The Funeral of John R. Rice (and My Dinner with Jerry Falwell)

“THE SWORD OF THE LORD…and of John R. Rice.”—from the masthead of John R. Rice’s newspaper, which began publication in 1935. The following is an excerpt from Andrew Himes' book, The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family.

The morning of January 3, 1981 dawned gray and chill. I rode north along Interstate 65 from Birmingham toward the town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I was wearing a banged-up leather jacket and a pair of jeans. In a luggage box on the back of my Honda 400 motorcycle was an overnight bag with a toothbrush and a change of clothes—the only suit I owned, a cheap and unstylish Sears special with a clip-on tie and my only white dress shirt. My hair was shaggy, and my goatee and thick glasses made me look like a popeyed version of Vladimir Lenin.

john r riceEvery few miles I had to pull off the highway to wipe away the tears that streamed down my face so that I could see well enough to keep traveling. By the time I arrived at my grandparents’ home in Murfreesboro, I had cried enough to fill a small bucket, but I was reasonably in control of myself.

Cars were pulled up on the gravel strip next to the side of the house, and the house itself was wall-to-wall with humanity‚Äîmy own mom and dad and my brother and three sisters, all my aunts and uncles and cousins and old family friends and employees from my granddad‚Äôs Sword of the Lord newspaper. People were rushing around, talking, laughing, crying, hugging, commiserating, singing, straightening each other‚Äôs ties and dresses, and praying. The phone was ringing, and a stream of cars was driving up to the house and then driving away in the direction of the church.

The funeral was slated for early afternoon, and I had timed my arrival so as to avoid any serious conversations with anyone. I was not eager to discuss the length of my hair or the fact that I hadn’t attended church anywhere for several years or explain why I wasn’t turning out to be a Baptist preacher as everyone had expected me to. Despite my attempt to stay in the background amid all the hubbub, my grandmother tracked me down in a corner of her kitchen and gave me a big hug and a kiss.

“Andy,” said Grandma, “I am so happy you’re here! It’s been such a long time since we’ve seen you. So I know you just got here, but I want you to be the lead pallbearer. You’re the oldest grandson, and I know you’re good at this sort of thing, so you get the other boys together and you’ll be the ones at the end of the service to bring the casket down the aisle and then out the church door.”

lloys riceI started to speak but couldn’t, and she looked at me with such love and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll do fine. You know he would be so proud of you.”

If there was anything I was certain of in the world, it was that my granddad would not be proud of me. As a matter of fact, he’d expressed sharp disapproval of me for years, in a series of long, typewritten letters that I had kept but never answered. He and my grandmother—along with the rest of my large extended family—had prayed for me and pleaded with me and cajoled me, all to no avail. He had told my grandma and my mom years earlier that he hoped and prayed I would grow up to inherit his mantle as a preacher and fundamentalist leader.

Instead of going off to Bob Jones University to prepare for the ministry, however, I had left home to attend the University of Wisconsin in Madison. There, I had immediately joined demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and in support of the civil rights movement, thus confirming all of Granddad‚Äôs fears that Madison was an incubator of rebels and radicals.

While my brother trained to be a missionary to Japan, I trained to be a proletarian revolutionary and overthrow the imperialist bourgeoisie. I had worked in the steel fabrication plants and foundries of Birmingham for several years, organizing strikes, passing out revolutionary literature, and building up my arrest record.

I ended up as much a Maoist failure as I had been a Christian failure. Souls were still unsaved, and the imperialist bourgeoisie was still in power. Before I graduated from high school, I had lost my faith in the fundamentalist God I had been trained to worship and serve. Now, at the age of 30, I had lost my faith in the secular gods of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Zedong.

I had smashed into a brick wall that was both ideological and theological, and had no idea how to move forward. I was no longer part of the communist movement, and my life no longer had any meaning or direction. I was just beginning to understand that in moving from Christianity to Maoism I had merely traded one form of fundamentalism for another. I was so far removed from my family’s reality that none of them knew much of anything about my views, actions, or past associations.

The parking lot of the Franklin Road Baptist Church was jam-packed, and over a thousand people filled the pews inside. Luminaries from across the fundamentalist world were gathered. All my aunts and uncles and my parents were seated in a semi-circle on the platform behind the pulpit. My uncle Sandy—Don Sandberg—sat at the piano playing a medley of gospel songs written by my granddad as I made my way up the aisle to the front pew where I was to sit with the other pallbearers, all of whom were my male cousins.

Uncle Sandy opened the long service by leading a large choir in singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. My dad and my five uncles provided eulogies, and a dozen other Baptist preachers offered up their heartfelt testimonies. The most celebrated speakers were Jack Hyles, pastor of the largest fundamentalist church in the world, located in Hammond, Indiana, and Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority, pastor of another large church in Lynchburg, Virginia, and founder of Liberty University.

This being a fundamentalist service, of course, all the speakers were men, though my aunts and my mom together sang “Finally Home,” and Aunt Joy read a poem titled “Someone Special is Coming Home,” written by my Aunt Grace.

jerry falwellFalwell was at the apogee of his career. Only 18 months earlier he had founded the Moral Majority, a conservative political action group that endorsed Ronald Reagan before the contentious Republican convention and then claimed to have provided the winning margin for Reagan‚Äôs election to the presidency in November 1980. Falwell would soon appear on the cover of Time magazine, hailed as the inspiration and founder of the Religious Right.

