“Fundamentalist” has been a dirty word for much of American Christianity for the few decades of my experience. Speak the 14 letter F-word and you instantly color someone as judgmental and close-minded. But how did Fundamentalism happen, and more importantly, why? If it’s safe to assume those who started the Fundamentalist movement didn’t set out to be judgmental and close-minded, what did they set out to do? And how, as the Church in America, do we find healing for both sides from the religious culture wars of the last century? Andrew Himes sets out to answer these questions in his fascinating new book The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family. Far more than a memoir or even an analysis of a certain kind of church or thought system, the book serves as a history lesson of faith and belief in the United States over the last two hundred years.
Andrew is the grandson of the late John R. Rice, founder and editor of the fundamentalist newspaper The Sword of the Lord and one of the leaders of the Fundamentalist movement in the early and mid twentieth century. Andrew was sort of the black sheep of his family as a teen and young adult in the 1960s and 70s, the lone rebel in a tribe of Southern Baptist preachers and evangelists. He left the faith as a late teen and dove head first into the writings of Karl Marx and other communist philosophers, distancing himself as much as possible from the rigid conservativism of his upbringing.
Even after his eventual return to faith as an adult, it would have been easy for Andrew to write a scathing send-up of the hurt that can be caused by dogmatic religious belief, but instead his book is fair, generous, and at times even affectionate. This was his family and his history. Whether they were wrong or not, he loved these people. While discussing his grandfather’s funeral luncheon (at which he spent an uncomfortable few hours next to the up and coming Jerry Falwell), he writes the following, which perfectly summarizes the sentiment of the book:
I had been estranged from my granddad for years, though I had always thought of him as one of the kindest, funniest, and most honorable people I knew. I had raged against his support for racial injustice in the South and war in Vietnam. I thought his strictures against playing cards and going to movies or women cutting their hair and wearing pants were downright silly. But I also knew he was courageous, truthful and loving. He was the only granddad I had.
He finds an excellent balance between pointing out the wrongs, both ethical and logical, of his forebears and also objectively discussing how those individuals came to the conclusions they came to. He assumes, as we should, that they genuinely believed they were doing and thinking what was right, even when they were clearly in the wrong.
For example, It is hard for us to fathom in the 21st century how a Christian could have in good conscience supported slavery during the Civil War era. Andrew does a good job of explaining the cultural, economic, political and even exegetical influences at the time that lead thousands of southern church-goers to sincerely believe God was okay with what we now recognize as a barbaric and horrible practice. Were they wrong? Absolutely. Were they hateful moral monsters? No, not usually.
Andrew does a good job of using his personal genealogical account to tell the story of an entire subculture in the South. Tracing the arrival of his Scots-Irish Presbyterian ancestors to these shores in the early 19th century and following their efforts to establish themselves in a still largely untamed land, he opens up the psychology and convictions of southern landowners leading up to the Civil War in a way I had not encountered before. Their actions toward African Americans were of course still inexcusable, but having names and stories and pressures explained helps me at least understand better how self-professed Christians could have arrived at the conclusions they did and defended those conclusions violently.
One of the few complaints that could potentially be laid against the book is the tedium of some of the accounts of military skirmishes and political maneuvers during the Civil War era. I found these segments interesting even for all their detail, but some readers might find these a distraction from the central theme of the book in places where so much information was not fully needed. The historical accounts really thrive when Himes focuses instead on individuals and family relationships, using these as a microcosm of larger movements.
I found the second half of the book dealing with the twentieth century to be especially interesting. It was fascinating to see how a soul-winning revival movement transitioned across decades to a defense of the faith and eventually, and sadly, into a cultural and political war camp. Regardless of where you fall doctrinally, there is something to learn from looking at how we got to where we are in today’s church in the United States.
At the beginning of each chapter Andrew discusses his own experience growing up and coming to grips with the influence of Fundamentalism in his home and culture, before returning to the historical accounts for the remainder of each chapter. As one might expect these brief segments of autobiography are among the most heartfelt and poignant of the book, and it would be interesting to read them in expanded form. In one of these segments near the end of the book Himes discusses the last time he saw his grandfather alive in 1980. Andrew was 30 years old, bitter and confused. He went with his granddad to a speaking engagement, and afterwards this elderly legend within the Fundamentalist community allowed him to pick out a couple of the many books he had authored. Himes closes this section with these evocative words:
I drove him back to his hotel and let him off at the front door. I shook his hand and he hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. He said, “Andy, I pray that God will bless you and bring you to Himself.”
I drove off in the darkness, crying, and I stopped by a dumpster in an alley and threw his books away.
I loved him more than I could say, and I hated him so fiercely.
But I hated myself even more.
I was born in 1982 and grew up at the tail end of mainstream Fundamentalism. I came of age just as much of Evangelicalism was starting to loosen up and young people were beginning to question the faith we had inherited and explore new ways forward. I went from a childhood of unquestioning acceptance, to a youth of methodological change while retaining the doctrines of my childhood, to an adulthood of questioning almost everything and growing into a brand of faith some would call emergent or post-Evangelical. My faith now bears little resemblence in many ways to the church life I had as a young person, but I am at the same time grateful for the rigorous Biblical teaching I received in my home and church (and, unfortunately, school, but that’s another story).
While Andrew’s story is certainly much more dramatic at points than my own, close as he was to the pillars of the Fundamentalist movement, I found much of his personal story resonating with my own. I too went through a difficult transition in my late teens and early twenties, frustrated with what seemed to me like an irrational and sometimes hypocritical church tradition and longing to save the world through some fantastic and impossible revolution. I read Marx and William Lloyd Garrison and some modern political revolutionaries as an outlet for frustration and found comfort in the rebelliousness of it, but ultimately realized that was leading me nowhere. My faith eventually matured, and I enjoy now the freedom of knowing I can honor the good intentions of my upbringing while discovering a new way to practice Christianity for myself and my family.
The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family is a fascinating look at the history of conservative Christianity in America. Whether you are conservative or liberal, Calvinist or Arminian, Neo-Reformed or Emergent, Mainline or Southern Baptist or in between, this book will help you understand the movements that have brought us to where we are today. It will also, hopefully, help us to look on those we disagree with more generously, with grace and understanding. Toward the end of his book Andrew quotes Isaiah 2:4, which says, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” It is time for us to stop fighting over cultural and doctrinal scraps and sit once more together at the feast of fellowship.
In anticipation of Andrew’s book releasing on May 15th, I am running our first ever contest and giveaway here on The Screaming Kettle at Home! The winner, announced in a special post on Sunday, will receive a copy of the book from me (don’t worry, it will be the real deal and not a review copy). All you have to do to enter is leave a comment on this post. If you are a subscriber, let me know that in the comment and your name will be entered twice. If you don’t subscribe currently, go ahead and do so and you’ll be entered twice too! The contest will close Friday at midnight, after which I will chose a winner through random means. If you don’t win, buy the book anyway. I promise you’ll thank me.