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A Tale of Two Preachers

By David R. Stokes | Senior pastor of Fair Oaks Church in Fairfax, Va.; author of Apparent Danger: The Pastor of America’s First Megachurch and the Texas Murder Trial of the Decade in the 1920s. His Web site is Davidstokes.org.

When W.A. Criswell—a man who would one day become one of America's most successful preachers—was a young boy growing up in the northwest corner of the Texas panhandle, he began to feel stirrings in his soul about the call to the ministry. His parents were conflicted, with mother concerned about the boy's prospects for material success and father determined that if his boy became a preacher, he'd be the "right" kind.

Mr. Criswell was a big fan of a preacher often referred to as the "Texas Tornado"—J. Frank Norris, pastor of First Baptist Church in Fort Worth. The Mrs? Well, her pulpit cup of tea was George W. Truett of Dallas' First Baptist Church. He was devotional; Norris was dogmatic. Truett was a unifier; Norris was a divider. Both preachers were predominately evangelistic, but their methods and mannerisms were as different as night and day.

Today, Dr. Truett is the better remembered of the duo, but this certainly was not the case when the two First Baptist Churches towered over the variants of Texas Baptist life during the first half of the 20th century. Although Truett's legacy is secure, complete with the ongoing success of the Dallas church, as well the association of his name with his alma mater, Baylor University—at times the ghost of J. Frank Norris has haunted the Southern Baptist Convention.

For much of the 1920s and 1930s, the Fort Worth church was the larger of the two. In fact, it was in many ways America's first megachurch. Norris' name was better known than Truett's outside of Baptist circles, due largely to his penchant for sensationalism and controversy. After all, a preacher indicted four times by county grand juries during his ministry, once for perjury, twice for arson and once for first-degree murder, with high-profile trials accompanying, would tend to get ample media coverage.

Even inside the denominational walls of the Southern Baptist world, Norris' name was as well known as Truett's, though not out of affection. Initially noticed favorably by Truett and other leaders as a young and upcoming minister, even being given a plum job as editor of the Baptist Standard at the tender age of 30, leaders soon soured on J. Frank. They began to notice the young preacher's apparently unbridled ambition, not to mention his "Haydenite" tendencies.

This was a reference to a schismatic group of Southern Baptists in the latter part of the 19th century. It was led by Samuel Hayden and given over to the kind of "watch dog-ism" and divisiveness that later would characterize the emergence of Baptist Fundamentalism in the 1920s.

The growth of Fundamentalism in its early days following the end of World War I played out as a veritable tale of two preachers in the Southern Baptist world. Norris became an early champion of the movement, while Truett shied away from its more tenacious tendencies. It was this reluctance by Truett to engage perceived error that provoked J. Frank Norris' wrath. When Norris took on Baylor University—the great school where he and Truett had trained for the ministry (though more than 10 years apart) —the gloves were off.

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