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The Call to Fort Worth and What Came of It

Norris was invited to fill the pulpit at the First Baptist Church, Fort Worth.  He did so for a number of Sundays while he was winding up his affairs of leaving the editorship of the Standard.  He was expecting another man to be called as pastor there, but they chose him.  There was some opposition to this call.  One whole family was against it, the J.T. Pemberton family.  

Norris tells us himself --

Mr. Pemberton said, "I am not opposed to J. Frank Norris; I am for him, but this church is not in condition for his type of ministry.  If he comes here there will be the all-firedest explosion ever witnessed in any church.  We are at peace with the world, the flesh, and the devil, and with one another.  And this fellow carries a broad axe and not a pearl handle pen knife.  I just want to piano coversn you.  But now since you have called him, I am going to stay by him."

And he stayed by me.  He is the best friend I ever had.  At a later time I will give his whole connection and loyalty.

Not sparing myself, I had very little faith.  My experience...with the denominational leaders shattered my soul to its deepest depths.  I wanted to quit the ministry...

I was utterly disgusted with churches, the ministry and the whole machinery.

But I went back the next Sunday, and to the great surprise of the First Baptist Church I didn't accept.  I only referred to the call and said, "I thank you."  And they were amazed that I didn't jump in head over heals.  It was the richest church in the city, or the state, or the South.  Millionaires hung in bunches.  It was the church known as "The Hone of the Cattle Kings."

I shall never forget my first text -- Job 19:25-26, "For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:"

Job was in the deepest, darkest depths of despair when he uttered these words, which I consider the highest height of the Old Testament revelation.  The only difference between me and Job was he came up from the bottom to the highest heights, but I stayed down there.  Every time I would start to climb up I was like the proverbial frog which crawled up out of the well two feet every day and fell back three feet every night.  How long did it take the frog to get out?

I was pale, wan , worn, and weary.  I had a terrible cough.  And because of my condition I was greatly surprised at the call.

A large group of men, among them three bank presidents, quite a number of capitalists and cattle kings met with me for a conference.  They told me what a wonderful church they had -- and it was all true.  They did the talking.  They had no idea what was going on in my soul.  My faith -- what little I had left -- was fast ebbing away; my unbelief changed into contempt.  The darkness of Gethsemane was fast settling over my soul.

When they finished the long conference of eulogizing the great church, its wealth, its prestige, its standing et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseam, I rose and said just one sentence:

"Gentlemen, if I come to you, I don't know what will happen.  All I know is we won't look like we do now when we get through with each other."

I had forgotten the expression, but many years afterpiano coversds Mr. J.W. Spencer who went out with the exodus and later became my good friend before his death, we often laughed about it afterpiano coversds -- he reminded me of what I said.

It was a typical church with the B.Y.P.U's, Ladies Aid, W.M.U.'s, Boards, ..."high-falutin" choir, pipe organ, ushers, and twenty some odd committees.

I had a liberal contempt for the whole machinery.

But I went on with it, and for two years did my best to fit into the program.  They were exceedingly lovely to me and my family.  They showered their gifts, they gave the largest salary of any church in the state or South.  And if they heard of anybody giving one larger they would raise mine -- and I never objected -- they furnished me a home, paid all the bills, I never bought a suit of clothes, overcoat, hat, necktie, or even a pair of socks.  They remembered my family on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, birthdays, and between times.  The chairman of the board of trustees drove up on day with a handful of twenty dollar gold pieces and gave everybody one, including the cook and yard man.  My rich officials had one of the finest cars ever made driven up to my door, and the fellow told me to get in -- and I did.  And that was first time I had ever sat in an automobile.  He drove around, and asked me, "How do you like it?"

Well, I told him..."It's a success."

He said, "It's yours."  And then he explained to me how it came, and then the best part, explained to me how he was to keep it up.

It was customary for the pastor to take a whole summer vacation, not one month, but the entire summer.  At the time for the first vacation the chairman of the finance committee gave me a morocco bound book of travelers checks, $20.00 each.  I had never seen one of them before, never even heard of them while I was down there in the black lands of West Texas pulling the bell cord over the gray backs of Beck and Jude from the break of day until dark.

When I got home I counted these twenty dollar travelers checks, and it was just even $1000.  I took a trip, but  I couldn't spend the amount, and they would have been insulted if I had given any check back.  And I never like to insult people deliberately.

The next summer my wife and children and myself all went up to Colorado and they paid all the expenses.

No danger of  anything happening to the church while I was gone -- no more than there would be a corpse.

I was a typical city pastor.  I was the chief after dinner speaker.  I had tuxedoes, swallow tail coats, a selection of "biled" shirts, several of them, and I would give $10.00 for the latest joke.  I was, as I said, the main attraction at all the gatherings of the Rotarians, Lions, Kiwanis, Eagles.  I was Will Rogers and Mark Twain both combined; they thought so, so did I.

It made little difference to me what the church did.  Thus I spent my first two years.

I went home one Sunday night and told my wife, "I am going to quit the ministry."

She said, "When did you ever begin?"

Such kindness!

I agreed with her and said, "I am going to quit before I begin.  I didn't want to come here, I have had no faith.  I don't even know whether I am a Christian.  I thought I was once -- fact is don't know whether there is a God.  I am going to leave it all."