His television programs, Jerry Falwell Live and the Old Time Gospel Hour, were broadcast to over 30 million American homes. In 1977, Falwell had told a rally of Miami voters, ‚Äúso-called gay folks would just as soon kill you as look at you,‚Äù and he would soon say that ‚ÄúAIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals. It is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.‚Äù[i] And he would warn: ‚ÄúIf we do not act now, homosexuals will ‚Äòown‚Äô America! If you and I do not speak up now, this homosexual steamroller will literally crush all decent men, women, and children . . . and our nation will pay a terrible price!‚Äù He had expressed strong support for the ‚ÄúChristian‚Äù leaders of the apartheid regime in South Africa. He decried ‚Äúwomen‚Äôs lib‚Äù and instructed women to be subservient to their husbands.

When it came time for Falwell to speak at the funeral, he called John R. Rice’s 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…He set the standard in the pulpit ministries of thousands of pastors and evangelists. So we pay tribute to one someone has called a ‘titular leader of fundamentalism.’ The mantle has fallen, not on one or two, but on thousands.”[ii]

At the end of the service, I led my younger cousins up to the front of the church where we lifted the coffin onto a cart and then formed lines on both sides to roll it down the center aisle and out the main doors to the waiting hearse. I got into a black limousine with my family and we rode 10 miles west on Franklin Road to the Bill Rice Ranch, a fundamentalist retreat center founded by my great uncle Bill. There, we interred the casket in a large marble sarcophagus at the top of the slope in our family cemetery. My cousins and I then stood for the next two hours as an honor guard while several hundred people came by in a long line to pay their respects, many of them weeping and pausing to pray or touch the cool gray stone.

I wept also, as I stood by the grave, and I suppose I might have done something that could be thought of as prayer. It was a prayer for myself, in all of my sadness and confusion. I had been estranged from my granddad for years, though I had always thought of him as one of the kindest, funniest, and most honorable people I knew.

I had raged against his support for racial injustice in the South and war in Vietnam. I thought his strictures against playing cards or going to movies or women cutting their hair and wearing pants were downright silly. But I also knew he was courageous, truthful and loving. He was the only granddad I had. So I wept because I knew how much I had lost when he died.

After the line had passed, we got back into the limousines to ride back to the fellowship hall at the church. The dining tables were set for eighty people or so—our large Rice clan together with close friends and speakers at the funeral. Name tags were at each of the places, instructing us where to sit.

An anonymous and well-intentioned schemer—probably one of my aunts—had thoughtfully placed my own name tag right next to Jerry Falwell’s. Clearly, a plot was afoot to expose me—the only black sheep to appear in several generations of the family—to the tender conversational ministrations of the most famous fundamentalist in America. When my 85-year-old grandmother spotted me hesitating, she took me by the hand and led me over to Falwell, saying, “Andy, I want you to get to know one of my best friends! Dr. Falwell is one of the dearest, sweetest people you’ll ever meet.” And to Falwell, she said, “I want you to meet Andy, my oldest grandson and one of the most handsome and talented young men I know!”

Dr. Falwell and I sat down to eat tuna-noodle casserole made with canned tuna, mushroom soup and elbow macaroni, the whole concoction topped with a crust of potato chips and baked. We shared creamed green beans and orange Jell-O with chunks of fruit cocktail, and we washed down our store-bought pecan pie with Maxwell House Coffee from a giant silver urn as church ladies stood around waiting on us.

I had little to say to Falwell. For one thing, I was still fighting back the tears that have always come so easily to me—a trait I shared with my granddad. For another, I pretty much viewed Falwell as evil incarnate. Falwell, however, needed little help from me to maintain an abundant flow of words.

‚ÄúAndy,‚Äù he said, digging into his casserole, ‚ÄúI am so sorry for your loss. It was mine as well. I must tell you that John R. Rice was a father to me. I subscribed to The Sword of the Lord when I first became a pastor in Lynchburg, and I met him just a few years later. Your grandfather has been my mentor, my teacher, my friend, and my prayer partner.‚Äù

I mumbled some words of gratitude, but couldn’t think of much else to say. I certainly wasn’t going to tell him anything about myself or my life, and he didn’t ask me much after determining that I was married, lived in Birmingham, and was the father of a three-year-old daughter.

“Well, that’s good, that’s good,” said Falwell. “I know that God is using you in a mighty way down there in Birmingham.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I replied, thinking of my abortive Maoist career, my lengthy FBI surveillance file, and my checkered employment history, which included stints as a foundry welder, a motorcycle salesman, a professional ideologue, and a taxi driver.

“Andy,” said Falwell as he polished off his creamed green beans, “I spent all of last week out in California at Rancho del Cielo, where President Reagan lives. You know, they’re already calling it the Western White House. We experienced such a sweet sense of fellowship and a deep gratitude for the work God is doing in the hearts of the American people.”

Falwell fixed me with a gracious, friendly smile. ‚ÄúAndy,‚Äù he said, ‚Äúwe can be satisfied that Jesus has a friend in Washington, DC. Ronald Reagan is a man after our own hearts. He‚Äôs been saved and he knows it. He shares our values and believes the Bible just like we do. He wants to do the right thing for God if only he can get the help he needs from the rest of us. For the first time in a century we have a fundamentalist living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.‚Äù

I murmured something inoffensive, and asked Falwell another question to keep his conversational juices flowing, and then I turned all my attention to my fruit salad. Fundamentalism was a difficult and painful topic for me, to say the least, 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.

 


[i] Hans Johnson and William Eskridge, “The Legacy of Falwell’s Bully Pulpit,” Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article
/2007/05/18/AR2007051801392.html
(May 19, 2007, accessed September 15, 2010).

[ii] Transcript of the tape recording of the funeral service for John R. Rice in the Rice Family Papers, a collection of letters and other personal documents in the possession of Jessie Rice Sandberg.