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The conversion of J. Frank Norris: a fresh look at the revival of 1910.

The most famous revival in Kentucky occurred in 1801.

That tornado of religious fervor touched down at places throughout the commonwealth including here along the Elkhorn Creek and over there on Cane Ridge. Revival spirit accompanied the great earthquake of New Madrid, near Paducah, and a half century later, the Civil War. In more recent times, student revivals that began elsewhere were felt, among other places, at Georgetown College in 1948 and again in 1970.

But no religious meeting in Kentucky history exceeds in influence that which occurred in Owensboro, Kentucky in November of 1910. A ten-day meeting held during Thanksgiving week was the decisive event in the transformation of the preacher himself, J. Frank Norris. He stepped off the train as the intelligent, educated and self-controlled minister of a large, wealthy and sophisticated congregation in Texas. He was 33 years old. He returned home the flamboyant, belligerent, and out-of-control preacher who would become a leader of protestant fundamentalism, not just in the South but throughout the country. They called him the Texas Tornado.

When Norris died in September of 1952, both the New York Times and Time magazine printed stories about his life and death. (1) The man they eulogized was born, so to speak, on the banks of the Ohio one hundred years ago.

This paper addresses three elements of the revival of 1910. First, I will describe the legendary status of this revival, summarize the first scholarly investigation into the facts, and offer a revised chronology of the events that constitute either the conversion or the reversion of J. Frank Norris.

Second, I will offer an explanation of what happened to Norris when he came to Kentucky one hundred years ago. What did he encounter that altered his religious and ministerial sensibilities? What did he see and hear that uncorked the dynamism that was latent in his soul?

Finally, I will describe the effect the transformation of this one incredibly talented and bold preacher has had on religious life in America during the last one hundred years.

The Legend of I. Frank Norris

Many books of Baptist history in the South carry some version of the Owensboro legend of J. Frank Norris. The first was Pay Tatum who published in 1966 an account of the life of Norris. (2) The most recent is David Stokes, who published early in 2010 a well researched and very readable treatment of the most infamous episode in Norris' life: his trial for murder. (3) I call this story a legend for two reasons. First, it is a story passed along from one writer to another without any critical inquiry. Second, important elements of this oft-repeated story are inaccurate.

Here is the legend: I take this version of it from Robert Baker's history of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary: "Norris was the respected and refined leader in a successful pastorate and seemed destined to write his name large in Southern Baptist life. However, in the summer of 1911 he experienced a dramatic change, while preaching at a revival meeting in Owensboro, Kentucky, he found himself 'liberated' from the thin layer of sophistication that had been stifling him in his ministry at First Church [of Fort Worth]. He said to his wife on the telephone: 'Wife, wife we have had the biggest meeting you ever saw--more than half a hundred sinners have been saved, and they are shouting all over this county, and the biggest part of it is, wife, you have a new husband. He has been saved tonight, he is starting home and we are going to start life over again and lick the tar out of that crowd and build the biggest church in the world.' (4) Upon his return to Fort Worth, Norris began the sensational type of preaching for which he later became famous." (5)

Some writers, citing Norris again, include another detail, and here I quote Ray Tatum's 1966 biography: "From Owensboro, Ohio [sic] he wired a large newspaper advertisement to the Fort Worth Record, announcing his subject for the next Sunday evening.... 'If Jim Jefferies, the Chicago Cubs, and Theodore Roosevelt Can't Come Back, Who Can?'" (6) In more recent years, yet another layer has been erroneously added to the legend, this time by Tom Nettles. Nettles asserts that before Norris arrived in Owensboro, the church had "endured a major disruption" between the pastor and the deacons that led to mutual dismissals and a public lawsuit. (7)

Some version of this Owensboro legend is printed by most of the half dozen dissertations on Norris, such as the 1973 Texas Tech dissertation by Clovis G. Morris. (8) Many histories of Baptists in the South, such as the sesquicentennial history of the Southern Baptist Convention, repeat this story. (9) Roy Falls and Homer Ritchie both knew Norris and their writings, largely reminisces with Ritchie actually using the word "legend" in a book title, continue the pattern. (10) Alan Lefever's 1994 biography of B. H. Carroll continues the confusion. (11) David Stokes invokes only the Owensboro revival and the newspaper advertisement in his recent Norris volume. (12) Even such a large and impressive survey of Baptist thought as Baptist Theology: A Four Century Study by James Leo Garrett includes the story but misstates the date. (13) With some variation the legend is this: Norris is pastor of First Baptist Church of Ft. Worth. He is successful but frustrated. He comes to Kentucky, preaches a revival, scores are converted, he has a mysterious awakening, he calls his wife in the middle of the night and promises a new start, wires the Fort Worth newspaper with an advertisement, returns to Texas and launches his now-famous rabble-rousing crusade against so many people and institutions.

