John Rice, the Sword of the Lord, and What We Should Learn from The Fundamentalists

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I can’t make sense of my Christian heritage apart from the independent Baptist movement of the last century. My father was born in Wheaton, IL, the city where my grandfather was employed as the printer for the Sword of the Lord, the premier fundamentalist newsweekly during the second half of the 1900’s. When John R. Rice, the founder and first editor of The Sword, decided to move the headquarters to Murfreesboro, TN in the mid-60’s, my grandparents moved with him. It was in Murfreesboro, at John R. Rice’s church, that my parents met each other and were married.

Rice died in the hospital I was born in. Though he died six months before I was born, I was raised in the shadow of his influence. During the earliest and most formative years of my life, I understood my identity as an independent Baptist. I was well versed in the fundamentalist distinctions that separated us not only from the world but also from “Christians who love the world.”

I’m grateful for my fundamentalist upbringing, particularly for the amount of Bible knowledge I received at church and in my Christian school. I’m also grateful for an important impulse that continues to shape me today: hold fast to precious truths. The old-school fundamentalists knew there were truths worth protecting, worth holding onto, perhaps dogmatically at times. I think they were right.

But while the independent Baptist movement succeeded in teaching me what to think, it failed in teaching me how to think. When our family joined a fledgling Southern Baptist church plant, I quickly discovered what it was like to be an outsider to the tight-knit community that had once felt like home. Many independent Baptists today would consider me a “liberal” for letting my wife wear pants, for reading versions of the Bible other than King James, or for listening to music with drums. But most of the world would still label me “fundamentalist” – if by that, they mean I adhere the core beliefs at the heart of Reformational Christianity.

I begin this book review with a personal story, because that’s how Andrew Himes begins his new book,  The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family. Himes is the grandson of the late John R. Rice, and his new book tells the story of his forefathers, focusing primarily on John Rice and the early fundamentalist movement. Though Himes has left his fundamentalist moorings, he still sees much to commend about the movement:

As a fundamentalist, I learned that it was perfectly all right for me to have an idea or outlook different from most folks, and to struggle for what I believed in the face of determined opposition. I learned that it was acceptable to be passionate about my values, and to care deeply about the consequences of my actions. I learned to view myself as an imperfect human who needs help from outside myself. I learned the faith and community are essential to life. (12)

The Story of John R. Rice

The Sword of the Lord traces the Rice-influenced version of fundamentalism back to the “myth of the lost cause” sentiment after the Civil War. Himes goes into great detail as he retells his family’s history, sometimes laboring over historical events that don’t move the story along. But once he gets to the portrait of John R. Rice, Himes hits his stride.

John R. Rice

The life of John R. Rice is the most compelling part of the book. The young evangelist began within the SBC, even going so far as to say in 1921, “I feel as never before that the salvation of the world lies heavily upon Southern Baptists.” (189) It was his relationship with J. Frank Norris that led Rice out of the Convention and into a more militant fundamentalist posture that demanded aggressive struggle against modernism.

At times, Himes demonstrates a sense of uneasiness with his grandfather’s legacy. He indicates his disappointment with Rice’s willingness to call out all sorts of sins (mixed bathing, adultery, lust, drinking) while never mentioning racism and mob lynchings. He writes:

“The focus on social and racial justice that strongly marked John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Charles G. Finney, Jonathan Blanchard, Charles Spurgeon, and other evangelical leaders in the 18th and 19th centuries was absent from the millions of words and scores of books John R. Rice penned during his lifetime.” (197)

The most fascinating part of the book chronicles the turbulent relationship between Rice and Billy Graham. For many years, Rice propped up Graham’s ministry, defending his methods against the more strident fundamentalists who had already disfellowshipped him. When Rice finally did turn against Graham, it was because separatism as the principle of fundamentalism had become more important than the doctrines of fundamentalism. Doctrinal purity wasn’t good enough. You could no longer associate with someone who even associated with the theologically impure. The split between Graham and Rice turned into a microcosm of the split between fundamentalists and evangelicals in the latter half of the last century.

