J. Frank Norris & The 1905 SBTS Graduation

If you do any sort of research in to the life of J. Frank Norris you will quickly realize that the further back into his life you go the more difficult it becomes to locate documentation. Such is the case I have found when verifying details surrounding his graduation from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1905.

Homer Ritchie covered Norris’s time in Louisville, Kentucky, with just one paragraph and one quote. Ritchie’s account:

Norris completed a three year course in two years at the Louisville Seminary, and, as at Baylor, led his class and graduated in 1905 as valedictorian.  He was selected to deliver the graduating address.  Norris addressed the audience on the subject of "International Justification of Japan in the War with Russia."  The Louisville-Courier-Journal published the address in full.  Young Norris was proud of this honor.  However, he later referred to it in a humorous vein.
"And no question about my address; it was a humdinger. I had a great subject - 'International Justification of Japan in its War with Russia.' The Louisville Courier published it. I was broke, but I bought an armful of those papers and mailed a copy to all my kinfolks and acquaintances."
- The Fighting Parson: The Life and Legend of J. Frank Norris by Dr. Homer G. Ritchie, p. 33

That second paragraph is a quote constructed from a passage in Louis Entzminger’s The J. Frank Norris I Have Known. It is from a section given as being in Norris’s own words. Strangely, the year given for the graduation is incorrect in the passage. Probably just a simple mistake on the part of Norris misremembering or misstating something forty years later. Here’s a larger look at the passage:

I graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., in May 1906 [incorrect, should be 1905], having finished all the courses required for the Master's Degree in Theology.  I finished the three-year course in two years' time.  I had a wife and a one-year-old baby.  And that was the cause of the shortening of the course from three to two years.
. . .
Because of my record at the Seminary, I was appointed by the faculty to deliver one of the graduation addresses.  And no question about my address; it was a "hum dinger." I had a great subject - "International Justification of Japan in Its War With Russia."
The Louisville Courier-Journal thought this address was statesmanlike and had international merit, for they published it in full.
I was broke but I bought an armful of this great paper and sent a marked copy to all my kinfolks and acquaintances.
It was a gala occasion the night of the graduation, and, of course, the most important event of that occasion was not the address by Dr. Mullins or the giving of the diplomas, but my address in defense of Japan.  Ever since I was a boy on the farm I was a close student of international affairs, in fact I became an "expert" before I left the farm - I mean on international affairs.
- The J. Frank Norris I Have Known by Louis Entzminger, p. 65-66

E. Ray Tatum wrote of the graduation:

His grades were the highest recorded at the seminary, and as valedictorian, he was chosen to deliver the graduating address.  This address he read with dignity and calculated memorized articulation, while clad in his only dress suit, a long-tail tweed, which he later said, "Resembled more a sweat box, than a suit of clothes."
- Conquest or Failure? by E. Ray Tatum, p. 73

Barry Hankins, who is very well-researched in his writing, wrote this:

Norris graduated from Baylor in 1903 and promptly enrolled at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.  He completed his master's degree in theology in two years and graduated at the top of his class in 1905.  His valedictory address was on the topic "International Justification of Japan in Its War with Russia."  Norris would later remark that the speech, which was reprinted by the Louisville Courier-Journal, was a "hum dinger."  Throughout his life he would show a keen interest in international affairs.
- God's Rascal by Barry Hankins, p. 11

Similar brief descriptions of Norris’s graduation with details about graduating with honors and delivering a valedictory speech can be found in the smaller biographies by Falls and Chambers.

Fact check, anyone?

It does not appear that anyone has spent much time verifying these claims or details surrounding Norris and the 1905 graduation from SBTS. Not even antagonistic authors like David Stokes.

Here’s a list of key details gathered from these sources:

  • Norris gradated from SBTS in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1905
  • Norris graduated with honors
  • Norris graduated as valedictorian
  • Norris delivered an address at gradation on the Russo-Japanese War
  • That address was because he was valedictorian or another sign of honor.
  • The Courier-Journal published that address in full.