This legend is based upon two sermons by J. Frank Norris and one newspaper article by Norris. Both sermons are in the book entitled Inside History of First Baptist Church, Fort Worth and Temple Baptist Church, Detroit: Life Story of Dr. J. Frank Norris. The title page of this book carries this description: "This book is composed of chapters and addresses given without regard to sequence or chronological order. In the main the addresses as published were given when the fires were hot, and in times of great crisis, and the pointed arrows are left as first delivered." Among these collected documents are two sermons that address the Norris transformation. The first is "A Call to the First Baptist Church" and the second is "My Twenty-three Years in Fort Worth." (14) The article is from the church newsletter called "The Searchlight;" it has never been published. (15)

One sermon describes his visit to Owensboro in 1910 to preach at Third Baptist Church. The pastor there was C. C. Carroll, his friend and the son of B. H. Carroll. A year earlier the elder Carroll had preached the dedicatory sermon of the Owensboro sanctuary to a crowd of 3,000 people. (16) Norris says he went to Kentucky in a spirit of despondency but returned as a man renewed and refocused.

The other sermon describes a tabernacle revival meeting in "a little town of about a thousand people" (17) somewhere in Texas in the summer, Norris says, of 1912. He misses the evening train out of Ft. Worth to his revival destination, but catches the second, preaches in a rural tabernacle, stays with a Methodist layman, witnesses the conversion of a notorious sinner, and calls his wife with the now-famous, oft-repeated testimony of his own transformation.

The article describes an event in "October" in 1910 when, during a revival "in another state," Norris decides to adopt more sensational preaching methods. He wires back to the Fort Worth "Daily News" a sermon advertisement that supposedly generated the big Sunday evening crowd upon his return. (18)

The legend, reported in scholarly and popular sources, is a conflation of these three stories.

Here are the five most important facts related to these three revival narratives, facts that force us to conclude they refer to at least two different events.

1. C. C. Carroll was pastor of Third Baptist Church in 1910 but, following the Norris revival in November of 1910 and a year of struggle with the deacons during 1911, resigned early in 1912. (19)

2. Third Baptist Church was, in 1910 and before, perhaps the largest congregation in Kentucky meeting in the largest sanctuary in the commonwealth, an elegant structure resembling the structure in Nashville that became home to the Grand Ole Opry: Ryman Auditorium. It was no rural tabernacle.

3. Owensboro newspapers document the arrival of Norris in 1910 and his preaching in the sanctuary but describe an event of more modest success. (20) The annual report of the Association lists Third Baptist Church with twenty-eight baptisms that entire year. (21)

4. The train ride to Kentucky would have been a multi-day journey, through St. Louis and Louisville. Trains out of Ft. Worth headed south, called the Katy (short for Missouri-Kansas-Texas), left many times a day. (22) In the tabernacle story, Norris says he missed the intended train, took the later train, and still arrived at his destination that same day in time to preach.

5. Norris nowhere connects the Owensboro revival with the summer tabernacle meeting. He does assert that each had a dramatic effect on his ministry, but he neither states nor implies they describe the same episode. The blending of the two stories, and the addition of the newspaper advertisement element, are all pieced together by those who have tried to write his story.

The fact of the matter is this: Nobody who has ever been to Owensboro or Third Baptist Church would assume, let alone assert, that the second of these narratives describes an event in that city or sanctuary. Simply put: too many of the facts of this train ride-tabernacle meeting-sinner-conversion phone-call narrative are at odds with the entire environment in Owensboro. I do not think any person (save James Leo Garrett) who has included this legend in dissertation, history, biography, or book has ever been to Owensboro or Third Baptist Church. (23) Furthermore I do not think any of them have done any research on the matter. (24) This demonstrates how easily narratives get endorsed as history when in fact a little research proves otherwise.

The Norris conversion legend depends upon these two Norris sermons. One sermon by Norris describes his ministerial depression in 1910, his experience with C. C. Carroll in the Owensboro revival, and his adoption of more sensational methods of preaching and promotion. It is possible that the article about the newspaper advertisement also refers to this Owensboro episode. The other sermon describes his train ride to a tabernacle meeting somewhere in Texas, the conversion of a notorious sinner, and Norris' dramatic mid-night phone call to his wife.