Historically, Himes’ work is well-researched, but theological inaccuracies occasionally pop up. For example, Himes asserts that inerrancy is an extreme position that only appeared in the 19th century and was always literalist in interpretation (113). He writes:

“Although previous generations of Christians had believed the Bible to be inspired by God, few orthodox theologians had felt it necessary to insist on the absolute, reductive, factual flawlessness of the Bible.” (125)

That statement may be true on the surface, but the reason isn’t because earlier Christians didn’t believe in an inerrant Bible, but because they did. Why would they insist on what was always assumed? Himes puts forth an essentially static version of doctrine, unable to take in the complexity we see in church history that show new formulations arising (like the Trinity, justification, etc.) during the time periods these doctrines were under attack. He also equates premillennialists with Dispensationalists, though there are variations of premillennialism that do not fit his Dispensational critique. (115)

The conclusion of the book ends with a picture of a more gracious John R. Rice. In his last sermon, the 85-year-old Rice proclaimed his love for Billy Graham and urged his fundamentalist brethren to love like a Christian, meaning “you’ve got to love everybody Jesus loves.” At that event, Rice requested that the congregation sing the Gaither song “The Family of God.” Unfortunately, the new editor of the Sword of the Lord refused the request. Himes recalls:

“Rice sat in his wheelchair and wept with disappointment and sadness. He felt that his last public effort to leave a legacy of compassion to guide the movement he had helped to create had been defeated by the refusal. A spirit of discord, disdain, and disapproval that fundamentalists had incubated against liberals and modernists, in the end, and particularly on that day, boomeranged to poison the relationships among fundamentalist allies.” (290)

Lessons for Today

The story of John R. Rice offers several lessons for us today. First, we ought to be on guard against a Quietist gospel that would have us retreat from the public implications of the gospel. In Counterfeit Gospels, I write:

Fifty years ago, Southern Baptist pastors admirably preached against many forms of worldliness. But there was evil that many pastors never addressed. In small towns throughout the Deep South, outside the comfort of our sanctuaries on a Sunday night, there were African-American brothers whose bodies were swinging from the trees. And many pastors never said a word… Our preaching may have been loud, but it was all too quiet.

Preaching loudly against certain sins, while leaving massive injustice untouched and unspoken of should not be the norm for Christians who believe that Jesus truly did come out of the grave on Easter morning.

Secondly, we need to recognize and resist the fundamentalist tendency to exaggerate differences and distinctions in order to provide justification for our group’s existence. ”Holiness” is not defined by the doctrines that set us apart from other Christians, but the actions and beliefs we hold in common with other Christians that set us apart from the world.

Third, we must not reject everything about fundamentalism. The independent Baptists recognized that there were indeed hills worth dying on. It is possible to conceive of the doctrines and practice of evangelical identity so broadly that the “big tent” falls in on itself. I believe we may be witnessing that kind collapse today. The fundamentalists were wrong to major on minors, but we are often wrong to not major on majors.

Finally, we need to ask God to make us aware of our blind spots. Rice’s legacy was tarnished by his toleration of segregation and racial inequality. He thought he was putting forth a mediating position, but in retrospect, it’s clear that his mediation served only to buttress the existing social structures of the day.

Conclusion

I am thankful for men like John R. Rice. I’m thankful for their belief in truth and their willingness to defend important truths of the Christian faith. Apart from Rice’s ministry to my grandparents fifty years ago, I might not be a Christian today. I’m also thankful for my independent Baptist upbringing. The church folks who nurtured me knew the Bible well and wanted me to know it too. And although I can spot weaknesses in the fundamentalist movement, I admit that evangelicalism also has its fair share of flaws. Even so, I rest in the knowledge that God raises up imperfect people to serve imperfect people and that even through our weaknesses, God shines a spotlight on His magnificent grace.

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