So, let’s put these to the test.

I have long been interested in tracking down a copy of that speech. In 2009, I exchanged emails with someone [I’ll keep their name private] from the James P. Boyce Centennial Library at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. I had originally asked about the date of the 1905 graduation. They were very kind in responding that it was on Tuesday, May 30, 1905 at 8:00 p.m. according to the commencement program. I inquired if a copy could be made but it was not possible due to the condition of the material. The following information was given to me in that response:

“Norris is listed as a Th.M. Graduate with the subject of his address: ‘Why we Sympathize with Japan’.  He is listed along with four other students as “Speakers at Commencement”.  I am not sure that he was the valedictorian.”

After those emails I attempted unsuccessfully to track down a copy of the speech online. Online newspaper archives just did not have what I was looking for. I’ve looked off and on, but finally found some new information online recently. I found a report on the 1905 graduation on page 5 of the May 31, 1905, edition of the Courier-Journal (which, strangely, is not in the Newspaper.com archives). Here’s the article:

The text of the paragraph on Norris is as follows:

John Franklin Norris, of Texas, made a hit with the audience in his address on “Why We Sympathize With Japan.” He reviewed the victories of Japan over Russia and said they were the result of liberty and enlightenment. He said that Japan is to-day the greatest missionary field in the world and the fruits of victory in the present war are the direct result of the aptness of the Japanese in inculcating the progressive principles of the west.

The only two things that mark Norris’s address from those of his peers are that the coverage is slightly more than them and that an additional heading is given to that coverage. The only other appearance of his name is in the list of men receiving Master of Theology degrees. So other than him giving one of five graduate speeches that night, there is little else to differentiate him for the 50+ other graduates.

Reconciling Claims and Sources

I will admit that a second-hand description of a graduation program and one newspaper article are not the most conclusive or exhaustive sources that can be found. It is a start though. It is also far more than simply rehearsing the same claims over and over again, which I sadly point out that it appears almost every Norris biographer has done so far.

Let’s review those claims by what we can now prove:

Norris gradated from SBTS in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1905. This can is proven, along with the timeline of completing his degree in two years.

Norris graduated with honors. The only evidence of this is that he was chosen as one of five men to deliver addresses at the graduation. Inconclusive, at best.

Norris graduated as valedictorian. Norris did claim to be a valedictorian, speaking of his first Sunday as pastor of McKinney Avenue Baptist Church: “There I was, a highly distinguished preacher, valedictorian of my class, having delivered a great ‘statesmanlike’ address on Japan.” (The J. Frank Norris I Have Known, p. 68). But with the information from the Courier-Journal and that the graduation’s program not noting him as such, I have doubts about his claim. Perhaps further evidence will be uncovered.

Norris delivered an address at gradation on the Russo-Japanese War. It is certain that he did. The title given at the time appears to be “Why We Sympathize With Japan” and later Norris would describe it instead by its subject of “International Justification of Japan in Its War With Russia”.

That address was because he was valedictorian or another sign of honor. It is unclear how he earned the honor of delivering the address, but it does not appear that he was valedictorian. But 50+ other graduates did not have an invitation to speak so there must be something to it.

The Courier-Journal published that address in full. I am still working on tracking this down. I have looked through multiple editions of the Courier-Journal on Newspapers.com with no luck. Based on the timeline of events it almost certainly would have been printed in early June, 1905, unless it was somehow printed before he delivered it at the graduation. I have found some verification that it does exist, as a copy appears to be in the files of Pat M. Neff Collection at Baylor University. There is a listing in that inventory for “Why We Sympathize with Japan, Norris, J.T. undated” (Box 29, Folder 9). It must be that “J.T. Norris” is actually “J.F. Norris” and at least in that archive exists a copy of Norris’s address. Anyone want to make a copy for me???