American Protestant Fundamentalism was rooted in the migration of thousands of Calvinist Protestants to the British colonies before the American Revolution. The “Scotch-Irish”, French, Germans and others escaping religious persecution in their homelands flocked to the relative freedom of America and brought a strong aversion to state-supported religion with them. From these beginnings grew a commitment to the separation of church and state that was eventually enshrined in the US Constitution.
The Fundamentalist churches have, like most social movements, been characterized by contradictions and controversy. Conflict has been at the heart of religious history everywhere in the world, and the United States has been no exception. Conflict also makes for great story-telling, and Andrew Himes’ “The Sword of the Lord” is great story-telling.
Himes’ family has been central to the evolution (if you’ll pardon the term) of American Fundamentalism, particularly the Southern Baptist variety, and his personal history makes him uniquely qualified to tell this story. He comes from a long line of Fundamentalist preachers who battled liberalism, modernism, sin, Catholicism, Darwinism and the established Protestant churches to win souls for Christ through massive revival meetings and by building a conservative religious infrastructure across the American south.
It’s a sweeping tale that follows the family’s early days as farmers and slave-holders, through the traumas and dislocations of the Civil War and the internecine struggles for control of evangelical Christianity, right up to the present day. Along the way Himes explores the explosion of religious revival meetings during the Great Depression, the birth and rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, his grandfather’s launch of the widely influential “Sword of the Lord” newspaper, and the trajectory of his own life and spiritual views.
Remarkably, it’s a story that will appeal to sinner and saved alike. Non-believers, liberals and religious moderates will better understand what motivates people they find hard to comprehend. How can someone be both theologically dedicated to love and a militant racist? Where did the Moral Majority find its ideological roots? Why is religion in general, and specifically Fundamentalist Christianity, so central to American politics? Evangelical Christians will gain remarkable insights into the history of their theology, the schisms and fractures that have shaped the modern Fundamentalist landscape. They will also be introduced to the personalities behind the institutions that have become central to their world.
Perhaps the most powerful elements in “The Sword of the Lord” are those that are deeply personal. Andrew Himes shares his painful rejection of his family’s “business”, the saving of souls. His adolescent rebellion, his embrace of Maoism as an alternate religion and his return to his family with heart and mind wide open provide a human narrative that interweaves with the historic landscape against which his story is told. In the final chapters he projects an alternate path for American Fundamentalists with the passion of an old-time preacher. The circle is closed. Read the book.