It is often difficult to tell the truth from exaggeration when dealing with a person like J. Frank Norris. While the scope of his ministry is indeed enormous, determining exactly the size is practically impossible. After all, numbers used in propaganda are rarely correct, though they can be based in truth.
So it is with Norris. On this page, I’d like to compile and analyze numbers related to his ministry.
Was Norris Dishonest With Numbers?
We’ll leave the final decision to the reader on Norris’ character, but we can indeed prove numbers were not exactly 100% accurate. Sometimes numbers are thrown around that were pulled out of thin air. Sometimes they were cleverly combined or multiplied to be marketed as larger. Sometimes a one-time count was portrayed as a regular occurrence.
Bear in mind that Norris was a master marketer. He knew how to effectively market his ministry and himself. No one can deny that, but he did have a tendency to enlarge his prestige by stretching the results.
Mt. Calm Attendance
One number that is cited from Norris’ early career is that of the seemingly fantastic attendance of a college pastorate. While studying at Baylor University, He pastored a church in the nearby farming community of Mt. Calm. Each weekend he would ride the train to Mt. Calm, visit on Saturday, preach on Sunday, and return to Waco for classes.
The fantastic number that is often quoted is this: Mt. Calm had a population of 400, and the church attendance was 800. The only source I can find for this number is E. Ray Tatum’s “Conquest or Failure?”, which on page 60 says: “The attendance grew, in one season, to exceed eight hundred in a township where the population was less than half that number.” No reference is given.
I have a number of doubts about this number, and I do not believe that it is the number of weekly attendance. My reasons are as follows:
- This large of a weekly attendance is totally out of line with church attendance at the time. This would probably make the church one of the largest in the state, if not the country. Churches in the 1800’s rarely had more than a few hundred members, and those were in the large metropolitan cities.
- This type of ministerial production would have catapulted Norris into the highest ranks of pastors, even at such a young age. He did leave Mt. Calm upon graduating from Baylor, but instead went to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to further enhance his prestige. I doubt this would have been necessary had this type of success been real.
- The only source for these numbers is Norris himself, and he never made much of his time in Mt. Calm.
- I personally have visited Mt. Calm. There is a church building there, but it does not date back to Norris. The church building that Norris led in building (a fact rarely mentioned in his biographies), burned down and a new one was erected. This new(er) building is typical of Texas rural churches, and I doubt would seat more than a couple of hundred if absolutely packed. There is no physical evidence there that a miraculously large church existed there, or at least its building. There is even a historical marker on the site that mentions Norris, but does not mentions any attendance.
- Most biographical works of Norris do not mention any numbers associated with his time in Mt. Calm.
So what do I make of this number? I personally believe the number is probably a real number, but not the number for weekly attendance. We do know that Norris led successful revivals in the Hill County area as a young preacher. I think this number is the attendance of one of these revivals, perhaps of the old-time “brush arbor” style. We know that his boyhood pastor, Catlett Smith, was extremely popular in the area and helped in at least one revival at Mt. Calm.
I base much of this opinion on my own reasoning. There are not too many concrete facts available from Norris’ early days. He rarely spoke or wrote of them. If he did, it was often made more dramatic than necessary. I think this number was produced by Norris to further prove his ministerial might even at such an early stage.
As for Tatum’s source, I can only speculate. He was associated with Norris as a young preacher in the very last days of Norris’ ministry. At this time, Norris was revered by his followers in an almost worshipful manner. He also places too much emphasis on Norris’ early upbringing in his analysis.
More will be added later…
- Texas Baptist Leadership and Social Christianity, 1900-1980 by John W. Storey.
- A Fascinating Biography of J. Frank Norris by Roy E. Falls.
- Inside History of the First Baptist Church…, 7th edition
First Baptist Church, Fort Worth
- 1909 – 1,200 members – Storey p. 48
- 1928 – 12,000 members – Storey p. 48
- 1928 – 5,200 average sunday morning attendance – Storey p. 48
- 1922 – $12,000 given to missions – Falls p. 92
First Baptist Sunday School
- 1913 – 250 average attendance – Falls p. 81
- Oct. 1, 1913 – 266 total attendance – History p. 59
- 1913 – 75-80 classes established – History p. 59
- Oct. 1913 – Oct. 1914 – 1,000 average attendance – History p. 59
- 1920 – 3,000 average attendance – Falls p. 81
- 1926 – 5,000 average attendance – peak? – Falls p. 81
Joint Pastorate – Three Year Totals
- 6,193 new members – History, front cover
- $421,333.62 cash raised – History p. 2
- 6,376,500 copies of The Fundamentalist – History, p. 2
- Over 15,000 combined membership – History, p. 2
- Over 18,000 attendance in “special Bible School” – History, p. 2
- Pastor travelled 119,000 miles – History, p. 2
Joint Pastorate – Five Year Totals
- 11,850 new members – History, front cover
- $846,275.40 cash raised – History, front cover
- 11,266,500 copies of The Fundamentalist – History, front cover
- Over 15,000 combined membership – History, front cover
- Over 33,000 attendance in “special Bible Schools” – History, front cover
- Pastor travelled 287,000 miles – History, front cover
Joint Pastorate – Misc.
- 1937 – 6,000 combined average attendance – Inside p. 270
- 1937 – more than 6,000 attend 8 day Bible Schools – Inside p. 270
- 1923 – 55,000 circulation – History p. 9
- 70,000 peak subscriptions – Falls p. 85