John R. Rice was, arguably, the leading voice of Fundamentalism in the 20th century. At its peak in the early 1970’s, his weekly paper, The Sword of the Lord, boasted a circulation of over 130,000. Back in those days, as a young Southern Baptist disturbed by the direction of the Convention, I read the Sword faithfully. Articles such as “Southern Baptists–Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing,” “Death in the Pot at Furman University,” and “Liberalism at Southern Seminary Exposed” convinced me and others similarly concerned that something had to be done. For the last couple of years Joy Martin, one of Rice’s six daughters, has entrusted the Library at Southeastern with the task of being caretaker over Rice’s papers. As we finish the process of digitizing his letters, sermons, and other personal correspondence, Southeastern will transfer the papers to Southwestern Seminary, where Rice attended. Now Andrew Himes, one of Rice’s grandsons, has written a new biography about his grandfather, and it is not the hagiography one might expect.
Himes, by his own admission, was the black sheep of the Rice family. Though he made a profession of faith at an early age and surrendered to preach under the ministry of Rice, by the time he went to college in the late ’60s he had abandoned his faith. When Himes graduated from the University of Wisconsin he was an atheist and a communist, and he spent the next decade as a union organizer. By his own admission, Himes traded one fundamentalism for another. By the time of Rice’s death in 1980, Himes had realized the futility of Mao’s and Stalin’s utopia, and was at the end of his rope. In many ways Himes’ biography tells the story of how he went “from worshipping his famous grandfather, to hating him, and finally to loving him.”
Through the story of Rice’s life, Himes attempts to tell the wider story of Fundamentalism. In broad surveys he recounts the influences that birthed Fundamentalism–the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings, Reconstruction, the Scopes Monkey Trials–with varying degrees of success. But the best parts of the book are the portions which tell of Rice’s relationships with those who played such a significant role in the formation of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. John R. Rice got his start in evangelism in no small part due to J. Frank Norris. In turn, Rice would play a pivotal role in launching the career of Billy Graham. Rice and Graham’s eventual falling out illustrated the larger break up between Fundamentalists and Evangelicals. Himes had a front row seat to many of events which shaped Evangelicalism in general and Baptists in particular. You really want to read his account of having lunch with Jerry Falwell at his grandfather’s funeral (Falwell extolled to Himes, the communist, the Christian virtues of Ronald Reagan).
In many ways The Sword of the Lord is a very sad book. Himes’ regret over the broken relationship between Rice and him comes through often. This is no whitewash: Himes deals with Rice’s failure to deal properly with the race issue during the civil rights movement. But his days as an angry communist ideologue are over. Now approaching retirement age, Himes has come to admire his grandfather’s character and courage. Without endorsing every page, I recommend The Sword of the Lord as an insightful work about a crucial person and his role in modern church history.