J. Frank Norris

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John Franklyn Norris (more popularly known as J. Frank Norris, 1877–1952) was an American fundamentalist pastor, among the most prominent of American preachers during the 1920s. He preached at the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth in Texas from 1909 until 1952. He made use of radio and his congregation numbered in the thousands. It has been referred to as "the first megachurch." Norris was given the nickname, "the Texas tornado."

Norris was expelled from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, in 1924 after he held a mock trial in which he accused faculty members at a Baptist college of teaching evolution. He later became instrumental in the Independent Baptist movement.[1] The death of William Jennings Bryan in 1925 left Norris as the nation's most prominent fundamentalist.

After Norris gave a vitriolic sermon denouncing Fort Worth Mayor H.C. Meachum, D.E. Chipps, a wealthy businessman and a close friend of the mayor, paid him a visit on July 17, 1926. Chipps assaulted Norris and threatened to kill him. Norris fired four shots and killed Chipps, who was unarmed at the time. The trial that followed was one of the most sensational of the decade. Norris was acquitted on grounds of self-defense.[2] The trial made Norris a highly controversial figure. William Bell Riley in Minneapolis eclipsed Norris as the leading voice of fundamentalism nationally. But Norris remained the movement's "southern commander," as biographer Barry Hankins put it. The dual leadership of Riley and Norris was a precursor of the evangelical vs. fundamentalist split that developed in the 1950s.

Norris endorsed Herbert Hoover for president in 1928 and accompanied him on a campaign tour.[2] Norris broke with the Democratic Party on this occasion because the party had nominated New York Governor Al Smith, a Catholic. In 1947, Norris wrote a letter to U.S. President Harry Truman which urged him to recognize Israel. "The issue is whether we will take the authority of the Bible of our mothers or the Koran with the sword and flame," Norris wrote.[3] Biblical issues played a major role in Truman's decision to recognize Israel, so it is possible that the letter had an influence.[4]

He would simultaneously pastor two churches at once: First Baptist Church of Fort Worth (which he led out of the SBC) and Temple Baptist Church of Detroit; he traveled by plane and train to do so. He also founded a Bible college which is today a full-fledged university, Arlington Baptist University, and a quasi-denomination known today as the World Baptist Fellowship.

Many years after his death, First Baptist Church of Fort Worth would rejoin the SBC and remains a member to this day.[5]


Further reading