J. Frank Norris

John Franklyn (J. Frank) Norris (September 18, 1877 – August 20, 1952) was a Baptist preacher and controversial Christian fundamentalist.

John Franklyn Norris
J. Frank Norris (left) and John Roach Straton
Born(1877-09-18)September 18, 1877
DiedAugust 20, 1952(1952-08-20) (aged 74)
ResidenceFort Worth, Texas
Alma materBaylor University
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Years active18971952
Spouse(s)Lillian Gaddy (m.1902)


J. Frank Norris was born in Dadeville in Tallapoosa County in eastern Alabama, but the family shortly moved to Arkansas and then back to Columbiana in Shelby County in central Alabama. In the late 1880s, the Norrises purchased land near Hubbard in Hill County, Texas, about thirty miles north of Waco, where they farmed.[1] James Warner Norris was an alcoholic, and Frank Norris claimed that his father once beat him severely after he had emptied his liquor bottles. In 1891, both were shot by an acquaintance of Warner Norris, and Frank said he did not fully recuperate for three years.[2]

Norris was converted at a Baptist revival meeting in the early 1890s, and in 1897, he became pastor of Mount Antioch Baptist Church in Mount Calm in Hill County, Texas.[3] The following year he enrolled in Baptist-affiliated Baylor University in Waco, which he attended from 1898 to 1903. He then earned a Master of Theology degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1905, Norris returned to Texas as the pastor of the McKinney Avenue Baptist Church in Dallas. He resigned that post in 1907 to become editor of the Baptist Standard. Norris is credited with ending the Texas Baptist newspaper war, with moving Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from Waco to Fort Worth, and with persuading the state legislature to abolish racetrack gambling.

In 1909, Norris sold his interest in the Baptist Standard and accepted the pastorate of the First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, where he served for forty-four years until his death. In 1912, Norris was acquitted of arson and perjury charges related to fires that respectively destroyed his church auditorium and severely damaged his home. A second fire razed the structure in 1929, and rebuilding began at the advent of the Great Depression.[4] Norris was also the radio pastor of, variously, KFQB, KTAT and then KSAT (not to be confused with KTSA and KSAT-TV, both in San Antonio),[5] where he started the first regular radio ministry in the United States in the 1920s.

The height of Norris' career came in the 1920s, when he became the leader of the fundamentalist movement in Texas by attacking the teaching of "that hell-born, Bible-destroying, deity-of-Christ-denying, German rationalism known as evolution" at Baylor University. Because of his attacks on Baylor and denominational leaders, Norris and his church were denied seats at the annual meetings of the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1922 and 1923.[6]

In his 1926 sermon series "Rum and Romanism," Norris attacked Mayor H. C. Meacham of Fort Worth, whom he accused of misappropriating funds for Roman Catholic causes. That same year, Norris killed lumberman Dexter Elliott Chipps, a friend of Meacham, in Norris's church office. Norris claimed Chipps had threatened his life, and when Norris was tried for murder, he was acquitted on grounds of self-defense.[7]

During 1928, Norris campaigned against the election of the Democrat Al Smith to the presidency and voiced anti-Catholic views from the pulpit, his radio station, and his weekly newspaper. Herbert C. Hoover, the Republican nominee, won the election and carried Texas as well, the first member of that party ever to prevail in a Texas general election.

In 1935, Norris accepted the pastorate of a second church, Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan. By 1946, the combined membership of the two congregations was more than 26,000. For sixteen years, Norris commuted by train and plane between the two churches.

Though Norris would presumably have mostly agreed on matters of faith and interpretation with Ben M. Bogard, who in 1924 founded the American Baptist Association, the two were often at odds. Bogard claimed that Norris was vain and prone to exaggerate Norris' ministerial success. Though he accused Norris of failing to preach the fundamentals of the faith, the two in time developed a begrudging friendship. Bogard said, "When I get to heaven I expect to find Frank Norris there in spite of that wicked streak that runs through him."[8]

In 1941, Norris faced a $25,000 libel judgment payable to another Baptist minister, R. E. White, because of remarks about White in Norris' Detroit denominational paper, The Fundamentalist. Norris exhausted all appeals to the Texas Supreme Court. The publicity about the suit weakened Norris' hold over his fellow fundamentalists.[9]

In September 1947, while on a tour of Europe, Norris secured an audience with Pope Pius XII and declared that the pope was "the last Gibraltar in Europe against Communism." Thereafter, Norris took the position that communism was more dangerous than Catholicism, and some of Norris's erstwhile allies, such as Toronto evangelist T. T. Shields, criticized him for "folly."[10]

In the late 1930s, Norris organized a group of independent, premillennial Baptist churches into the Premillennial Missionary Baptist Fellowship (later the World Baptist Fellowship), in an attempt to combat what he believed were socialist, liberal, and "modernist" tendencies within the Southern Baptist Convention. Norris's group established the Fundamentalist Baptist Bible Institute, later Arlington Baptist College.

