I recently stood by the graveside of Reverend J. Frank Norris. As a minister of the gospel, I love researching the saints of yesteryear. They help to me understand how their ministries and lives have impacted our world today. Having grown up in Fort Worth, I had heard of him my whole life. My mother remembers my grandmother speaking of J. Frank Norris. He was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth for 44 years and was most famous for having shot and killed a man in his office. Normally, you wouldn’t think of a pastor’s office as a place where someone would be in danger of terminal lead poisoning.
Growing up in the 60’s and 70s I was familiar with names like Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart and Billy Graham. Those were the great televangelists and except for Graham the other two had been pastors of very large churches. Had you asked me when I thought mega-churches had come into existence, I would have likely guessed the 1950s or 60s. However, while reading The Shooting Salvationist by David R. Stokes, I discovered that he may arguably have been the pastor of the first mega-church in American. In fact, Stokes asserts that the 1st Baptist Church of Fort Worth was considered the largest Protestant church in America in 1924.
As Stokes demonstrates in the biographical account, Norris was a bit of a showman. During a sermon against bootleggers, Norris actually smashed jars of illegal moonshine against the side of a galvanized tub. He engaged in other attention getting antics by filling a washtub with rattle snakes, putting a monkey in a suit while he preached against evolution and he even let a cowboy be baptized with his horse in the baptismal pool. However, it was the shooting of a man in his office that would make him the most famous. He would eventually be acquitted after a change of venue from Fort Worth to Austin.
You will have to read the book if you want more details. But, the important thing is that we look at lessons we can learn from someone that was so foundational to evangelicalism today. While I would not necessarily agree with him on all points of theology, I do admire his tenacity and dedication to preaching the gospel. He consistently preached against what he considered to be liberal influences in the church.
As I stood by his grave, I thanked him. I thanked him for being tireless in preaching the gospel and I thanked him for standing by his convictions. Those are two attributes that I hope I model and make it possible for someone to one day stand by my grave and thank me for being faithful to those two things. We live in an age where tolerance is encouraged. I certainly believe a degree of tolerance is important to live in peace in today’s world. But, tolerance should never be placed on a pedestal above what the gospel stands for in God’s word. And, somehow as I stood by his grave I knew he would be amazed if he were to see the state of our world today. May you rest in peace Pastor Norris.
For further reading:
Stokes, David R. The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial That Captivated America. Hanover, NH: Steerforth, 2011. Print.