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.
J. Frank Norris conducted a celebrated witch-hunt of sorts, investigating the faculty of the Baptist school and looking for doctrinal anemia, especially when it came to the hot-button-issue-of-the-day: evolution. This all occurred against that backdrop of the Roaring Twenties, when the issues aired at the Scopes Trial were being debated around the country. Norris was the chief inquisitor, a man who was responsible for many notable faculty resignations at Baylor and elsewhere around the country.
Along the way, some of the brethren came up with a little poem, one that would be whispered and laughed at when preachers got together to chew the ecclesiastical fat:
“And what to do with Norris, was a question broad and deep.
He was too big to banish, and he smelled too bad to keep.”
It was not at all funny to George W. Truett. It was personal because Norris had made it so. By this time, the Fort Worth preacher had become what has been described as “Truett’s chief rival for the soul of Texas Baptistdom.” In 1924, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, with the full backing of Dr. Truett, ousted Norris and his church. Norris was waging all-out war against what he sarcastically called “The Baptist Machine.” His personal tabloid, the Searchlight, had a circulation of more than 50,000 by this time, and it was common to see Truett and other Baptist leaders described as “infidels” and worse in its headlines and pages.
Also around this time, it became part of the job description of deacons at Truett’s church to be watchful every Sunday morning, on the lookout for anyone bearing anything resembling a telegram. Norris regularly tried to insert an agent provocateur into the Dallas church crowd, someone who, with the skill of an experienced process server, would get a choicely worded note into Dr. Truett’s hand—one designed to rattle the preacher with words such as: “How can a man like you presume to occupy a Baptist pulpit?”
Norris and Truett not only were different outside the pulpit; they were a study in contrast in it, as well. Norris tended to use outrageous and aggressive body language to aid his voice, complete with flailing arms, kicking feet and even tossing the occasional coat to the floor. Truett, on the other hand, let his voice do all the work, one that could, it was said: “leap from a whisper to a shout in the utterance of a syllable.”
Norris’ ways caught up to him in 1926, at least temporarily, when he shot an unarmed critic to death. The story became national news as Norris faced the Texas electric chair after the biggest and most sensational trial of that decade in a Texas court.
Norris was acquitted and resumed his ministry, one that would lead him to pastor two churches, First Baptist in Fort Worth and Temple Baptist in Detroit, Mich., simultaneously for 16 years (1934-1950), boasting a combined church membership of 25,000. The murder trial rendered him a virtual pariah among Southern Baptists, leading Norris eventually to start his own independent Baptist movement, one that flourished long after his death in 1952.
George W. Truett died in July 1944 after a year-long illness. The search for a new pastor for First Baptist in Dallas led them to 34-year-old W.A. Criswell. The new pastor—though this likely was not noticed at the time—was in some ways a composite of Truett and Norris, though certainly without the latter’s darker qualities.
One day, after Criswell had been filling George W. Truett’s shoes for nearly eight years, W.A. glanced out the window of his office and saw an old man sitting there. He buzzed his secretary and asked how long the man had been waiting, “Well, he’s been there for quite a while, Dr. Criswell. He looked like a bum to me, and I wasn’t sure you’d want to be disturbed,” she said.
Criswell recognized the old man. He was no bum; it was J. Frank Norris.
Dr. Criswell received his visitor, embraced him; and they chatted about life and ministry. Norris died a few days later.