The First Radio Preacher, Part 1
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Fri May 22, 2009 at 10:22:51 AM EST
It is Sunday morning at the First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.  The famous pastor by the name of J. Frank Norris enters the pulpit carrying a broken quart bottle with him.  It is the early part of the 20th century and the church is relieved that their pastor was just acquitted in court of allegations that he had torched the church.  With fervent passion the preacher is proud in his exoneration from the accusations.  He preaches a sermon from the text, "Thou are weighed in the balances and found wanting."  He tears into the attorney who brought charges against him. The lawyer has just met a horrible death driving his Cadillac on North Main accompanied by a lady companion. His vehicle is full of liquor and is driven head on into the streetcar.  Pastor J. Frank announces to the congregation that in the broken bottle there is whiskey and brains from the lawyer. The story is a splendid portrait of the life and ministry of J. Frank Norris.
     I recall my last year of seminary in which I had just gotten married.  My new wife had met a young lady seeking a ride to Mississippi to see her family.  We were going to make that trip to visit my wife's family  At the time the young lady was living with her uncle in Fort Worth. We were glad for some help on gas and stopped by her residence to pick her up.  I recall meeting her uncle who I remember as beng drunk at the time.  He announced to me that he had been a deacon serving under J. Frank Norris.  I perked up recalling Dr. Baker, the famous Baptist historian, telling us stories about the notorious J. Frank.  I remember Baker telling us that Norris would organize his deacons into a group at Christmas.  The deacons would collect rotten fruit, package it and drop it off on the door steps of seminary professors.  (A really charming deacon visitation program.)  The man proceeded to tell me that he knew more about the Bible than any of the professors at Southwestern Seminary.  He then told me that no where in the Bible was there  a story of a Blue Bird being in the nest with a Red Bird.  I assumed he was assuring me he thought that inter racial marriage was not Christian.  I looked at a wife who appeared to be embarrassed at her mate and wondered what kind of creature comparison fit this family?
     In his autobiography, Norris suggested that his enemies either lost their fortunes, died an untimely death, or caught V.D.  He tollerated no dissent in his church and bragged about how many peple he ran off. J. Frank could evidently replace them.  He, at one time, was pastor of the largest congregation in the nation, counting his Fort Worth crowd and the church he also pastored at the same time in Detroit.  Norris is credited with founding the fundamentalist movement that eventually took over the Southern Baptist's national convention many decades after his death.  He is known in his home state as the father of modern fundamentalism.
     Sinclair Lewis wrote the award winning Elmer Gantry.  The novel would be spun into the oscar bonanza movie staring Burt Lancaster.  Authors have stated that Lewis came to Fort Worth to study Norris as a background for the character in the novel.
     Widipedia web site claims that J. Frank Norris was the first preacher to start a radio ministry.  It was started in the twenties. The Texas preacher also started the Premillennial Baptist Fellowship. This organization would lay the ground work for future fundamentalist Baptist controversies. Norris' eschatology would evolve into a movement that sought to make all other views heretical.1
     Roy Kemp was Norris' dean of the seminary that was started in First Baptist Fort Worth.  Kemp wrote a biography on his mentor highlighting the adoration Kemp had for his pastor's efforts to reach people.  Kemp stated that Norris frolicked on being controversial in order to draw a crowd into church. Norris taught people to draw people unto him so that he could point them to Jesus. When charges erupted that the preacher was full of his own ego, the pastor stated this was his method of outreach.
     Kemp recalls an insightful episode when a newspaper reporter came to the church. In front of the congregation just before he preached, Norris pointed out the man. He mocked the reporter from the pulpit for writing about Norris taking his coat off during the church service.  To make his point Norris then pulled off his stiff collar and tie in front of the crowd.  He then called the reporter a "bozo" among other things.  Norris then told the reporter to get up and leave.  The man was so intimidated he got up out of the pew and walked out fo the church.2
     Historian Gwin Morris noted that Norris held grudges. The pastor had a long memory and held hostility for decades against his supposed dissenters.  A prankster once took a dog into the chapel at Baylor University. Enraged, the president of the university threw the dog out the window...that happened to be three stories up.  Norris was rumored to be the one who turned in the preisident to the Humane Society and got the leader fired.  More traditional, or moderate Baptist preachers like George Truett, accused Norris of proselytizing members from other churches. On the other hand, Norris once commented on a pastor who received some members from the church that Norris had just kicked out.  Norris said the pastor was a "lone, lean, lank yellow egg-sucking dog."  Norris had an ongoing war against what he considered moderate Baptists and their universities. To deal with Norris, Gwin Morris claims some of the ministers stooped to the same sort of mud slinging to get back at the preacher. By most accounts, Norris enjoyed the conflict.3
     Baylor professor, Barry Hankins, has written a biography about J. Frank titled, God's Rascal.  Baylor was often at the receiving end of Norris' attacks.  J. Frank often bragged about the people at Baylor he got fired or harassed.
     Hankins claims Norris was influenced by Haydenites. This was a group of disgruntled people in Texas who despised the Baptist General Convention of Texas, claiming it was filled with too many men walking around in three piece suits and doing nothing.  The movement would eventually spread to strongholds in East Texas and Arkansas and lead to the founding of the Baptist Missionary Alliance, (BMA.)  Hankins said Norris ran off traditional Baptists in the church and replaced them with poorer members without much acquaintance with Baptist beliefs about how to operate a church. Norris once brought in a sheriff to swear to the corruption of a local judge before the congregation. Norris would bring in local candidates he liked to speak to the congregation in downtown Fort Worth. He even used his newsletter to urge people to vote against presidential candidates. He said the election of Al Smith, a Catholic, would be a threat to Southern segregation and white supremacy....continued

