Imagine growing up thinking that you could be sent to Hell, a site of “eternal torment, literal flames and wailing and gnashing of teeth, ” for being a Catholic, a Communist, a Democrat, liberal, “modernist” interpreter of the Bible, an ordinary sinner, or for not being white, or living in “non-Christian places.” This was the childhood world of Andrew Himes, author of The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family, which will be published in just two days, on May 15. I received an advance copy after telling the author I’d like to review it on my blog. I have since realized that this was a tougher assignment than I originally thought and warn Mr. Himes that this short review does not do justice to the time and extensive scholarly research he put into writing this book.
Mr. Himes great-grandfather was a Baptist preacher as were his grandfather, father, brother, various uncles and cousins; it was a given that he, too, would become a preacher; instead, he became the broken link in this family chain. His grandfather was a well-known national leader in the fundamentalist movement and publisher of The Sword of the Lord newspaper, which he began in 1935. His opinions were sought by young ministers getting their start in the work of revivals and soul-winning, such as the famous evangelist Rev. Billy Graham, as well as by older colleagues. One sign of his influence is that Sword of the Lord Publishers is still around and is sponsoring a national conference on revival and soul-winning in July 2011. Mr. Himes grew up steeped in the ideas and values of fundamentalist Christians and fervently believed in them as a child. As a young adult, he became aware of his ancestors’ ownership of slaves, their “separate but equal” views on whom should be welcomed in their churches, and their attacks on the American Civil Rights Movement. When he was much older, he also learned that his great-grandfather had been a Klansman. In anger he turned to Marx and Mao to be his guides. In his maturity he has, seemingly, made peace with his antecedents.
I knew nothing about fundamentalism before reading this book and found the topic both interesting and frightening. I learned how far back in history the roots of modern-day fundamentalists travel and how deep they are. The thinking of Jerry Falwell (Moral Majority), Pat Robertson (Christian Coalition) and former President Ronald Reagan follow a path back to Colonial history and even earlier to Irish/Scottish/English border communities. Equally interesting was Mr. Himes’ commentary about the connection between fundamentalism and the Civil War (which for many white Southerners has never ended): “The traumatic experience of the Civil War and its aftermath in the 19th century, was the incubator of Christian fundamentalism in 20th century America.” Mr. Himes says, “Southerners viewed the war in strongly religious terms. Slavery, most Southerners believed, was an institution appointed and approved by God,” and many of their Christian leaders could easily find Biblical passages to support this view. He goes on to say, “The South proved especially congenial to a rigid and defensive theology. The South saw itself as a region under fire, facing continuing imminent threats to its economy, its culture and political system and the purity of its Christian faith.”
As a lifelong Northwesterner, much of what I read in The Sword of the Lord was new information that helped me see connections between events occurring in my lifetime and those in the past. Take the Kansas Board of Education and its successful removal of the theory of evolution from textbooks in 1999, and the 1925 Scopes trial for example; both must have come out of the core fundamentalist belief that the Bible is “inerrant,” or incapable of being wrong or open to interpretation. Early fundamentalists were also pre-millienialists who were certain that the world would end in ruin and only true believers would be transported to heaven. This belief is echoed in a statement to Congress (according to Wikipedia) in the early 1980’s by James Watt, the Secretary of the Interior under President Reagan. “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.” And it certainly connects to the ideas of the individuals I talked about in a recent blog post, who have quit their jobs and stopped saving for retirement on the basis of someone’s prediction that the world will end in May of 2011, leaving only Christians safe.
Although the author believes differently, I concluded from his book that Christian fundamentalism is not going away, that it will remain strong and continue to be influential, particularly in American political life.
I enjoyed reading the The Sword of the Lord, especially when Mr. Himes inserted his personal experiences into the story. I recommend it to anyone who wants to look at current political and religious thought through the lens of history, or who just wants to read about an influential family that helped make this country what it is today. Although Mr. Himes made reference to his own experiences, conversations with his relatives and his rebellion against some of the values the family stood for, the book was less about him than I would have liked. It can’t have been easy to go against the views of such a tight-knit and powerful family, one that had shared beliefs going back generations. I would like to hear more of his personal story. Perhaps that can be the subject of his next book.