But can these first person accounts be taken at face value? Not altogether, given the persistent use of exaggeration and hyperbole employed by most preachers and raised to a high art by J. Frank Norris. (25) Further, Louis Entzminger reports that Norris related to him privately stories of many such "transformational" or "renewal" episodes in his preaching career. (26) But, in so far as the narratives constitute significant documentary evidence for crucial events in the life of a very important man, they must be taken seriously. Of course, it would help immensely if further documentation were available. Examples of corroborative evidence would be the papers of c. c. Carroll, who left Owensboro for Winchester, Kentucky in the spring of 1912 and then joined the faculty of what was then the New Orleans Baptist Bible Institute. (27) Norris claims to have sent from somewhere a newspaper advertisement, but I have not been able to find it in the Ft. Worth newspapers in the winter of 1910-11 or the summer of 1912. (28) Norris dates his famous tabernacle revival to the summer of 1912, and Tatum asserts it occurred in Hill County. But the local newspapers have no record of such an event that year. I have searched in vain for these, but I am confident that further documentation will emerge. (29)

My personal interest in this story is two-fold. First, from 1991 to 1997, I was pastor of Third Baptist Church of Owensboro. During that time, we celebrated the centennial of the church. This generated in me an interest in the history of the church. It also produced two books: a history of the church by Ken Adkisson, (30) and a memoir of my ministry there, which included the first version of this research. (31)

Second, in 1941 my father (George Thomas Moody, aka Tom Moody) graduated from Daviess County High School, Owensboro, Kentucky, and moved to Detroit. He joined the famous Baptist Temple whose pastor was, yes, J. Frank Norris. It was the second largest church in the United States. The number one in size was the other church of which Norris was pastor, First Baptist of Ft. Worth. My father told me on more than one occasion that Norris invited him to move to Ft. Worth and join his ministry staff. Tom Moody joined the Army Air Force instead and, when the war was over, moved back to Kentucky where he served for ten years as associate to Clarence Walker, pastor of the influential Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington. This church, where I was baptized in 1960, is also famous as a center of Baptist fundamentalism; they publish the James Carroll sermon, "The Eternal Security of All Blood Bought Believers" and his tract, "The Trail of Blood." But that is another story, altogether.

With that quick glance at the facts and a summary of my personal interest, I offer you my best judgment of the matter; here is a revised chronology.

* 1909 C. C. Carroll becomes pastor of Third Baptist Church, Owensboro in the summer.

* 1909 J. Frank Norris becomes pastor of First Baptist Church, Ft. Worth in the fall.

* 1909 B. H. Carroll preaches dedicatory sermon of the new Sanctuary, in Owensboro in December.

* 1910 Norris preaches the fall revival in Owensboro in November and December; what records exist reveal no significant results.

* 1911 Carroll adopts a new leadership style at Third Baptist Church; conflict ensues and is eventually brought to light in 1912.

* 1911 Norris adopts a new leadership style at First Baptist Church; conflict ensues as leaders complain and members leave.

* 1912 Carroll resigns as pastor of Third Baptist Church following three months of very public conflict; he moves to the First Baptist Church of Winchester, Kentucky, then to the faculty of New Orleans Baptist Bible Institute.

* 1912 Norris preaches revival in Texas, perhaps Hill County; is renewed and calls his wife with a testimony of personal transformation.

Given the present state of the investigation, it is my judgment that these two Norris sermons witness to separate events. They may constitute the beginning and ending of an eighteen-month period of ministerial transformation and congregational turbulence. During this period, Norris changed his preaching philosophy, lost 1,000 church members including most of the seminary faculty, welcomed even more people as new members of the church, watched the burning of his home and his church building, and was accused and tried as an arsonist; but through it all Norris forged a new identity as a man to be reckoned with. The 1912 tabernacle meeting can be seen, not as the commencement of a new ministerial strategy, but as a continuation to Norris after 18 months of conflict of the new directions in this life. (32)

What Happened to Norris in Kentucky?

What happened to J. Frank Norris in Owensboro, Kentucky? There is no doubt Norris returned to Texas a changed person. He says so himself in the sermon, "A Call to First Baptist Church, Fort Worth": "When I came back from Owensboro, aider a month's meditation on the banks of the Ohio, I decided I would enter the ministry. I began to preach the gospel after the fashion of John the Baptist in the wilderness. I didn't use a pearl handle penknife.... I had a broad axe and laid it at the tap root of the ungodly conduct, high and low, far and near. And you talk about a bonfire--the whole woods was set on fire ..." (33) His first sermon back in the pulpit in Ft. Worth testifies to his new-found strategy. On Sunday morning, he preached on "The Hobble Skirted Church" and in the evening service, "Did Jonah Swallow the Whale: How much of the Bible is Fact and how much is Fiction?" (34)

What happened to unleash this firestorm, this tornado?

