"Shall the Historians Win?" by Paul Harvey

A new review of The Sword of the Lord by historian Paul Harvey (Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley, 1992) who researches and writes in the field of post-Civil War American History. His particular interests include southern history, American religious history, popular culture, war and society, and the history of American music. rahHarvey is the creator and ‚Äúblogmeister‚Äù of the nationally known professional scholarly blog Religion in American History, and is a contributor to the online journal Religion Dispatches. He also serves on the Board of Editors for the Journal of Southern History and American Nineteenth Century History, as well as Religion Compass.

Paul Harvey's August 2011 review

To continue with our theme for the day, I'm pleased to recommend to you a fascinating book, part memoir, part historical analysis, part family history, part personal meditation: Andrew Himes's The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in An American Family (the facebook fan page of the book is here). 

As mentioned in the last post, this book arose from Himes's own struggles with his own family legacy as the grandson of the legendary fundamentalist leader John R. Rice. Historians love Rice; he's an endless source of colorful quotations from his paper The Sword of the Lord and from his various books, most especially his Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers -- thesis of which is that he didn't like any of them. You can't heave an egg out of a Toyota Prius window without hitting a historian of 20th century evangelicalism who has referenced that book somewhere in his/her work. This 1941 book is short but really all you need to do is read the lengthy table of contents, one of those great table of contents that books used to have in the 19th century and are the historian's best friend -- check it out at google books here.

Seeking to understand his own family's history, Himes goes long, examining the long history of Scots-Irish immigration to America and the rise of a particular style of southern evangelical Calvinism in the 19th century. He examines the Rice family in post-Civil War Texas, a surefire training ground for a hardened religious view, and then makes his way to the more familiar (to historians) story of the creation of what became known as "fundamentalism" in the early twentieth century.

For me, the highlight of the book is the opportunity to get to know John R. Rice and his family in intimate detail, a kind of thing I've never seen elsewhere before. Himes mines the family archives beautifully, and the end result is exactly what one hopes for in history, a much fuller and richer understanding of a person who elsewhere almost always appears as a virtual self-parody of fundamentalist rigidity. We also get close accounts of Rice' s interactions with almost everyone on the fundamentalist all-star team -- Billy Sunday, J. Frank Norris (whom Rice worked closely with in Texas before discovering what a narcissistic psycho Norris was), Mordecai Ham, William Bell Riley, and pretty much everyone involved with Billy Graham (whom he admired but with whom he eventually broke, as Graham was too broadly evangelical for Rice's tastes). That's not to say that Himes shies away from the uglier parts of that history, including the very active participation of his great grandfather (Rice's father) in the Texas Klan, Rice's own racist predilections, and so on. But he treats all this with historical understanding, and feels connected always to Rice through Rice's wife, his grandmother, who stayed in contact and continued to love the author even after he had broken from much of his family.   

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Also, read Paul Harvey's previous post about fundamentalism, John R. Rice and The Sword of the Lord.