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Greatest Preachers

John Frank Norris

John Frank Norris

JOHN FRANKLYN NORRIS
1877 - 1952

He was called, “The Fighting Fundamentalist,” “The Texas Tornado,” “The Preacher,” “The Two-Gun Parson.” J. Frank Norris earned these titles during his 43-year pastorate of the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, Texas. His work as a fundamental Baptist crusader, pulpiteer, showman, editor, church and movement builder are the stuff of legend. He was listed 44th out of the 100 movers and shakers in the 150-year history of Fort Worth, Texas, by The City’s Magazine in 1999. It declared, “A true hellfire and damnation preacher, J. Frank Norris could easily be called the most controversial man who ever lived in Fort Worth.”1
His life, ministry and influence are all part of the heritage of fundamental Baptists.

His family and youth


John Franklyn Norris was the oldest child in the sharecropper family of James Warner and Mary Davis Norris. He was born on September 8, 1877, in Dadeville, Alabama. He had one younger brother, Dorie, and a sister who died at an early age. His mother had a godly influence on him and often told him that one day he would be a great preacher. At age 11, his family moved to a farm near Hubbard, Texas. His father’s bouts of drunkenness caused much pain, deprivation and suffering to his family. It also helped breed a strong dislike of liquor in young Norris. At 13, J. Frank Norris was converted in a Methodist revival meeting conducted by J. A. Oswalt. Under the ministry of Catlett Smith, pastor of the Hubbard Baptist Church, Norris followed Christ in baptism. Shortly thereafter, he surrendered to preach.2
When he was 15, he was shot in the stomach by a cattle thief. Norris’ father had testified against two thieves and they came to the farm to punish him. When Norris joined in the fight, he was shot and nearly killed. During the long recovery time, his mother constantly nursed and taught him. Her influence helped shape his values and theology.3

Training and early ministry


At the age of 22, he attended Baylor University in Waco, Texas. While a student, he also accepted the call to pastor the Baptist Church of Mt. Calm, Texas, and was ordained. During this time he also met and courted Lillian Gaddy, a pastor’s daughter, and they were married in 1902. By the time he graduated from Baylor with honors in 1903, his church’s attendance was double the town population with a membership of 800 and he was the father of Lillian Norris, who was born that April. (The Norris’ also had three sons: Jim, 1906; J. Frank Jr., 1910, and George, 1916.)4
That summer, the Norris family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he enrolled at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. There he was taught by B. H. Carroll, A. T. Robertson, E. C. Dargan and E. Y. Mullins. He completed the requirements for the Master of Theology degree and brought the valedictory address when he graduated in May of 1905.5

A young pastor and editor


Immediately upon graduation from the seminary, he accepted the call to become pastor of the McKinney Avenue Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Thirteen attended his first service there. The work grew and flourished to a membership of a thousand. Two years later (1907), he was encouraged to take over the management of The Baptist Standard, a religious newspaper serving Baptists throughout Texas and the South. He purchased a controlling interest with funds he had inherited. He negotiated with other Baptist editors to purchase and merge their newspapers with his. He changed the format to include lots of news and it began to make progress. He also used the magazine to crusade for an end to gambling in Texas, which brought his publication much attention. Circula-tion grew from 16,000 to 38,000 and advertising revenue increased. In 1909, Norris was asked to speak before the legislature. The body soon voted to outlaw racetrack gambling in Texas. While editor of The Baptist Standard, Norris also assisted B. H. Carroll in his drive to establish the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1908.6

The beginning of ministry in Fort Worth


In 1909, the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, “The home of the cattle kings,” the richest church in Texas, needed a pastor. They invited Norris to supply, then become a candidate. The church extended him a nearly unanimous call and he accepted. For the first two years, Norris described himself as “a typical city pastor. I was the chief after-dinner speaker. I had tuxedos, swallowtail coats, a selection of ‘biled’ shirts, several of them, and I would give $10 for the latest joke. I was, as I said, the main attraction at all the gatherings of the Rotarians, Lions, Kiwanis, Eagles. I was Will Rogers and Mark Twain both combined; they thought so; so did I.”7
By 1911, this style of ministry left Norris very discouraged and restless. He reluctantly accepted the invitation to preach a meeting for Charlie Carroll, son of B. H. Carroll, in Kentucky. During that meeting, Norris had a burning bush experience with God and came home a new man. He said, “When I came back from Owensboro, after a month’s meditation on the banks of the Ohio, I decided I would enter the ministry. I began to preach the gospel after the fashion of John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea. I didn’t use a pearl handle pen knife; I did what J. T. Pemberton said, I had a broad axe and laid it at the tap root of the trees of dancing, gambling, saloons, houses of ill fame, ungodly conduct, high and low, far and near. And you talk about a bonfire — the whole woods was set on fire … With all the intensity of my soul I waded into the thing, right and left, fore and aft, inside and outside. I asked no questions … and went in arm and hammer brand style. The crowds came; large numbers were saved!”8

A perpetual crusader


A hallmark of the ministry of J. Frank Norris was his crusader mentality. He was constantly crusading for the fundamentals of Christianity against modernism, for right against wrong and good against evil. He crusaded against gambling, against prostitution, against liquor, against corrupt government, against international communism, against Roman Catho-licism, against the election of Roman Catholic Al Smith, against Baptist denominationalism and near the end, even against men from his own movement.
This crusading mindset accomplished three things. First, it helped him achieve victories against spiritual and social evil. Second, it helped him attract and hold large crowds so he could reach them with the gospel. Third, it brought conflict and controversy with opponents and the public.