After World War II, when John Birch, a graduate of his seminary in Fort Worth, was killed by the Chinese communists, Norris renewed his attack on communist influences in the United States. Norris's premillennial views[11] led him to urge President Harry Truman to recognize and support the new state of Israel.

Norris published a religious newspaper, The Searchlight, the front page of which had a picture of Norris grasping a Bible in one hand and a searchlight in the other while Satan cowered in the opposite lower corner. Norris died of a heart attack while attending a youth camp at Jacksonville, Florida in 1952. He was succeeded at the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth by Homer Ritchie, who pastored the church for thirty years.[12]


  1. Barry Hankins, God's Rascal: J. Frank Norris and the Beginnings of Southern Fundamentalism (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1996), 9.
  2. Hankins, 9-10.
  3. Hankins, 10.
  4. "Frank Norris' Church is Destroyed by Fire: Two Buildings are Completely Razed by Blaze" The Port Arthur News,12 January 1929, 1.
  5. the Rev. John Franklyn ("Killer Frank") Norris's radio station KSAT at Fort Worth. "Preserved Preaching". Time Magazine. Time, Inc. 26 January 1931. Retrieved 1 February 2009.
  6. His church would later leave the Southern Baptist Convention and become an Independent Baptist Church, but long after his death the church would later reunite with the SBC.
  7. David O. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850 (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1986), 234. No gun was found on Chipps, and no evidence was produced at the trial about any such gun. On the trial, see David R. Stokes, The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America (Steerforth Press/Random House, 2011); Time, February 7, 1927.
  8. "Bogard Testifies Against Norris". The Bible Banner. wordsfitlyspoken.org. VI (XIII): 18b. July–August 1944. Retrieved October 8, 2015.
  9. "Norris appeal in libel suit denied", Sweetwater, Texas, Reporter, Vol. 45, No. 150, Ed. 1 (November 12, 1941)
  10. Hankins, 151.
  11. In November 1934, Norris conducted a contentious three-night debate with Foy E. Wallace on the millennium. For a contemporaneous report see W. E. Brightwell (1944), "Norris-Wallace Debate Draws Immense Crowds" Bible Banner Vol. VI No. 13, pp. 7-9a, reprinting Brightwell's article from Gospel Advocate in 1934; for Norris' perspective see J. Frank Norris (1935), The Norris Wallace Debate (Fort Worth: Fundamentalist Publishing Company), OCLC 167126597; for Wallace's perspective see Foy Esco Wallace (1968), The Story of the Fort Worth Norris-Wallace debate: a documentary record of the facts concerning the Norris-Wallace debate, held in Fort Worth, Texas, November, 1934 (Nashville: F.E. Wallace, Jr. Publications), OCLC 126037. For Churches of Christ the debate became particularly divisive when ministers Frank M. Mullins and Jesse Wood from two Dallas-area Churches of Christ went to the microphone in support of Norris, a development which Norris had encouraged.
  12. Homer Ritchie, "The Life and Legend of J. Frank Norris," (self-published, 1991).

Further reading

  • Michael E. Schepis, "J. Frank Norris, A Forgotten Figure of the Twentieth Century" (Westbow Press, 2012)
  • Roy Emerson Falls, A Biography of J. Frank Norris, 1877-1952 (Euless, Texas, 1975)
  • Louis Entzminger, The J. Frank Norris I Have Known for 34 Years (Ft. Worth: New Testament Ministries)
  • Barry Hankins, God's Rascal: J. Frank Norris & the Beginnings of Southern Fundamentalism (University Press of Kentucky, 1996), ISBN 0-8131-1985-5
  • Roy A. Kemp, "Norris Extravaganza!: A biography of Dr. J. Frank Norris, 1877-1952, my reminisce" (Calvary Publications, Fort Worth, Texas, 1975) OCLC 45768232
  • 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)
  • J. Frank Norris, Inside History of First Baptist Church, Fort Worth, and Temple Baptist Church, Detroit (Fort Worth, 1938)
  • C. Allyn Russell, "J. Frank Norris: Violent Fundamentalist," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 75 (January 1972)
  • David R. Stokes, The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America (Steerforth Press/Random House, 2011)
  • E. Ray Tatum, Conquest or Failure?: Biography of J. Frank Norris (Dallas: Baptist Historical Foundation, 1966).
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