What happened was this: J. Frank Norris encountered in Owensboro the church he wanted to build in Ft. Worth. Third Baptist Church was arguably the largest congregation meeting in the largest sanctuary in the commonwealth of Kentucky. On the front page of the Owensboro Messenger of Sunday morning, June 10, 1906 there is a picture of the pastor and 1,303 people standing in front of Third Baptist Church. The headlines read: "Third Baptist Sunday School--Largest in Kentucky." (35) Furthermore, although the church was only fourteen years old, it had achieved national notoriety because of a letter written in 1900 by evangelist W. H. Wharton. He had preached a revival at the church in that year and was so impressed by what he saw and experienced that he wrote a letter that was widely published in Baptist papers around the country. (36) Norris said, "Traveling over the country I come in contact with churches and people of every description. For many years I have taken the ground that a Christian people should refrain from all vain, worldly amusements and I have been anxious to find the church which carries this principle into practice, in order that I might know the measure of its success, and its influence upon the community. I have at last found such a church in Owensboro, Kentucky, where I have been conducting evangelistic services." He then proceeds to tell the history of the church and describe its mission and organization. The letter generated enormous interest around the country and the church received many inquiries. In response, the pastor Fred Hale wrote a little pamphlet entitled "Questions Answered." It is a fascinating document insofar as it describes church discipline related to alcohol, money, gossip, dancing, and assorted other misbehaviors. In other words this relatively new, relatively large congregation was widely known for its rather public stands on this list of social ills. This impressed Wharton in 1900, and it must have impressed Norris in 1910.

This ecclesiastical DNA can be traced to one man: Sam Jones. Jones came to Owensboro in the summer of 1893 and again in 1895. He came from Georgia, where he was well-known as an itinerant evangelist loosely related to the Methodist tradition. He himself was a converted drunk whose preaching against alcohol influenced many people. For instance: Thomas G. Ryman was the Nashville-based steamboat captain who built in 1892 what is now called the Ryman Auditorium. He built it as a preaching venue for Sam Jones; and it was Sam Jones who preached Ryman's funeral in 1904. In that eulogy Jones suggested that the building be named in honor of Thomas Ryman. (37)

In 1893, the good people of Owensboro built a tabernacle for Sam Jones; he filled it twice a day with 5,000 people, no small feat in a city of some 12,000 souls. Special trains brought people from Louisville, Bowling Green, and even Evansville. The newspaper carried three articles a day on the sensational meeting. Jones had an in-your-face, no-holds-barred style of preaching that attracted crowds, stirred emotions, and created headlines. He preached against the theater, dancing, card playing, cursing, and especially drinking.

When Jones returned two years later the one person who most took to heart his call for reform was the pastor First Baptist Church. His name was Fred Hale. Hale wanted his church to adopt policies against alcohol: not just drinking alcohol, but renting land to saloons, or owning stock in banks that did business with breweries, or buying the leftover distillery slop to feed to farm hogs. None of this was permissible, according to Hale; and this stern approach split First Baptist Church. One Sunday afternoon Pastor Hale led the majority of the congregation out of the sanctuary as the whole assembly, including dissenters, stood and sang, "God Be with You 'till We Meet Again." They marched to the courthouse and organized Third Baptist Church. (38)

This is the legacy that J. Frank Norris encountered when he left his pulpit in Texas and took up preaching in Kentucky. He encountered the rhetorical legacy of Sam Jones; he observed the enormous crowds that packed the spacious sanctuary; he read the stern rules of church membership and the protocols for enforcing them; he noted the national reputation garnered through the Baptist press. This is what Norris encountered when he got off the train in Owensboro, Kentucky. (39)

Does all this sound familiar? Yes, because these are some of the elements of what came to characterize the ministry and congregation of J. Frank Norris. There is little if any evidence that Norris had much impact on Third Baptist Church in 1910; but much circumstantial evidence exists to contend that Third Baptist Church (and Sam Jones) had an enormous impact on J. Frank Norris. Norris had heard Jones preach when the famous evangelist came to Texas when Norris was just a boy. The sermon Norris preached is entitled "The Remission of Sins." He recounts the story he heard Jones tell of his redemption from alcohol. (40) This and much other evidence suggests that the transformation was actually a reversion to a style and substance more natural to Norris, a pattern of ministry that had been papered over by the influences of, especially, his teachers at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, from which he graduated as valedictorian in 1905. (41) Norris himself, in his famous article on sensational preaching confesses that when he went to Owensboro it was as if "all the pent-up lightning of my soul [was] ready to strike." (42)

Norris left the commonwealth a changed man. No, he did not call his wife at midnight and pledge to come home and lick the tar out of the Ft. Worth crowd. And there is no record of this supposedly "Come Back" newspaper ad in the Fort Worth Record. (43) But there is ample evidence, documented first in the religious and public press and now in many biographies and histories, that his ministerial strategy underwent a dramatic change. He himself confesses that he intentionally adopted the more sensational method of preaching, because it drew crowds and enlarged his church and brought him public attention. He became a man of influence.