Crusade against vice leads to arson


One example of conflict and controversy is Norris’ crusade in 1911 against Hell’s Half Acre, the 80 local houses of prostitution operated with little notice in downtown Fort Worth. Norris used his Sunday evening sermons to expose and humiliate the men who owned Hell’s Half Acre. He advertised sensational sermon titles like, “The 10 Biggest Devils In Town And Their Records Given.” Overflow crowds attended the services where Norris named the persons who profited and the city officials he believed were their cohorts. That summer he erected an enormous tent in a vacant lot near the Half Acre and preached a series of sermons on its sins and challenged the city to enforce the law. He also attacked the liquor industry and brought major Prohibition leaders to help. The city mayor, W. B. Davis, had the tent removed because Norris had not obtained permission to use the lot.
Norris then attacked the city administration, and in January, 1912, Davis threatened to have Norris hung. Two days later a fire was discovered at First Baptist Church, but was quickly put out. Three days after that, two shots were fired through the church study windows where Norris was working. On February 4, an explosion and fire burned the church to the ground. A month later, the Norris’ family escaped harm when their home was also burned. Norris himself was charged with setting the fires and lying about certain facts in the case. It was alleged that he wanted to build a new building and used the controversy to cover his guilt. In the trial, the preacher was acquitted by order of the judge.9

Anti-Catholic crusade results in shooting


Another case of conflict and controversy was Norris’ anti-Catholic crusade in 1925. When the Fort Worth city council voted to buy a section of land from the Catholic Ignatious Academy for $90,000 more than the original price for the whole campus, many citizens felt it was nothing more than a gift to the Roman Catholic Church. Norris immediately began to attack Mayor H. C. Meacham for his Roman Catholic sympathies and associations. Dexter Chipps, a close friend of Meacham’s, became angry and called Norris, threatening to come to his office and settle matters. He did appear about 20 minutes later and exchanged words with Norris. In the tenseness of the situation, Norris reached for the pistol in his desk and fired four shots. Chipps was mortally wounded with bullets in his arm, abdomen and neck. In the murder trial, Norris claimed self-defense. The jury found him “Not Guilty.”10

Denominational crusades lead to ouster


Norris also experienced conflicts with other pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1914, he was expelled from the Fort Worth Baptist Pastor’s conference. In 1922, the First Baptist Church was excluded from the Tarrant Baptist Association. Two years later, the church suffered the same at the hands of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. The last censure included a statewide radio “hatefest” by Southern Baptist leaders that labeled Norris a liar, diabolical, thief, devilish, dastardly, corrupt, perjurer and reprobate. Issues included Norris’ campaign against other churches accepting his “disciplined members,” his failure to participate in financial giving campaigns sponsored by the denomination, his failure to use literature prescribed by the denomination (his only Sunday school book was the King James Version of the Bible) and his tactics in fighting modernism in the denomination’s schools.11

A consummate showman


Along with his crusading, J. Frank Norris excelled as a showman. Will McDonald described the services as “The best show in Fort Worth. Norris designed First Baptist’s Sunday evening services to attract people from outside the church … He advertised his sermon titles on a large canvas banner that stretched along the side of the church building. The provocative titles got Fort Worth’s attention … He treated the congregation to visual spectacles as well. Once, when a cowboy was converted, he had the horse brought into the service to witness the baptism … when Norris preached against evolution, he brought a monkey into the meeting. The monkey, dressed in a little suit, sat on a stool next to the pulpit. Each time Norris made a point against evolution, he turned to the monkey and asked, ‘Isn’t that so?’ Norris was quite the showman.”12

A master pulpiteer


J. Frank Norris was universally recognized for his outstanding abilities as a speaker. George W. Dollar gave him high marks: “He developed a preaching style that has never been successfully imitated or analyzed; it defies attempts at either … To preachers it was a thing of envy and delight … He had more than pulpit charisma; he had the keenest sense of the thinking and expectations of his audience. He was able to command attention and to lead great crowds into enthusiastic acceptance of the truths he believed and preached. His voice was not beautiful, as was George W. Truett’s, but it was far more heart-rending and convincing … His courage in exposing sin was transparently clear to all and his fearlessness always appealed to the common people. His ability to make a service a command performance producing spiritual conviction, decisions, and church-wide applause and amens from all corners made him a preacher’s preacher without a single parallel.”13
Dave Hardy cites Royce Measures’ evaluation of Norris’ preaching, “He was a pulpiteer of the highest order and was gifted in his ability to sway people to his point of view. People would come from far and near to hear him preach. Few men prior to the advent of modern mass communications reached the vast number of people that Norris did.”14
Many who served with Norris, including BBFI founders G. B. Vick, R. O. Woodworth and John W. Rawlings, considered him the finest preacher they ever heard. This is high praise, considering that the First Baptist Church had such notable speakers as Billy Sunday, Wil-liam Jennings Bryan, T. T. Shields, R. A. Tor-rey, W. B. Riley, Sam Morris, Mor-decai Ham and J. C. Penney.15

