Peering into your history is always an interesting experience, both for what it tells you about who you were and where you came from and for exploring the mystery of who you are becoming. A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to do just that.
I’ve mentioned my Great-Grandfather a couple of times on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve gone into much detail about him. John R. Rice was born in 1895. He started preaching in his 20’s, and in 1934 he founded the biweekly publication “The Sword of the Lord and of John R. Rice” (he later dropped his name from the title) which, at its height, had a circulation of over 300,000. During his lifetime, he published over 200 books and phamplets, of which there are more than 60 million copies in print. His best selling books were “Prayer – Asking and Receiving” (1942) and “The Home: Courtship, Marriage and Children” (1945). I’ve met several people my parents age who, when finding out my relation to Dr. Rice, tell me they raised their children by the second book. A couple of his other titles were “Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers” (mentioned often in books that recount the history of fundamentalism), and “I Am a Fundamentalist”, a book written just five years before he died. As the most prominent Fundamentalist evangelist and author of the 20th century, he had a huge influence. He helped Billy Graham get his start, and then later led the Fundamentalist/Evangelical split away from Graham (who mentions him in his auto-biography). At the age of 18, a young man named Jerry Falwell was “called to preach” during one of Rice’s sermons, and later given a platform by Rice in his Sword conferences and by having his first couple books published by The Sword of the Lord Publishers. Despite his labeling Paige Patterson’s efforts to reform the Southern Baptist Convention as misguided and doomed to fail, Patterson later credited Rice with the Conservative Resurgence (or Conservative Takeover, depending on your point of view) of the SBC, saying that every pastor he met with who had a hand in the resurgence had a copy of the Sword on their desk.
On March 21st, along with my uncle and cousin who were in town, I went by the Bill Rice Ranch (founded by his brother) where he is buried. On the edge of the ranch property is his house, set up as a museum, that used to be located just off of I-24, exit 78. There is a gas station where the house used to sit, on the corner of what is now John Rice Boulevard, and a Sam’s Club occupies the site where their barn used to be. After spending a little time at the Ranch, we went on to the offices of the Sword, in downtown Murfreesboro, where they have turned his old office into a museum as well. They have one display case with the sketches of some of his songs in it that was cool to see (many of them were included in a hymnal he published). His piano, on which he wrote many of his songs, is sitting in the corner of the office, so I went over and played part of a composition I wrote a couple years ago built around the tritone just for the fun of it. (For those who don’t know, the tritone, a diminished fifth /augmented fourth, is referred to as “the devil’s interval”, and its usage was forbidden by the church for hundreds of years.) In another display case, there was a photo of him playing golf with J. Frank Norris, the “firebrand fundamentalist leader” who helped him get his start.
After looking around his office, the man showing us around took us down to the Sword archive room where they have copies of every issue that has been printed. He showed us a copy of the very first issue, from 1934, and then led us to an adjoining overflow room with extra copies piled wall to wall, stacked about 5 feet high. I picked up a couple to read through later, including one from July of 1955 that has a front page article, characteristic of many of the issues in the Sword history, titled “Whiskey – The Devil in Liquid Form”. Looking through the Sword board of directors for the time, there were several interesting names that caught my eye, including Dr. M.R. DeHann, Dr. Billy Graham, Dr. Bob Jones and Dr. Bob Jones Jr., Dr. Lee Roberson, and Mr. Pat Zondervan and Mr. Bernie Zondervan of Zondervan publishers. After digging through the piles of old issues for a little while, we went across the parking lot to the Sword bookstore where I found a copy of one of his books I’ve been looking for, “What’s Wrong with the Movies”. It was first published in 1938, and when I was reading it over the weekend, my Grandmother saw it and mentioned that it was originally published by the Zondervan publishers. I was amused that the Sword is still publishing it today.
All in all, it was interesting looking back into that world that I used to be a part of, having spent my childhood growing up solidly in fundamentalism. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been in that world, and I’m finding that my tolerance is not very high right now for the attitudes and worldviews present in that environment. The weekend I visited the Sword, I followed it up by visiting the church I used to be a member of before I moved to Nashville. The other times I’ve visited that church in the last couple of years, I’ve found myself disagreeing with most of what was said. But this past visit was the first time where I was deeply offended by the sermon, for a number of different reasons. It makes me wonder what part of my current environment will prompt the same reaction in the coming years when I’m looking over my shoulder, and at the same time reminds me to be careful with my attitudes toward others today.