and speaking as a follower of Jesus Christ,  "Christians" like these have done more to damage the cause of Christ throughout the last 200 years, than all of the atheists and unbelievers who have ever lived.

by CynthiaGee on Sat May 23, 2009 at 11:55:20 AM EST

Thanks for comments the Cynthia. I have had similar thoughts after looking at some of these national leaders.  Norris was gifted in many ways.  He was eloquent and quite good at doing what he did in regards to church work. My own take is that he got drawn into the original religious right movement and bought its message. Its message looks absurd to us now. I am sure future generations will see much of what takes place in the r. r. as just as ignorant.  Countering the Norris folks of today is a much needed effort by the church.

by wilkyjr on Sun May 24, 2009 at 06:10:52 PM EST
I think that people are blind to what is going on, even right under their noses.  I think they don't hear the whole message- only the parts they want to hear (but I would argue that the whole message/sermon goes in).  

They don't recognize that their thinking is being manipulated and even controlled.  People like Norris are masters of the art of thought control.

I'm also reminded of the (false) story about how to boil a crab.  You know- put them in cold water and heat slowly so they don't feel the change and climb/jump out?  If someone starts out sounding rather normal and common-sense, but gets crazier and crazier- then people can be desensitized to crazy talk.  It sounds rather like Norris may have started out that way.  Does that sound about right?

by ArchaeoBob on Mon May 25, 2009 at 03:04:13 AM EST

Don, shouldn't we start with Rick Perry & his call to secede from the U.S. these last weeks as template from others before in sheer grandstanding tactics over something that was settled a century & a half ago? I grew up with J. Frank Norris stories which were more than enough as a child to know that I wanted no such nonsense, then or when I grew up. John R. Rice was another of that ilk, but frankly, TX always had an overload of rough-hewn characters pursuing their own program but not risque enough to get the spotlight like Norris or Rice. A smoother, more modern one to add to this list was[is] W.W. Christwell, who stayed with his schtick long enough to get his OWN "Dallas Baptist College" which was his answer to keep his followers at home rather than to let them gravitate down to Waco. Today, Baylor has besmerched itself with the fundamentalist agenda so much that it has nothing or no one to cry foul against; in the process, it has lost its standing as an institution of higher learning. When Baylor changed its charter at five of twelve, apocalyptically speaking, a sigh of relief was heard from moderates everywhere, non-Baptists too; however, it wasn't too long before its mole of a President did from within what others were trying to stop from without. Take the establishment of George W. Truett Divinity School to butress students who couldn't take the Ft. Worth/Southwestern literalism/et al. For What? That appendage to Baylor [started in Educational facilities of FBC] is fundamentalist to the core without academic legitimacy. Not even good enough for Blue Dog stuff.

This stuff is toxic even to read or hear about. After an ill-advised ten days around Rockport/CC for a long delayed high school reunion, I don't know how on earth I could live there with fundamentalism everywhere. It is a travesty what has happened there but something that'd be a good investigative movie material if the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities were still in business!
Arden C. Hander

by achbird65 on Mon May 25, 2009 at 10:51:19 PM EST

Sloan left his legacy at Baylor, but it might rebound again. We hope it once again will be a great bastion for separation of church and state again.

by wilkyjr on Tue May 26, 2009 at 10:31:22 AM EST

I would report someone who threw a dog out a third-floor window, whether that person was the university president, the university janitor, or J. Frank Norris.

by NancyP on Fri May 29, 2009 at 04:05:27 AM EST

Used to love listening to this guy in Texas. A great preacher. I used to put him on while at working doing appliance service Fort Worth jobs for local folks. Every now and then a customer would also like listening to him and we'd talk about his lessons. Great memories!

by JCC on Tue Jul 14, 2020 at 06:06:10 PM EST

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