Newspaper editor and broadcaster


J. Frank Norris used the media of his day to his best advantage. He not only edited The Baptist Standard, his church published a weekly newspaper as well. In 1914, the publication was named The Fence Rail. He changed the name to The Searchlight in 1917 and in 1927 it was changed again to The Fundamentalist. In his newspapers, he carried the latest religious news of interest to his readers and the sermons he preached, which were stenographically recorded and edited. Circulation at its highest was 70,000 per issue. In 1924, he also led the church to purchase and operate a radio station for a time. When it was sold, the church retained broadcasting privileges for the next 50 years. Norris had a daily program and broadcast his Sunday services.16

Church builder


From 1911 forward, Norris determined to do everything he could to build the biggest church in the world. In 1913, he hired Louis Entzminger, already recognized for his organizational skills and passion for building Sunday schools. The attendance grew from 250 to over a thousand in one year. By 1920, the Sunday school reached 2,000 in average attendance.17 In 1924, he hired G. B. Vick to superintend the teen and young adult departments. Vick’s work brought in over 2,000 to his departments and the total attendance reached nearly 5,000.18 Total membership was listed at 8,400 in 1926.19
In 1934, Norris assumed a second pastorate at the Temple Baptist Church of Detroit, Michigan, and installed Entzminger to care for day-to-day operations. Two years later, he replaced Entzminger with Vick, who teamed with Norris to build the church to over a thousand within a year. The Detroit work grew steadily to an average of nearly 3,500 in 1949.20 Together, the two churches claimed 25,000 members, easily the largest congregation under one pastor in the world.21

Movement founder


Because of his conflicts with the Southern Baptist Convention, Norris joined forces with other fundamentalists to form the Baptist Bible Union in 1923. This movement focused on the fight against modernism, but in 1932, it fell apart because of disagreement among its leadership. Thereupon, Norris founded “The New Testament World Fundamen-tal Baptist Mission-ary Fellowship,” creating a mission board and in 1939 a training institution called “The Fundamental Bap-tist Bible Insti-tute,” headed by longtime associate, Louis Entzminger. Later the fellowship took the name, “World Baptist Fellowship” and the school was renamed, “Bible Baptist Seminary.” Slowly this movement gained in adherents and fi-nances. As Norris grew older, he sensed the need to allow younger men into leadership roles. Vick became president of the school, W. E. Dowell became president of the fellowship and Noel Smith became editor of The Fundamentalist. In 1950, Norris became dissatisfied with the school’s bylaws and Vick’s leadership, installed his own documents and ousted Vick without the consent of the fellowship. This resulted in a schism within his movement, and the disaffected and ousted leaders formed their own group which was called, “The Baptist Bible Fellowship Inter-national.” Norris’ movement continued under his influence and he attacked his former associates as he had often attacked others who opposed him.

His last crusade


Homer Ritchie, who succeeded him as pastor in Fort Worth, describes Norris’ crusade against the alienated leaders when the split came: “Indulging in a bitter assault on the character of his opponents, he called various leaders in the new Baptist Bible Fellowship names so disgraceful that his antagonists considered them outrageous and even his friends felt them to be shameful. Among the infamous appellations were: ‘Jezebel,’ ‘boot licker,’ ‘radio fraud,’ ‘Absalom,’ ‘traitor,’ ‘arch-conspirator,’ ‘deep freeze,’ ‘filthy lucre,’ ‘picket fence,’ ‘weeds and diapers,’ and ‘know all.’ Each name related to some deed or attitude of his chief opponents. Norris considered this humorous; his enemies declared it was criminal and insane and many outsiders thought it was sad and tragic.”22

His final days


In the aftermath of the stress created by the division of his movement, his health began to falter. He took time off in 1951 to rest. Some of his communications showed signs of incoherence. He toured Europe and the Holy Land for the final time in 1952. In August, he flew to Florida to speak at a youth camp in Jacksonville. He died at the camp on August 20, 1952.23
Concluding thoughts
On August 12, 1952, the Fort Worth Star Telegram published the following statement regarding J. Frank Norris as part of its editorial: “The force of his personality was enormous. The controversies surrounding him were frequent and noisy. He had the faculty of binding his friends and followers to him with hoops of steel, and the kindred quality of making implacable opponents, whom he always nettled and sometimes frustrated. But deep in his character, whatever the controversies, was the spirit of the builder. He built in beliefs, in numbers, and in stone. These monuments remain.”

 



 
 
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