My good friend Charlie Carroll, son of Dr. B.H. Carroll, was then pastor in Owensboro, Kentucky, and wanted me to come for a meeting, and I wired him I would come.  I didn't go for the meeting, just went to get away from things, and meet myself coming, or find out which way I was going...

Before I went to the Owensboro engagement I was in a very bad state of mind.  I didn't care what happened -- mark you there was perfect peace in the church -- just as there in a grave yard.  The only difference between that church and the grave yard was the people in the grave yard were buried and everybody knew it, but in the church they were dead and unburied and didn't know it.

The Ladies Aid -- and don't anybody get the idea that I have it in for the Ladies Aid -- I just haven't anything for them -- they were very nice to cover the platform and pulpit with a lot of pot plants -- ferns -- geraniums -- gladioli -- palms -- chrysanthemums -- it was decorated the same way for weddings, funerals, and preaching.  And there I stood straight up, all embalmed, and all that was needed was that peculiar scent of the mixture of roses and carbolic acid.  I had on my long tail coat and striped breeches -- I had several suits by that time.

I did a very mean thing, but I think the Lord forgave me, even before I did it.  I went down in the poor section near Trinity River and got a whole crowd of poor people with their children, and got them all up in the church one night and gave them free entertainment -- ice cream was served, as well as some other things, and they got it all over that fine heavy carpet.

The next day when the diamond bedecked sister of the Ladies Aid came and saw how their rich, highly colored carpet was ruined -- "It is terrible -- It is terrible -- It is terrible" -- "He is going to ruin our church, going to make a regular Salvation Army out of it."

When I came back from Owensboro, after a month's meditation on the banks of the Ohio, I decided I would enter the ministry.

I began to preach the gospel after the fashion of John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea.  I didn't use a pearl handle pen knife; I did what J.T. Pemberton said, I had a broad axe and laid it at the tap root of the trees of dancing, gambling, saloons, houses of ill fame, ungodly conduct, high and low, far and near.  And you talk about a bonfire -- the whole woods was set on fire and it looked like the forest fire I saw in Northern Michigan once when it appeared that the infernal regions below had burst through the crust of the earth and painted the lurid flames of the inferno itself on the clouds above.

With all the intensity of my soul I waded into the thing, right and left, fore and aft, inside and outside.  I asked no questions for conscience's sake or stomach's sake.  I got me a Scotch tweed, salt and pepper suit of clothes and went in arm and hammer brand style.

The crowds came, large numbers were saved.

First thing I knew I got a call from the chairman of the board of trustees.  He was in the wholesale grocery business, a very domineering type of man, and he had been one of my closest friends.  He was the one who gave th twenty-dollar gold pieces on Thanksgiving.  He called me up as if I had been a negro janitor and talked to me with less respect than I would speak to the janitor.  He said in a few curt words: -- "I want you to come down here right away.  I want to see you."

I started to tell him to go where the fires don't go out, but fortunately I decided otherwise, and I went.

I knew then I had put my foot on the edge of a bottomless abyss covered with flowers.

I knew then I had entered the ministry.

I knew then that I was in the supreme fight of my life.

Before I got there he had told all his office force, and everybody on the outside heard him say it, "We are going to fire that blankety blank preacher, and I am going to tell him what I think of him."

I went into that office as a lamb led to the slaughter.  Only afterpiano coversds did I find out what he said.  When I went in he never even asked me to sit down, had his feet propped up on his desk, and he just rared back and they heard him all over the place as he began to tell me what a fool I was, and what a mistake they had made, and closed by saying, "Norris, when we called you we thought you had some sense, but you are a  ------ fool!  And this is to notify you that you are fired!"

I walked up close to him, and if the Lord ever helped a poor preacher He helped me that noon.  I was made over.  There was something beyond human power and wisdom that shot through my soul.  I looked him squarely in the eye, and I wasn't afraid of him.  I had already come to the point where it mattered little what happened to me.  All sense of fear was gone.

I said, "Mr. W-----, No.  You have not made a mistake.  I thought you made a mistake in the call, but you are the one that is fired!"

He had objected to the crowd of poor people I was bringing to the church, and even went on to say, "I noticed the other night where you baptized a notorious street walker in the very same baptistry where I was baptized."

I said, "You are mistaken.  There was not one; there were two.  And I don't know how you know who they are, but last Sunday night they came to the church and it was crowded and they couldn't get in, but stood on the outside and heard the message.  And the next day they came to my house, and one of them had a little girl five years of age.  And they both in the presence of my wife and me related the story of their sin and sorrow and wanted to be saved and start life over again.  We prayed, and they were both saved.  And I want to say to you, Sir, that I would rather have my church filled with publicans and sinners that come to hear the gospel, than to have it run by a worldly, ungodly crowd of officials that have their automobiles full of liquor and women and go out and spend the night on the lake and then come around the next Sunday and pass around the bread and wine at the Lord's table.  You are fired!  And next Sunday I am going to tell the whole world your threats!"

And I did, and the fight was on, and it has been on ever since.

Pages 79-86 from The J. Frank Norris I have Known For 34 Years by Louis Enzminger, D.D.