And sometimes the people who have used it for (what I perceive to be) evil have had the “easy” read on their side.

    Maybe I can’t resist offering a few answers – at least my own.  I am a Red Letter Christian, by which I mean – I have no problem giving primacy of place to the words and actions of Jesus within the larger body of scripture.  So, for example:  some Reconstructionists want to be bring back stoning adulterers.  It is in the Bible, after all.  But Jesus had a chance with a woman caught in adultery and handled it in an entirely different manner.  I come down on Jesus’s side.

    Another thought.  When I consider the Bible in its entirety I find certain values rising to the surface over and over again, even through the dark, confusing passages : compassion for the suffering, justice for the oppressed, inclusion of the marginalized, love that is costly and persistent, faithfulness to promises made.  I let those values override individual passages which seem to conflict with them.

    And undoubtedly, I get it wrong sometimes.  Our perceptions of how the Bible should be read are always tangled up in our particular lives and circumstances.   But if I’m going to get it wrong, I want to err on the side of compassion, justice, inclusion, love and faithfulness.

    – Sharon Autennieth

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