The Consequences of the Kentucky Conversion

J. Frank Norris became the most influential Baptist minister of the South during the first half of the twentieth century. Yes, he has competition for that distinction: especially B. H. Carroll, E. Y. Mullins, and George W. Truett. But let me present three reasons why Norris deserves this distinction.

First, Norris pioneered many of the techniques later used by institutional and denominational leaders. He used the media (both radio and newspapers) like few if any other preacher of his time, presaging the similar successes of Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell. He gave attention to the Sunday School: hired a Sunday School director (Entzminger), organized classes for age groups, discarded ecumenical Sunday School literature in favor of sole focus on the biblical text but hosted a mid-week teachers meeting to give guidance to all the Sunday School teachers, and used buses to bring people to church. Entzminger wrote in his 1948 book: "The Sunday School Board at Nashville adopted many of the plans and methods of the First Baptist Church which pioneered them." (44)

Consider these four facts, relatively insignificant when isolated, but telling when added to the broader picture of innovative instincts. First, by the time Norris came to Owensboro in 1910, he was already using local theaters to hold Sunday night services to reach people who would not come to church, a practice that is now widely used by church planters. Second, he adopted the preference for plain church buildings, without stain glass and expensive pews, and without exterior steps: again, preferences now common. Third, after initial resistance, Norris grew the Ft. Worth church into the largest congregation in the country, becoming the first pastor of what is now called a mega-church. Finally, in 1934 he became pastor also of Temple Baptist Church in Detroit and commuted between them on airplane and by raft; this may be the first example of what is now all the rage: multiple campus congregations.

But these things aside, there is a second and a third reason why attention to Norris is appropriate in this the centennial year of his conversion (or reversion, if you prefer).

Second, Norris was at least one significant source, if not the primary source, of the fundamentalist flood that overwhelmed Southern Baptist life a quarter century after his death. The transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention, beginning publically in 1979, is in some measure an extension of the ministerial vision and methods of J. Frank Norris.

Barry Hankins wrote about this in his book, God's Rascal: J. Frank Norris and the Beginnings of Southern Fundamentalism, (45) as did Charles L. Walker in his 1985 doctoral dissertation at Southwestern Seminary. (46) Leon McBeth addressed this matter in his two lectures before the Baptist History and Heritage Society in 1996. (47) Norris was a leader against those who sought a middle ground in the struggle between creation and evolution; he led the charge against the Baptist World Alliance; he criticized the colleges, universities, and seminaries as liberal (and proceeded to start his own); and he railed against the denominational leaders for their elevation of cooperation above truth. All of these things became central features of the fundamentalist movement in the Southern Baptist Convention a quarter century after Norris died.

This helps explain the fascination of Baptists in the South over a relatively minor event: the reconnection of First Baptist Church of Ft. Worth with their local Tarrant County Baptist Association in 1991. James C. Hefley calls it "coming home" in his book on the successes of the conservative/fundamental movement in the Southern Baptist Convention. In fact, he begins his entire treatment of the movement with a review of the charges of liberalism at Baylor University led by, among others, J. Frank Norris. (48) The reconnection of Norris' church in 1991 was taken as a symbol of the lingering influence of J. Frank Norris and his resurrection to denominational glory. Tom Nettles, now of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, has written a three-volume review of significant Baptist leaders. In volume three, the chapter entitled "Reconstructing the Profile: The Task of Reclaiming Identity" profiles three people: J. Frank Norris, Paige Patterson, and Albert Mohler. He presents Norris as the early and lonely advocate of the movement that came to fruition almost a century later under the leadership of Patterson and Mohler. Here is his summary:

"Behind the militancy and the apparently self-serving sensationalism lurked an academic and philosophical brilliancy that comprehended the destructive nature of a loss of theological coherence. His fear for the culture was a secondary manifestation of his alarm at the tendency of higher criticism and evolutionary thought to pare away necessary biblical ideas in a holistic presentation of the gospel. The irascible style and pugilistic proclivities of Norris, however, so overshadowed the argument for truth that soon the coalition of doctrinal criticism broke apart. Every voice that sounded a doctrinal concern seemed to manifest the timbre of Norris and so could be discounted as an obstruction to denominational progress." (49)

