John R. Rice: Man Sent from God
By Robert L. Sumner
Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1981, 323 pp.
When I was a young Christian back in the early 1980s, the independent fundamental Baptist (IFB) movement was still quite strong. One of the most prominent leaders of the IFB movement was John R. Rice (1895-1980), the editor and publisher of the very influential “Sword of the Lord” weekly newspaper. The first church my wife and I attended after we were saved was an IFB church and I subscribed to the “Sword” for several years. During the pandemic lockdown, I did some reading and research regarding the seamier side of the IFB (more on that below), which then led me to order a used copy of this biography of Rice.
John R. Rice was born near Gainesville, Texas in 1895. His father was a lay preacher and also a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a fact this complimentary biography conveniently omits. Following the death of his mother, John R. Rice accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior at the age of nine. As a young man, he obtained a teaching certificate, taught school, and pursued additional education at Decatur Baptist College and Baylor University. He was called to the ministry in 1920 and completed two years at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Southern Baptist Convention – SBC) in Waco, Texas before becoming an assistant pastor and then pastor. In 1926, Rice felt called to be an evangelist and staged revivals throughout Texas. He became associated with firebrand pastor, J. Frank Norris, of First Baptist Church in Fort Worth and soon was a regular speaker on Norris’s fledgling radio station, KFQB. Norris and Rice left the SBC in 1927 and became independent Baptists.
Rice subsequently planted a church in Dallas in 1932 as an outgrowth of one of his revivals and continued as pastor for seven years while also simultaneously conducting evangelization/revival campaigns. In 1934, he began the “Sword of the Lord” as another ministry. In 1940, he re-entered full-time evangelism and moved the “Sword” facilities to Wheaton, Illinois. The circulation of the paper grew dramatically and Rice galvanized the nationwide independent fundamental Baptist movement with yearly “Sword of the Lord Conferences,” which drew pastors throughout the country to the IFB mission of evangelism and discipleship.
In 1963, Rice moved the “Sword” facilities to Murfreesboro, Tennessee where he continued to lead the burgeoning IFB movement. The circulation of the “Sword” peaked in 1974 with 288,000 subscribers. John R. Rice died in 1980 at the age of eighty-five.
I enjoyed this book even though it’s much more of a gushing hagiography than an objective biography. The author, Robert Sumner, was an employee of Rice’s at the “Sword.” Sumner does delve into some controversy including the feud between Rice and J. Frank Norris involving pre-eminency over Texas independent Baptist fundamentalism, although Rice is portrayed entirely as the victim. Sumner also devotes twenty-five pages to the parting-of-ways between Rice and Billy Graham. It’s a fascinating story, folks. Graham began as a Baptist fundamentalist and was mentored by Rice and two other leaders in the IFB movement; Bob Jones, Sr. and William Bell Riley. But Graham increasingly bridled at the partisan separatism of the IFB camp and began, with some-like minded cohorts, the “New Evangelicalism” movement, which championed accommodation to theological liberalism and ecumenism. Many guessed that Graham left fundamentalism and its restrictions mainly in order to be able to expand his crusade numbers. Sumner deliberately avoids other well-known controversies involving Rice, such as his feud with Bob Jones, Jr. and the fact that some members of his Dallas congregation staged a church coup in the late 1930s because they felt Rice was devoting too much of his time to the “Sword” and evangelization/revival campaigns throughout the country rather than to pastoring.
The IFB movement has declined greatly since the passing of Rice in 1980. The “Sword of the Lord” is still published out of Murfreesboro although the circulation is about one-third of what it was at its height during Rice’s tenure. Rice and the IFB movement did great work for the Lord, but there were also some negatives:
- There was a tendency within the IFB to “major on the minors,” with certain sins (drinking, smoking, bobbed hair and pants on women, hair below the collar on men, listening to Amy Grant, movie theater attendance, dancing, etc.) being absolute litmus tests for right Christian living. IFB churches were notoriously HEAVY on guilt and light on God’s grace.
- Pastors within the IFB were put on pedestals and absolutely idolized (and often feared) by their congregations. To be blunt, some of the attitudes and practices at IFB churches with regards to leadership were idolatrous and cultish and led to pastoral authoritarianism and manifold abuses. This gushing, “saintly” portrayal of Rice is an example of how IFB leaders were elevated far beyond Biblical standards. It’s disturbing how God is portrayed in this book as answering EVERY prayer of John R. Rice, EXACTLY as Rice desired, down to the most minute detail. This kind of exaggeration/mythology was characteristic of how pastors were venerated in the IFB movement. I’ll be posting about one particular IFB “superstar” pastor and his abuse of power on Wednesday.
- Pastors within the competitive IFB and “Sword” network felt compelled to report higher and higher conversion and baptism numbers, leading to innumerable false professions in Christ. The “sinner’s prayer” was carelessly utilized in the relentless competition for numbers.
- Christian nationalism was a VERY popular theme within the IFB movement.
John R. Rice and the IFB movement no doubt did some great work for the Lord, but there were also many abuses. After being a member of an IFB church for eight years, I finally left in 1991 and was so exasperated by the oppressive legalism and judgmentalism that I walked away from the Lord and didn’t return until twenty-three years later. Praise God for His mercy and patience! I have heard of others who attended heavy-handed IFB churches and likewise experienced the same trauma and burn-out.
Postscript: Some of the “superstar” pastors who contributed to the “Sword of the Lord” back when I was a reader included Jack Hyles, Tom Malone, Tom Wallace, Curtis Hutson, Robert G. Lee, Lee Roberson, W.A. Criswell, Hyman Appleman, Truman Dollar, Bob Gray, Sr., and Jerry Falwell, Sr. Hyles, Dollar, and Gray were later dogged by serious scandals while Falwell was almost completely sidetracked in his ministry by his propagation of Christian American nationalism.