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It is difficult, if not impossible, to know who you are without knowing where you came from, without knowing the history of your people, your place. For me, that story revolves around my great grandfather.
My mother’s grandfather, John R. Rice, was an Independent Baptist preacher and evangelist. Although he died fifteen months before I was born, his shadow loomed large over my childhood. My identity came from him, and he was, first and foremost, a Fundamentalist. From a sermon preached in 1928, early in his ministry, “Why I Am a Big F Fundamentalist,” to one of his last books, published in 1975, just five years before his death, “I Am a Fundamentalist,” that remained his most important identifier. With two hundred books and pamphlets to his credit (more than sixty million copies in print) and a biweekly newspaper he edited, the Sword of the Lord, that had a circulation topping out at over three hundred thousand, he was sometimes called “America’s Mightiest Pen.” His role as a principle player in two of the defining moments of 20th century American Fundamentalism – the 1957 split with Billy Graham over his ecumenical New York crusade, the end of a long friendship between the two, and the very public disagreement with Bob Jones, Jr., over the issue of secondary separation in the mid 70’s – cemented his role as an elder statesman of Fundamentalism. At his funeral service, one mentoree of his, Jerry Falwell, called his death the “passing of an era…He was God’s man for the hour. I looked on him as the guardian of fundamentalist truth for this generation. More than any other person, he was the most trusted man in fundamentalism…”
In the last couple of years, in an attempt to better understand my own history, the reasons why I grew up believing what I believed in childhood, beliefs that still shape me today, I’ve started reading through my great grandfather’s books – I currently own about 40 of them, I think – a process that is both difficult and often times frustrating, to put it mildly. I’ve read through the various Ph.D theses written about him, like Howard Edger Moore’s The Emergence of Moderate Fundamentalism: John R. Rice and The Sword of the Lord and Keith Bates’ Moving Fundamentalism Toward the Mainstream: John R. Rice and the Reengagement of America’s Religious and Political Cultures, as well as other books that focus on his role in shaping the beliefs of fundamentalists (and, consequently, evangelicals), like Margaret Lamberts Bendroth’s Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present, in an attempt to help me place his work in a larger framework, to better understand the context in which he spoke and wrote.
More importantly, though, for the past three or four years, I’ve walked with my uncle, Andrew Himes, through the process of his writing a book that is part memoir, part history of fundamentalism, viewed through the lens of our family. Drawing its name from the newspaper my great grandfather started, The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in One American Family, it is finally nearing publication, with a street date of May 15th.
The book opens with a story about my great grandfather’s funeral, where my uncle, at that time the “black sheep” of the family, was seated next to Jerry Falwell at the post-funeral dinner for family and friends. Falwell, one of the speakers at the funeral and fresh off the recent success of the newly-formed Moral Majority, spent most of the meal bragging to Andy about his friendship with Reagan, glad that “for the first time in a century we have a fundamentalist living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” My uncle did his best to avoid serious questions and actual conversation, content to let Falwell carry the conversation and stay on safe ground. “Fundamentalism was a difficult and painful topic for me, to say the least,” he writes, “and I had no idea how to talk about it without getting into an unseemly and angry debate with Jerry Falwell, with all my family as witnesses.”
The rest of the book is, among other things, his account of coming to terms with his story, coming to a place where he could talk about fundamentalism and his own history without solely reacting to the worst parts of the story, able to see the many facets that made up both his own history and the history of fundamenatlism. In the forward, Parker Palmer, author of Let Your Life Speak and The Courage to Teach, writes, “Andrew went from worshipping his grandfather to hating him to loving him. So the arc of this story has ancient and archetypal power: it moves from the neediness that leads us to cling to false gods, to the anger that fuels rebellion and individuation, to the love that strives for understanding and communion.”
That is where I see this story having value. Remembering Frederick Buechner’s oft-quoted observation that the story of any one of us is the story of us all, Andrew, by telling his story, creates a space for us to look at our own stories, maybe even pointing out the way for how we can arrive at that final stage Parker Palmer points out, a love that strives for understanding and communion.
Before the book officially releases on May 15th, we’re looking for bloggers interested in reviewing it, with a goal of having a strong push of people buying the book from Amazon on release day to help spread the word. If you’re interested in reviewing it for your blog, click here for more details. We’ll have more info when the book releases.
Here now is Andrew, telling one story that appears in the book.