Nettles correctly observes that the substance of Norris was obscured by the style of Norris, provoking ridicule from the denominational leaders. Because of this they were able, for fifty years, to marginalize his message. But once shed of its more outlandish elements, the perspective of J. Frank Norris surfaced, albeit without much attribution, in the mood and message of those who transformed the Southern Baptist Convention. While the fundamentalist intelligentsia (Nettles and others) are reluctant to acknowledge J. Frank Norris as their crusading fore-bearer, their own research demonstrates that he stands high among those who were advocates of the political and theological vision of the religious fundamentalism that was so influential in the second half of the twentieth century. (50) Third, not only is Norris a point of origin for the transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention, he is a point of inspiration for the Moral Majority and the Religious Right. Consider this: Norris put southern religious tradition aside and took the lead in Texas to defeat Al Smith in the 1928 presidential campaign. This foray into national politics presages that of Jerry Falwell a half century later whose mobilization of religious conservatives has had such a dramatic effect on both the Republican Party and the national political landscape. It is the same Jerry Falwell who graduated from a seminary in the fundamentalist network once headed by Norris, (51) the same Falwell who resurrected as the title of a publication the word "Fundamentalist" first used prominently by Norris, the same Falwell who wrote the preface to a new printing of Entzminger's book on Norris: "No fundamental Baptist pastor," Falwell asserted, "can fully appreciate his heritage without understanding the life and ministry of the great servant of God." (52)

Neither Falwell nor Norris has been the subject of an adequate and expansive biography, although Hankins' books are first rate and also advance the general thesis of this paper. There is an enormous amount of research yet to be done; there is yet unnoticed and un-catalogued materials that will shed light on the character and vision of these two men, and hopefully on the events discussed in this paper. When that happens, I am certain that the episode one hundred years ago in Owensboro will be cited as the pivotal event in the life and ministry of J. Frank Norris, with lingering effects on Jerry Falwell and Paige Patterson.

Norris got off the train in Owensboro Kentucky despairing of being the preacher of influence and impact that others had predicted, the person of significance that he so desperately wanted to be. "I was not causing a ripple," he whined years later. (53) In Owensboro, at Third Baptist Church, he encountered the legacy of Sam Jones and worshipped in the kind of church he wanted to build in Fort Worth, Texas. Although the famous midnight call to his wife did not happen while in Kentucky, the words of that later conversation were certainly an accurate description and prediction: "Wife, you have a new husband ... he is coming home and we are going to start life over again and lick the tar out of that crowd and build the biggest church in the world."

(1.) See the New York Times, August 21, 1952, and Time, September 1, 1952.

(2.) Louis Entzminger, The J. Frank Norris I Have Known (Fort Worth: New Testament Ministries, n.d.) (but I estimate the publication date as 1948).

(3.) David Stokes, Apparent Danger: The Pastor of America's First Megachurch and the Texas Murder Trial of the Decade of the 1920s (Minneapolis: Bascom Hill Books, 2010).

(4.) This is very similar to the language used by Sam Jones to his wife (according to the account related by J. Frank Norris in the sermon by J. Frank Norris, "The Remission of Sins.") when he renounced alcohol and came home: "God has given you a new husband and the children a new daddy, and I want to know if you will take me back and start again."

(5.) Robert Baker, Tell the Generations Following: A History of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary 1908-1983 (Nashville: Broadman, 1983), 178. Many follow Baker's version of this legendary episode; see, for instance, Keith E. Durso, Thy Will Be Done: A Biography of George W. Truett (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2009), 94 and footnote 47.

(6.) E. Ray Tatum, Conquest or Failure? Biography of J. Prank Norris (Dallas TX: Baptist Historical Foundation, 1966), 114. Others who repeat this include Lee Roy McGlone, "The Preaching of J. Frank Norris: An Apologia for Fundamentalism." (PhD Dissertation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1983), 46f.

(7.) Nettles, The Baptists: Key People involved in Forming a Baptist Identity, Volume Three: The Modern Area (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2007), 239.

(8.) Clovis Gwin Morris, "He Changed Things: The Life and Thoughts of J. Frank Norris" (PhD Dissertation, Texas Tech University). See the statement by Norris in his August 4, 1922 Searchlight article entitled "Inside History:" "I have always felt it was a minister's duty to change things."

(9.) Jesse Fletcher, The Southern Baptist Convention: A Sesquicentennial History (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994), 119f.

(10.) Roy Falls, A Fascinating Biography of J. Frank Norris: The Most Outstanding Fundamentalist of the 20th Century (N.p: n.p., 1975), 33; and Homer Ritchie, The Life and Legend of J. Frank Norris: The Fighting Parson (N.p: n.p., 1991), 45-48.

(11.) Alan J. Lefever, Fighting the Good Fight: The Life and Work of Benajah Harvey Carroll (Austin: Eakin Press, 1994), 120.

(12.) David E Stokes, Apparent Danger, 32f.

(13.) James Leo Garrett, Baptist Theology: A Four Century Study (Macon: Mercer, 2009), 563.

(14.) J. Frank Norris, Inside History of First Baptist Church, Ft. Worth and Temple Baptist Church, Detroit: Life Story of Dr. J. Frank Norris (N.p: n.p., n.d., new edition). The material in this book is taken from sermons preached by Norris and also articles written by Norris in the periodical Searchlight, later called The Fundamentalist.

