While compiling research for an article about independent Baptists, I came to realize that there would be far fewer independents if J. Frank Norris had been as successful as his spiritual heirs have been.
The independent Baptist movement was a direct outgrowth of the fundamentalist movement, which flowered in the early twentieth century in response to liberalizing tendencies among Protestants who accepted the findings of critical Bible study and broadened their theology to make room for modern scientific discoveries.
The publication and widespread distribution of a dozen slim paperbacks called The Fundamentals: a Testimony to the Truth spurred the development of a fundamentalist effort to take over both the Northern and Southern Baptist Conventions.
Neither convention succumbed to fundamentalist control, leading many to defect and set up independent associations, most of which splintered even further.
A prime mover in both the north and the south was the crusading Norris, who edited The Baptist Standard before selling his interest to become pastor of the First Baptist Church in Forth Worth. Texas. For a while, he served simultaneously as pastor of the Temple Baptist Church in Detroit.
Northern fundamentalists held rallies prior to the annual conventions in an effort to drum up support for their agenda, but failed to gain control. In 1922, the Northern Baptist Convention voted to affirm the New Testament, and nothing else, as its confession of faith.
Fundamentalist pressure was more successful among Southern Baptists, who voted in 1925 to adopt its first “Baptist Faith and Message,” a version of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith that had been tweaked to express anti-evolutionary sentiments.
Southern Baptists did not surrender control of the convention to fundamentalist leaders, however. Norris’ volatile temper and bizarre behavior (which included shooting an unarmed man to death in his office) led to the ouster of his Fort Worth church from its local association and the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Facing increasing ostracism in the SBC, Norris started the Premillennial Baptist Missionary Fellowship in 1934. The movement grew, and in 1938 changed its name to the World Fundamental Baptist Missionary Fellowship. Norris’ incendiary actions, such as personally taking over the group’s Baptist Bible Seminary, spawned a mass defection of participants who started Baptist Bible Fellowship International (BBFI) in 1950.
The BBFI quickly started the Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. The college’s best-known alumnus has been Jerry Falwell, who founded Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.
By the time Falwell had founded the Moral Majority and reached the height of his influence, ultra-conservative Baptists led by fiery Texans had managed to do what Norris and the fundamentalists of the 1920’s were unable to do. Using tactics not unlike their predecessors — such as championing biblical inerrancy, demonizing opponents, and utilizing the pre-convention pastor’s conference to rally support for a housecleaning agenda — fundamentalist strategists gained complete control of the Southern Baptist Convention and systematically remade it in their own image.
The transformation was so wholesale that Falwell, the nation’s leading independent Baptist, led his church in 1996 to add the SBC to its collection of alignments with independent groups like the Baptist Bible Fellowship International and the Southwide Baptist Fellowship.
This time around, the ostracized folk who felt led to move on were the outnumbered moderates, many of whom found new homes in the emerging Southern Baptist Alliance (now the Alliance of Baptists) and the more mainstream Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
J. Frank Norris would be proud.