When theological liberalism invaded America in the early 1900s, an army of fundamentalists rose to defend the faith. Many were wise soldiers of the cross, but some were … well, overzealous.

J. Frank Norris grew up in a dilapidated shack in Texas. His father, an alcoholic sharecropper, beat him. He was converted as a teen, his mother telling him he was “someone of great worth who would be a leader of men.” Entering Baylor University, he dismayed classmates by predicting he would one day “preach in the greatest pulpit in the world.”

He was contentious. One day prankish students released a howling dog during chapel, and President O. H. Cooper, losing his temper, hurled the animal from the third-floor window. Norris notified the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and led a student protest, resulting in Cooper’s resignation.

Following graduation, Norris pastored Fort Worth’s First Baptist Church, soon making it the largest Protestant church in America. In 1935 he accepted Temple Baptist Church in Detroit and pastored both churches simultaneously, shuttling 1,200 miles between them for the rest of his life. He became one of America’s best-known preachers, his voice flooding airwaves, his articles filling publications. He was everywhere.

And he was contentious everywhere. Once from his pulpit he censured Fort Worth’s Catholic mayor. The following Saturday while Norris was preparing his sermon, a friend of the mayor called on him. Soon four shots rang out and the visitor fell dead. Norris was released on bond that afternoon. He immediately revised his sermon, and the next day all Fort Worth came to hear him preach from Romans 8:1—If you belong to Christ Jesus, you won’t be punished. His trial preoccupied the nation, the jury finally declaring he had shot in self-defense.

Norris continued his combative ministry, winning souls, defending orthodoxy, fighting vice, attracting and repelling listeners. On May 8, 1947, editor Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution wrote, “The Rev. J. Frank Norris and others like him, is one good, sound reason why there are 50,000,000 Americans who do not belong to any church at all.”

Norris died of heart failure shortly afterward, and only heaven knows whether he did more harm or good.

I am not trying to please people. I want to please God. Do you think I am trying to please people? If I were doing that, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). May 8.

*Picture in header by Andrew Jameson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41457952

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