(15.) "The Searchlight," August 4, 1922, 1-2. I read and transcribed this article from the microfilm file at the library of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

(16.) Green River Baptist, Owensboro, Kentucky, No 12, December 15, 1909, 1. See also Adkisson, 125, 261,

(17.) Entzminger, Norris, 46.

(18.) This story is told in an article written by Norris called "Inside History of First Baptist Church" published in "The Searchlight" on August 4, 1922. No mention by name is made of Owensboro or Carroll.

(19.) The Owensboro Messenger covered this church scandal with front page stories for more than two months during January, February and March of 1912. Pastor Carroll was embroiled in a power struggle with church lay leaders that lead to his "resignation." Because Carroll resigned and was reinstated more than once during this fracas there is some difference of opinion as to when his tenure was over.

(20.) Owensboro Messenger, November 18, 1910, 6; November 19, 1910, 7; and November 24, 1910, 4.

(21.) This is the number reported in the Owensboro Messenger, March 12, 1912, in an article about J. Frank Norris and his 1912 troubles in Ft. Worth.

(22.) The Ft. Worth Record, and all other public newspapers, published the train schedule every day.

(23.) James Leo Garrett may be an exception. He mentions this event but dates it to 1911. James Leo Garrett, Baptist Theology, 563. In a letter to me dated March 17, 2009, Garrett writes: "I am almost certain that I had a one Sunday pulpit supply engagement at Third Baptist Church while I taught at SBTS." I have not verified this with Owensboro newspaper or church sources. On the subject of sources and research, it is the papers of C. C. Carroll, if they are extant, that could shed light on this entire Owensboro episode. I have been looking for these papers for some years but without success.

(24.) I have talked personally with at least ten of these authors and all of them admit to me they have not researched this story but simply repeated what had been written by others.

(25.) See the comment by Stokes about another Norris story about liquor; Danger, 19: "Of course, the story likely had an apocryphal element to it, as did many of the preacher's tales...."

(26.) Reported by Walker, "Ethical Vision," 54.

(27.) I have searched in vain for these papers in Natchitoches, Louisiana, the place of his death, and in various institutional collections around the South.

(28.) Norris makes this claim in the article on sensational preaching entitled "Inside History" in The Searchlight. See n. 42 below.

(29.) Ray Tatum is the first and only one to locate this tabernacle revival in Hill County, Texas, but he dates it to 1911. Tatum, Conquest, 107 and 113. I have searched extensively in the historical records of Hill County, Texas, and as yet have found no record of this famous event.

(30.) Ken Adkisson, A History of Third Baptist Church: Owensboro Kentucky, 1896-1996 (Owensboro KY: Progress Printing, 1996).

(31.) Dwight A. Moody, Heaven for a Dime: Memoir of a Small Town Preacher (Lincoln NE: iUniverse, 2002). The chapter is entitled, "The Conversion of J. Frank Norris."

(32.) Entzminger states that Norris related to him privately stories of many such "transformational" or "renewal" episodes in his preaching career; see Walker, "Ethical Vision," 54.

(33.) Entzminger, Norris, 84f.

(34.) Ft. Worth Record, December 17, 1910, 9.

(35.) Owensboro Daily Messenger, June 10, 1906, 1.

(36.) This letter and the resulting pamphlet were printed by the church. In this printed piece, reproduced in its entirety in the Adkisson's history of the church, are these words: "More than a half million copies of this letter went into circulation through the religious press, and quite a number of churches, from Canada to Texas, from Maine to California, had it printed as a tract, and circulated among their members." Adkission, History, 358.

(37.) Dwight A. Moody, Heaven, 7-24. See also Dwight A. Moody, "Sam Jones Comes to Town," The Daviess County Historical Quarterly 13, No. 4 (October 1995), 74-89.

(38.) See the accounts of this in Adkisson, History, and also Moody, Heaven. The Owensboro newspapers are rich resources full of details about these remarkable revivals in Owensboro.

(39.) It is possible, as James Lutzweiler suggested to me, that Norris was aware of the character and reputation of Owensboro's Third Baptist Church prior to his coming; in fact, this could have been the reason he left Texas for a month and came to Kentucky. Carroll preached for Norris at FBC of Ft. Worth on September 18, 1910, just weeks before Norris came to Kentucky. It could be that the invitation to come to Kentucky occurred that weekend. Fort Worth Record, September 18, 1910, Part I, 15.

