History is written by the victors, or so I’m told. But it’s not always easy to tell who won. That’s one of the lessons from the from the outstanding new book “In the Name of God: The Colliding Lives, Legends, and Legacies of J. Frank Norris and George W. Truett” by Dr. OS Hawkins. The book does just what it describes, examining the entangled lives and legacies of these two legendary pastors. As pastors of FBC Ft Worth and FBC Dallas, respectively, both men had an outsized influence on their community, the SBC, and even evangelicalism as a whole. I cannot recommend the book enough for any one with interest in the SBC today as it explores not just the history of these two men and churches, but their influence on the SBC today.
Dr. Hawkins starts the book with a brief history of the two cities, Dallas and Ft. Worth. The rivalry between the two communities over the years played a role in the conflicts that would follow in the two churches. Then chapters 2 and 3 are brief biographies of Norris and Truett, respectively. The fourth chapter outlines the major sources of conflict between the two great pastors, and chapter 5 examines the influence of the two men on “Modern Southern Baptist Theology, Church Growth, Evangelism, and Practice.” Particular focus is given to Norris’ influence on the modern SBC as he is the one who seems to have the most lasting legacy today. In a fitting conclusion to a great book Dr. Hawkins brings all the threads together to reveal the tapestry that he has been weaving the whole time.
I’ve read biographies of both Norris and Truett before, so I was familiar with their stories before hand. And as a lover of history I was familiar with the familiar story that has been written about the temper and tactics of Norris and the even handedness of Truett. But Hawkins does a great job of going past hagiography (of which there is a lot of when it comes to Truett) and getting to the heart of the matter. The truth is that the legacy of the two men is much more complicated than it appears on the surface. Norris played a large role in bringing Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to Ft. Worth, and Truett opposed the move. In later years the roles seemed to reverse as Norris railed against the seminary and Truett supported L.R. Scarborough and his work there. Truett is praised for his love for souls, evangelism and religious liberty, but stayed silent on matters of race and other hot button issues. Truett has his name emblazoned all types of buildings at all types of institutions, and is held up as a paragon of cooperation in the SBC. But once we get past the surface facts, it not quite as easy to vilify one and lionize the other. Both men had blind spots and difficulties that those around them chose to ignore.
Norris was rightly known as someone who reveled in confrontation and theatrics. It’s also pointed out that Truett employed an African-American couple in his house that he loved dearly and cared for, but who would have been denied membership at his own church. Truett was a master manipulator of the levers of politics within the SBC as a whole, and seemed to always know someone to call or be a front for his own actual opinions on things. On the other hand, Norris was all but too glad to attack the machinations of the SBC and railed against the good ole boy network at every turn. Norris often appealed to the “fellows at the forks of the creek,” the so called common pastors of common churches who made up the basis of the SBC.
Several things stand out in the book as Hawkins draws our attention to current day events. The story of the two men demonstrates the power of communication. Norris bought the Baptist Standard and had a majority interest in the newspaper. He used it as a bully pulpit to communicate with thousands of pastors all over Texas and the SBC. I don’t think Norris would have been as effective without this means of communication. An easy parallel is seen to those who fight and rail against current SBC issues through the avenue of social media. In our world no one has to own a newspaper to have a voice on SBC issues. Today anyone can be heard, regardless of qualifications, background, or followers. Whether that is good or bad you can be the judge.
Norris was quick to use any means necessary to be heard, as is demonstrated through what is called the “Radio Hate Fest” of 1927. Truett organized people buying air time on the radio to speak against Norris and his antics. Norris responded by buying the hour immediately after them and simply sharing a genuine gospel message. Norris was a mastermind at behind the scenes tactics like this, and knew just what it would take to draw a crowd. Many of the church growth techniuqes that he pioneered are still used today.
In the conflict between the two pastors and churches, Truett seemed to largely ignore Norris, and refused to engage him publicly. This of course drove Norris crazy, as he thrived on public battles. If we want to couch it in today’s terms, Truett refused to feed the trolls, and they went wild because of it. There comes a time you have to answer critics of course, but Truett largely seemed to deal with Norris only behind closed doors. There was practically a 0% chance that Truett could have brought Norris to his own viewpoints, so he chose to focus on other things. It’s not that easy in the social media of today’s world, but regardless of the century, you should never feed the trolls.
Another issues that current Southern Baptists face is deciding if we are bound together more by our theology or by our fiscal loyalty and cooperation in missions. Hawkins points out that others have pinpointed Norris’s interactions with L.R. Scarborough as a turning point in the SBC, diverting it from it’s “deep theological roots by substituting denominational loyalty and fiscal unity as it’s primary means of cooperation.” This conflict arose over what was being taught in Baptist schools. Hawkins writes that “For Scarborough, denominational loyalty preceded all other matters. Conversely, Norris obsessed himself with adherence to biblical and doctrinal truth…” There is no doubt that this sounds familiar to any one with knowledge of current SBC squabbles. It’s not an exact parallel of course, but you can still see this battle playing out in the SBC today on many levels.
Norris was always focused on the “fellows from the forks,” and believed in taking the problem to the common people of the SBC. In an era that faced great financial difficulty, Norris was not content to put on a brave face and tout the company line. He opposed the 75 Million Campgain, spoke loudly about embezzlement issues at SBC entities, and called for financial transparency. In contrast, Truett was known to always be orchestrating things behind the scenes but would almost never give his name or signature to offical statements. Truett preferred to work from the shadows to get his work done. Norris prefeerred to state loudly and clearly what he was doing, even to the point of harrassing other people.
History seems to believe that Norriss lost the fight between the two, but Hawkins points out that the SBC of the years after the Conservitave Resurgence look a lot like the things Norris stood for. The current SBC is conservative, focused on evangelism, and employs many of Norris’ methods. Since 1979, many in SBC leadership have alligned with Norris on positions of inerrancy, eschatology, preaching expositionally, multisite campuses, social media, and much more. Many posited that what Norris failed to do in the 1920’s (take control of a denomination) he was able to accomplish in the 1980’s. The SBC’s very own Arthur Flake, who’s Sunday School methods are still used today, honed his practices and skills under Norris at FBC Ft. Worth.
One of the more fascinating discussions to me was the discussion about whether or not it is better to attack the SBC from without or from within. Norris tried to change the SBC, but since he failed he began his own entities and denomination. Hawkins contrasts this approach with that of the Conservative Resurgence, which sought reformation from within the structure and polity of the SBC. Again, any causal observer can see this playing out today as different sides vie for control of key positions in SBC life. Norris sought to apply outside pressure on the machine of the SBC, but failed and ended up leaving. The CR applied that pressure within the stuctures already in place. This demonstrates both the importnace of SBC elections and leaders and the importance of how change is sought. In today’s battles there have already been some who have left the structures of the SBC and look to have a “more pure” denomination or entity. But the lessons from Norris should warn them of the inherent dangers and difficulties of what they are approaching.
Regardless of how you feel about Norris or Truett, this book is a fascinating look into the past that also shines lights on the present. I learned several things I did not already know about both men and their churches, and it gave me a greater appreciation for the work of both men. Dr. Hawkins does a brilliant job of illustrating how these men became intertwined in their lives, and how they still remain so today. I’d recommend this book for anyone who has a vested interest in the SBC today.