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A Short Biography of John Franklyn Norris

      NORRIS, JOHN FRANKLYN (1877-1952). John Franklyn Norris, fundamentalist Baptist preacher, was born at Dadeville, Alabama, on September 18, 1877, the son of Warner and Mary (Davis) Norris. He and his family moved to Hubbard, Hill County, Texas, in 1881. After graduation he attended Baylor University from 1898 to 1903. From 1902 to 1905 he attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he earned the master of theology degree. In 1905 Norris returned to Texas as the pastor of the McKinney Avenue Baptist Church in Dallas. He resigned in 1907 to become editor of the Baptist Standard. Between 1907 and 1909 he is credited with ending the Texas Baptist newspaper war, with influencing the transfer of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from Waco to Fort Worth, and with helping to abolish racetrack gambling. Norris sold his interest in the Standard in 1909 and accepted the pastorate of the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth in that same year. His tenure as pastor extended from 1909 until his death in 1952, a period of forty-four years.

      After 1911 Norris developed the reputation of a sensationalist and controversialist. He was involved in numerous social and civic reform activities, including prohibition and gambling reform. He led his Forth Worth church to establish a ministry to servicemen stationed at Camp Bowie (Tarrant County)qv during World War I. He began the first regular radio ministry in the United States in the 1920s and openly supported the Ku Klux Klan. He preached to crowds that numbered up to 10,000 and was pastor in Detroit (Temple Baptist Church) and in Fort Worth simultaneously in the 1930s-flying back and forth at a time when air travel was in its infancy. When his church was destroyed by fire in 1912, Norris was charged with arson. After a protracted trial, he was acquitted. By 1920 he had rebuilt his facilities to include a 5,000-seat auditorium, a gymnasium, and a swimming pool. The revolving electrical sign and the spotlight mounted on the roof of the church became trademarks of his style. The 1920s marked the apex of Norris's career. During the decade he became the leader of the fundamentalist movement in Texas by attacking the alleged teaching of evolution at Baylor University. As a result of his controversial methods in criticizing Baylor, denominational leaders, and Texas Baptist policies, Norris and the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth were denied seats at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1922 and 1923. In 1926, during the height of a controversy involving Norris, Mayor H. C. Meacham, and anti-Catholicism, the Fort Worth pastor shot and killed D. E. Chipps, one of Meacham's friends. Norris was indicted for murder on July 29 and acquitted on grounds of self-defense.

      During 1928 Norris actively campaigned against the election of Al Smith to the presidency. His anti-Catholic views, voiced from the pulpit, his radio station, and his weekly newspaper, led the Republican party to honor him for his role in defeating Smith. In January 1929 Norris suffered the loss of his church facilities by fire for the second time in his tenure at the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth. Rebuilding the church during the height of the Great Depression was one of the greatest challenges of his career. When the new facilities were occupied in 1932, they bore little resemblance to the grander edifice of the 1920s. In the latter part of the 1930s Norris organized the World Missionary Baptist Fellowship, a group of independent, premillennial Baptist churches, to combat socialist, liberal, or "modernist" tendencies within the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1939 he began urging the United States to support and assist her European allies. After the war, when John Birch, a graduate of his seminary in Fort Worth, was killed by the Chinese communists, Norris launched a renewed attack on Communist influences within the United States. His premillennialist views led him to urge President Harry Truman to recognize and support the new state of Israel. Dissensions among his leadership led to a major division in his organization in 1950. This split resulted in the formation of a rival group led by his former assistant, Beauchamp Vick, based in Springfield, Missouri. Norris and his group continued to operate from Fort Worth. Norris died on August 20, 1952, of a heart seizure while attending a youth camp at Jacksonville, Florida. His death marked the end of an era of religious controversy in Texas.

      BIBLIOGRAPHY: Roy Emerson Falls, A Biography of J. Frank Norris, 1877-1952 (Euless, Texas, 1975). C. Gwin Morris, He Changed Things: The Life and Thought of J. Frank Norris (Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Tech University, 1973). C. Gwin Morris, "J. Frank Norris and the Baptist General Convention of Texas," Texas Baptist History 1 (1981). E. Roy Tatum, Conquest or Failure?: Biography of J. Frank Norris (Dallas: Baptist Historical Foundation, 1966).

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