For anybody deeply committed to understanding the Christian Fundamentalism of Jack Hyles, Bob Jones, Jerry Falwell, and their strata of Fundamentalism, this book is a must-read. Here is a rich and varied, sometimes shameful, sometimes heart wrenching, treasure of stories and history that show, on the one hand, the lineage of a family that produced a mild mannered man who created a grassroots resurgence of Christian Fundamentalist devotion (both the good and the bad). And on the other hand, Himes shows the bigger events that shaped America and the American religious terrain that became such a fertile ground for Christian Fundamentalism.
This book is not a biography of John R Rice. Rather, it’s a biography of American Christian Fundamentalism, written by an even hand. Himes is meticulous in finding the roots of modern Christian Fundamentalism: going all the way back to the Scots-Irish settlers in this country. He shows the gradual transitions in thinking, the profound influence of the Civil War on the movement that would become Christian Fundamentalism, the effects of the Scopes Monkey Trial. While never being bitter and always avoiding any temptation to get on any soapboxes himself, Himes shows the great moral failures of the thinking that justified slavery and then justified Jim Crow. (He is less clear about the lot of women in Christian Fundamentalism, making only passing references to the strict dress code and rigid patriarchy that even his grandfather endorsed.)
All the big names are here, placed in historical context: Billy Sunday, J Frank Norris, William Jennings Bryan, R. G. Lee, Bob Jones Sr., Billy Graham, etc. Himes weaves the big story: the Civil War, the Great Depression, the First World War, the Second World War, and then he weaves the smaller details seamlessly into the big story, so that the reader sees how Christian Fundamentalism was shaped and formed, and how the Rice family itself changed and adapted as its fortunes were altered.
Himes’ analysis is brilliant, and his writing impeccable. I have two small criticisms of the book. First, Himes misses the “women’s side” of the story in the history of Christian Fundamentalism. My guess is that the overall gentle home life of Himes has hidden from him the very grim lot of women and young girls in Christian Fundamentalism. John R Rice clearly cherished his wife and daughters, strict man though he was. And it looks like Himes’ mother, a daughter of John R Rice, expected and was treated with respect all her life. I’m glad for that, but both the role of women and their lot in Christian Fundamentalism deserve greater mention.
Second, Himes places great emphasis on the role Jerry Falwell had with his grandfather, and he neglects Jack Hyles. In fact, I think Hyles gets one single mention in the book. Now, the reality, as far as I recall from the days when John R Rice was still preaching, was that Falwell distanced himself from Rice by the late seventies, and Jack Hyles hitched himself firmly to John R Rice for the last decade of Rice’s life. They preached together a lot, for years, and Hyles pulled out Rice as his passport to validity in Christian Fundamentalism. The Sword of the Lord newspaper headlined Jack Hyles a lot more, and for a lot longer, than it did Jerry Falwell.
Again, I don’t think there is any deep, dark conspiracy here. I recall hearing from other survivors of the IFB the rumor that, especially when Dave Hyles joined the preaching circuit, that John R Rice began to realize the tremendous error of having given Jack Hyles so much endorsement. Rice found himself trapped in his own engine of Fundamentalism, having handed so much power to such a ruthless man. My guess is that the Rice family simply does not discuss Hyles. They, after all, provided most of the source material to the author, who was at the time of the ascendancy of Jack Hyles, an atheist and political radical recruiting new members to the Communist party. Himes never made the rounds of the numerous “revivals” and conferences, and he relied on others to tell him about the preaching circuit. But to me, as a person in my teens and twenties in the Hyles-Rice, Sword of the Lord heyday, the ommission of Hyles is very noticeable.
But in a work that has such a broad scope and is so compelling, these two criticisms should not keep anybody back from reading Himes’ account and analysis. He has done a tremendous service to any student of Church History, and he has also provided a great tool for Fundamentalists themselves to look at a snapshot of what they are, what they have done, and where they have come from, and address the places and matters where they have failed.
This book is available on amazon.com.
Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to defend Bob Jones University, but rather to advise recovering Fundamentalists of a tool that may help them understand the roots of the culture/religion that has done them so much harm. My philosophy of a personal approach to recovery, emphasizing personal education and the development of conscience and ethics is not contradictory to an ethic of mounting public protest against the abuses of Fundamentalism in general, and Bob Jones Univeristy in particular. Both approaches can coexist within the same person, as a matter of fact. So my endorsement of this book, in spite of the fact that John R Rice disassociated himself from BJU, is not an endorsement of Bob Jones University . I just want people recovering from Fundamentalism to know about and freely choose the toosl that each thinks will be helpful for a full recovery.