(40.) Audio recording produced and distributed by Calvary Publications of Ft. Worth Texas, a copy of which is in the possession of the author, Dwight A. Moody. The sermon is entitled "Remission of Sins." There is no date. The sermon contains a lengthy narrative of Norris traveling all night from Hill County, Texas to Waco, to hear Sam Jones preach. In that sermon Jones evidently gave his testimony of his redemption from alcohol. This must have touched Norris deeply because his own father was an alcoholic; most Norris biographies have vivid details of how alcohol shaped the Norris home. See, for instance, Stokes, Apparent Danger, 18ff. The Waco episode is undated but the Norris family did not move to Texas until 1888 when J. Frank was eleven years old. We do know that Jones preached in Waco in June of 1885; see the archives of The New York Times for June 30, 1885. He also preached there in April of 1894; see the Galveston News, for April 16, 1896. The former would have been prior to the Norris family moving to Texas and the latter would have been when J. Frank was seventeen years old. Thanks to Jim Lutzweiler of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary for help in tracking down the latter information.

(41.) Dale Moody told me that W. O. Carver told him that J. Frank Norris was the most gifted student he (Carver) ever had. This comports with similar statements in Norris' own writings recording things his professors said to him. See the Searchlight article "A Call to the First Baptist Church, Fort Worth" reprinted in Entzminger where he recounts comments from his preaching professor E. C. Dargan: "My young brother, the world will hear from you" and President E. Y. Mullins, who "made a very extravagant prophecy." Entzminger, Norris, 68.

(42.) J. Frank Norris, "Inside History of First Baptist Church," in The Searchlight, August 4, 1922, 1. I have recently transcribed this never-published article from the microfilm files of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. I hope to publish it along with other Norris and Jones documents in the near future.

(43.) I reviewed the Ft. Worth Record for August through December of 2910, as well as the Ft. Worth Star Telegram, November through December 1910 and July through August 16, 1911. It is possible, however, that some sort of advertisement was placed in some publication; perhaps it will come to light eventually. I thank Southwestern Baptist Seminary Student (and Owensboro, Kentucky native) David L. Fruge for assistance in the search.

(44.) Entzminger, Norris, 264.

(45.) Barry Hankins, God's Rascal: J. Frank Norris and the Beginnings of Southern Fundamentalism (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996).

(46.) Charles L. Walker, "The Ethical Vision of Fundamentalism: An Inquiry into the Ethics of John Franklyn Norris," (PhD dissertation, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1985). See especially his comment on the relevance of Norris to the fundamentalist resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, xii.

(47.) H. Leon McBeth, "John Franklyn Norris: Texas Tornado" and "Two Ways to be Baptist," Baptist History and Heritage 32, no. 2 (April 1997): 23-53. In his essay on Norris, McBeth cites a letter from me as the source of his interpretation: "Some think the Owensboro church and its pastor provided a kind of model that Norris sought to reproduce in Fort Worth" (page 30). Footnote #13 reads: "This is the view of Dr. Dwight A. Moody, present pastor of Third Baptist in Owensboro, Dwight Moody to Leon McBeth, December 4, 1995." Our exchange of letters came when I was beginning my research on all these things and he, unbeknownst to me, was preparing for his addresses to the Southern Baptist Historical Society. In a letter dated January 18, 1995, I wrote: "The Jones legacy in Owensboro (and elsewhere) could have caught Norris's fancy and been a factor in his transformation." Earlier in that same letter I wrote: "Can it be that the wellspring of the entire fundamentalists [sic] movement among Southern Baptists can be traced to Third Baptist Church of Owensboro?" Dwight A. Moody to Leon McBeth, January 19, 1995.

(48.) James C. Hefley, The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention (Hannibal, MO: Hannibal Books, 1991), 219. See also:

(49.) Tom Nettles, The Baptists, 235; see the whole chapter, 235-297. Nettles misdates the trauma that overwhelmed Third Baptist Church and led to the dismissal of Pastor C. C. Carroll. He asserts it happened prior to the 1910 revival and in this way became a model for Norris; in fact, it happened in January, February, and March of 1912 (more than a full year after the Norris revival) and was yet another fascinating result of the Norris 1910 revival.

(50.) See the extensive analysis of this by Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002). Another sign of Norris' resurrection to respectability is his presence on Facebook! See 185207889407?v=info. It has, however, only 87 fans! Thanks to Bruce Gourley for bringing this to my attention.


(52.) Entzminger, Norris, 3. There is no date for the book, but the forward identifies Jerry Falwell as "Chancellor, Liberty Baptist College." What is now Liberty University was known as the Liberty Baptist College between 1976 and 1984. But this note: in a phone conversation with me Dr. Elmer Towns, long time associate with Falwell at Liberty, said he never heard a positive word from Falwell about Norris and that Falwell's sympathies lay with G. Beauchamp Vick in his emotional split from Norris in 1950. See Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman, 1987), 762-767.

(53.) Norris, "In side History."

Dwight A. Moody is founder/executive director, Academy of Preachers, Louisville, Kentucky.
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Author:Moody, Dwight A.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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