The Sword of the Lord…and of John R Rice

July 29, 2011 by Ken Keathley

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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.

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6 Responses to “The Sword of the Lord…and of John R Rice”

  1. I MET DR RICE ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS. HE DID NOT BELIEVE THE KING JAMES WAS GOD’S WORD AND SAID ACTS 8;27, JOHN 8;1-12 WAS NOT GOD’S WORD. HE USED THE KJV BUT DIDNOT BELIEVE IT WAS GOD’S PRESERVED WORD BUT WAS A FAULTY TRANSLATION. WE WENT AROUND AND ROUND ON THIS.

  2. Rick says:

    I was raised in middle Tennessee during the hay day of Sword of the Lord. The legacy he left Southern Baptist was how to strain at a gnat and split churches. His methodology, obsessiveness, and lack of grace sowed the seeds of ecclesiological discord still being felt today.

  3. Andrew Himes says:

    Dr. Keathley, thanks much for this thoughtful, insightful review. I appreciate the attention, care, and balance you brought to it, and I am grateful for the wonderful job you at Southeastern are doing to preserve the legacy of my granddad. I just have one small quibble with your post: although I am now 61 years old, I figure I am still at least three decades away from “retirement”! I hope to write many more books, though I am aware my output will never match John R. Rice’s.
    Blessings <;-)

  4. Wade Phillips says:

    Thanks for this book, Mr. Himes. I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a fair, honest, look at your granddad. I didn’t know much about him before reading it, but I have family members who are very much into the “Sword of the Lord” brand of Fundamentalism, and this book helped me understand them a little bit better.

  5. Jerry Vines says:

    Dr. Keathley. Enjoyed your review as I did the book. I too regularly read The Sword Of The Lord. I knew from personal experience that he was right about the liberalism in the SBC. Blessings. Jerry Vines

  6. Ken Keathley says:

    Paul and Rick, your comments highlight the spectrum of responses to Rice’s ministry. Some thought he was too lenient while the others thought he was too harsh. Few felt neutral about JRR.

    Andrew, glad you approve; I enjoyed your book. Since I’m only a little younger than you, I agree that you should have many more productive years ahead!

    Dr Vines, glad you enjoyed the review! Many of the other inerrantist leaders have testified that, like you, they found the Sword to be spot on in his criticisms of the SBC. Only Heaven knows how much credit goes to John R Rice for the conservative resurgence.

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