I’ll be honest–I didn’t expect much from this biography of influential fundamentalist preacher and writer John R. Rice. Knowing that the author, Andrew Himes, was Rice’s grandson left me prepared for hagiography and hero worship. I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong.
The Sword of the Lord examines the life and times of John R. Rice. Himes opens the biography by discussing his rebellion against his family’s fundamentalist faith, a theme that he interweaves throughout the rest of the book.
The first section of the book that details the Rice family’s arrival in North America is a bit slow. The story picks up as the Rices move west. In antebellum Missouri, they establish themselves as slave owners. During the Civil War, they moved to Texas, where John R. Rice was born in 1895. Himes traces his grandfather’s salvation experience, development into a revival preacher, move to Wheaton College, and eventual settlement in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Along the way, Rice became one of the leading fundamentalist voices via his writings (What Must I Do to be Saved? and Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers being two of the most well known) and his publication, The Sword of the Lord.
At various times, Rice was friends with J. Frank Norris, Mordecai Ham, Bob Jones, Sr., Bob Jones, Jr., Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell. His significance was in helping push Graham into “‘new evangelicalism'” (p. 244) by joining with others in separating from the up-and-coming revivalist. This principle of separation, which is one of the hallmarks of traditional American fundamentalism, helped pave the way for more politically engaged fundamentalists, such as Falwell, who moved away from traditional fundamentalism. Toward the end of his life, Rice tried unsuccessfully to push fundamentalists of his ilk back toward Graham, Falwell, and new evangelicalism. He was thwarted in part by Curtis Hutson, the man he appointed to succeed him at The Sword of the Lord, seen here being carried in on a throne for Curtis Hutson Day:
I appreciated Himes’ honesty about himself and his grandfather. He’s particularly critical of Rice’s friendship with, and support of, fundamentalist members of the Klan, including his own father and J. Frank Norris. He also doesn’t shy away from Rice’s racially segregationist views, which were (and, to some extent, still are) common in fundamentalist Baptist circles.
I learned a lot about American fundamentalism from this biography. Its has its flaws–it needed a heavier editorial hand to prevent some obvious mistakes and repetition, and the index is seriously lacking. Overall, though, it deserves a read if you want to learn more about “‘the 20th Century’s Mightiest Pen'” (229).
In case you’re interested, my personal connection to Rice is the Bill Rice Ranch in Murfreesboro, where I spent time as a child and a teenager at revivals and conferences. (Bill Rice was John R. Rice’s half-brother.) As a child, I also frequently read (and had read to me) Elizabeth Rice Handford’s Those Kids in Proverbsville.