With his newly released book Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family, Andrew Himes creates a history that is both well-researched and deeply personal. It’s a history that’s about more than dates and place-names. It’s about the struggle of a people to survive and thrive in a foreign land. And it’s about the ties of blood that bind Himes to these people, from their roots among the Scots-Irish — “a troublesome group of dirt-poor, hardscrabble farmers and fighters in the borderlands and lowlands along the Scottish, English, and Welsh borders” — to his own family heritage as the grandson of influential fundamentalist preacher and publisher John R Rice.
Many elements of the journey — the American Revolution, the Civil War and the outlawing of slavery, the Scopes Monkey trial, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s — will be familiar to Americans with a standard public school education. But Himes has managed to tell these old tales anew, through the eyes of his own ancestors. They were often on the losing side of these cultural and political battles, and Himes makes no apology for them. What he does do is tell their story with an unflinching eye and a compassionate heart.
The book focuses on the lives and struggles of Himes’s forebears, however it’s clear that it only came about because of a journey that Himes himself undertook: one of rejection and reconciliation. If Himes had not rejected his own fundamentalist upbringing, he would not have had the emotional distance necessary to speak so frankly about its rigid, judgmental legacy. But if he had not been able to reconcile himself to it, the book’s tone would have been unbearably vitriolic. As someone who has gone through a similar journey, I can appreciate the time, work, and insight required. He writes that the book took about 30 years to research and write. I, for one, am glad that he didn’t rush it. I doubt that he would have been able to write the following 30 years ago:
I can identify several specific ways in which my training as a fundamentalist bore good and healthy fruit, though I’m aware that a statement like that may be greeted with some skepticism by those who have only witnessed the world of fundamentalism from the outside. As a fundamentalist, I learned that it was perfectly all right for me to have an idea or outlook different from most folks … I learned that it was acceptable to be passionate about my values, and to care deeply about the consequences of my actions … I learned that faith and community are essential to life.
In a recent interview, Himes said that he expects the most passionate audience for his book to be conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. I hardly fall within that demographic — as even a cursory perusal of this blog will reveal. And yet I thoroughly enjoyed this book and think that most Americans — especially the ones like me — would benefit from reading it. I appreciate that the book steers clear of the extreme and inflammatory rhetoric that characterizes so much of America’s current culture wars — on either side of the issue. Himes is not trying to win your soul for Jesus, nor is he mocking the deeply held beliefs of fundamentalists. He’s just doing what every good writer ought to do: telling a compelling, relevant story. And he’s got the footnotes to back it up.