A Reflection on Greatness -- John R Rice
Today marks 25 years since Dr. John R. Rice left this life for the next. That he once had a huge impact on the religious landscape of America is beyond dispute; the current scope of that legacy however, might well be called into question. To reveal my biases at the beginning, I grew up at The Sword of the Lord, and regard Dr. Rice as a great man. But while my view may be slightly colored, perhaps the “insider” look will make up for it.
The man I remember was physically imposing. Though he was in his seventies by the time I was old enough to really know him, he still rode his horses, bowled, and played tennis with his staff. (My father once told me they never beat him on company time!) Into his eighties he continued to travel the country and preach weekly, along with editing (personally and very hands on) a weekly paper.He was, to be simplistic, a man driven by the burden of evangelism.
In his final column for The Sword, published because of production deadlines after he had already lapsed into a coma, he talked of envisioning himself once again preaching before large audiences in city-wide evangelistic efforts, with scores of people responding to the Gospel invitation. His tract “What Must I Do To Be Saved?” with its distinctive pink pages traveled around the world, with more than 60 million copies printed in numerous languages.
I well remember a few years before he died hearing him preach at Forest Hills in Atlanta. We had driven down from Murfreesboro to be there for the service. In what was then a bustling church, I wasn’t able to find my parents after Sunday School and ended up sitting alone toward the back of the auditorium. After he preached, Dr. Rice was making his way out of the church, and stopped where I was sitting. His eyes weren’t what they once had been, and he didn’t recognize me–but he did stop to ask if I knew for sure I was on my way to Heaven.
He often preached at Franklin Road Baptist Church (where he practiced storehouse tithing, even though he didn’t believe it was a Bible doctrine). The thing that struck me most about his sermons was that they were completely filled with the Word of God. I would sometimes count during the message as he quoted 30 or 40 verses from memory. One preacher said of Dr. Rice, “You may not agree with him, but he always comes armed with the Bible.”
One other personal note; he was a man who lived a joyful, intense life. I do not think it was possible for him to do anything that wasn’t whole-hearted. Whether it was watching his beloved Dallas Cowboys (and telling them what play they should have run) composing a new song on the piano in his office, or preaching a sermon, everything he did was marked with enthusiasm and zeal to complete the task...and a certain readiness, almost impatience, to be on to the next one.
Dr. Rice had a strong influence in his day. As one of the few surviving men who had actually known the early leaders of the Fundamentalists, he bridged the gap between old and new. He spoke to a broad audience (the circulation of The Sword reached over 300,000 weekly in the 70s) and was widely respected, even by most of those who did not agree with him completely on issues.
The most negative thing I have to say about his work was, I think done with the best of intentions. In his desire to see churches focus on evangelism, he began promoting in the pages of The Sword churches who baptized 200 converts a year and publishing the annual list of the largest churches in America. The focus for some however shifted from reaching people to reaching numbers, and an “arms race” mentality entered into many leading fundamental churches. Contests between churches, beginning ministries with a goal toward the bottom line of numbers, and adopting pragmatic and even questionable methods to reach a crowd became the norm. Thousands of goldfish gave their lives to increase Sunday School attendance, and millions of pieces of bubble gum and candy were passed out to children to “encourage” them to get on the bus. The end became the justification for almost any means imaginable. Ironically the seeker-sensitive churches of today with their watered down messages and arguably worldly entertainment focus (which he would not have approved) have their philosophical roots in the same soil.
Despite his very public and painful split with Billy Graham in the 50s and the later one with Bob Jones University in the 70s, Dr. Rice remained personally committed to prayer for those with whom he had disagreed. In his rather pointed sermon “Be a Fundamentalist but not a Nut” he made the case for a reasoned approach to others and issues. And he was pained by the broken friendships that resulted from his stands. During the falling out with Dr. Jones, Jr., one of Dr. Rice’s best-loved preacher friends, Dr. Tom Malone, stopped speaking at Sword conferences and resigned from the board. For Dr. Rice’s 85th birthday, just days before he died, Dr. Malone flew in to be present. It was without doubt the best gift he received. For the rest of the day, he told everyone he met, “Dr. Malone came for my birthday ”
And as was the case with the dispute between Paul and Barnabas, God uses even our falling out to further His work. The disagreement with Bob Jones led directly to the creation of the National Sword Conferences on Revival and Soul Winning, beginning in 1974 in Indianapolis. Thousands crowded into the civic center there to hear what by today’s standards would be an impossibly diverse lineup of speakers.
That leads me to my final point. The greatest legacy of Dr. Rice (aside from the men he inspired to enter the ministry) was the founding of The Sword of the Lord. Twenty five years after he left it, the paper remains a voice, but for some very different points of view. Evangelism is still an emphasis, but Dr. Rice’s open invitation to fundamentalists across denominational lines to work together has been replaced by an insistence on Independent Baptist only–to go along with a promotion of the King James only position that he decried repeatedly in his later years. With a circulation now a quarter of what it was during his lifetime, the paper he founded reaches far fewer people than it once did.
Like David, John R. Rice served his generation and his Lord to the best of his ability, and then fell asleep. His influence remains; his wisdom and balance are greatly missed. It is doubtful that fundamentalism will ever have another leader of such unquestioned stature.