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FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH, FORT WORTH

FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH, FORT WORTH. The earliest congregation of the Baptist Church in Fort Worth was organized in 1867 by W. W. Mitchell, missionary of the West Fork Baptist Association (established 1855) and A. Fitzgerald, who became its first pastor and served from 1868 to 1871. Its succeeding pastors, Meredith D. Neal (1871), D. Dennis Swindall (1872), and T. F. Lockett (1873), witnessed periods of growth, struggle, and the eventual demise of the congregation.

On September 12, 1873, two Baptist ministers, J. R. Masters and W. M. Gough, organized a new church with twenty-seven charter members. They took the name First Baptist Church, Fort Worth. Masters served as pastor from October 1873 to October 1874, during which time the congregation met in the Masonic Hall. Under Gough the church held services in the Tarrant County Courthouse until it burned in the spring of 1876. Later that year the church built a new brick meetinghouse on Jennings Avenue. John Smith Gillespie came in January 1878 as pastor of the seventy-five-member congregation, located just one block from the infamous "Hell's Half Acreqv." By the end of his five-year pastorate the church had added 199 members. In 1882 a portion of this congregation broke away to form the Southside Baptist Church (now Broadway Baptist Church). John Decatur Murphy pastored the congregation in 1883–84, and Walter E. Tynes served from 1884 until 1886. Under the leadership of J. Morgan Wells, 1886–96, the church grew to 541 members, built a new 1,100-seat building on Taylor and Third streets, and hosted the Tarrant County Baptist Association organizational meeting on October 14, 1886, and the national Southern Baptist Convention in May 1890. After Wells died in 1896, the church was led by pastors A. W. McGaha (1897–99), Luther Little (1900–04), and Charles Daniel (1905–08).

A new, long chapter in the church's history began when it called as pastor John Franklyn Norris, owner-editor of the Baptist Standard from 1907 to 1909. Norris accepted the pastorate in 1909 and remained at First Baptist for the rest of his life. The church lost at least 600 members in 1911 after a division, and the following year lost its building and pastor's home by fire. Though Norris was indicted for arson, he was acquitted after a month-long trial. During his long tenure, the church's personality became inseparably entwined with that of its pastor. It aligned with the prohibition movement, sponsored an interdenominational Bible school, and became the leader of the World's Christian Fundamentals Conference in 1919. That year the church built a 5,000-seat auditorium, and four years later it helped to form the Baptist Bible Union of America. Because of Norris's continued open criticism of the Southern Baptist Convention, his decision to discard SBC literature, his attacks on SBC schools (particularly Baylor University, which he charged with teaching "evolution and infidelity"), and his spirit of noncooperation, the Tarrant County Baptist Association withdrew fellowship from the church in 1922. The Baptist General Convention of Texas refused Norris a seat at the state convention in 1923 and permanently excluded him in 1924.

On July 18, 1926, Norris shot and killed a Fort Worth lumberman, Dexter Elliot Chipps, in the church office. He was charged with murder but was acquitted on a ruling of self-defense at his trial in Austin. Two years later the church and parsonage were burned again. By 1931 the church reported 12,000 members, with 6,000 attending Sunday school, and property valued at $1.5 million. Throughout the next two decades Norris and the First Baptist Church stood solidly against Modernism, Communism, liberalism, evolution, ecclesiasticism, and organized crime. The growing congregation gained notoriety for extreme independence, a controversial and pugilistic attitude, and a flare for sensationalism.

In July 1931 the First Baptist Church established the Premillennium Baptist Missionary Fellowship, which in subsequent years splintered into the World, Bible, Southwide, and Independent Baptist Fellowship groups, each of which acts as an independent organization. Norris's church papers, The Searchlight and The Fundamentalist, provided platforms for his views. An institute (1931, 1939), renamed the Bible Baptist Seminary in 1946, was begun under his leadership as well. In 1935 Norris accepted a second pastorate in addition to his Fort Worth church-the Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan-thus broadening his influence. Discord and internal rivalry surfaced in 1945, when Norris's son George became pastor of a dissenting party that split from the First Baptist Church. Norris's health began to fail in 1948, and the Premillennium Fellowship fractured in May 1950, the same month Norris was dismissed by the church in Detroit.

Norris died on August 20, 1952, and the First Baptist Church called Homer Ritchie as pastor four days later. Ritchie served in that capacity until October 11, 1981, much of that time with his twin brother Omer serving as his co-pastor. The church underwent numerous upheavals in these decades, with attendance dwindling as the older congregation gave way to an emphasis on children and youth. During the mid-1960s the church moved its location to Fifth and Pennsylvania streets and built a 2,000-seat auditorium. In 1974 this facility was sold to Calvary Temple, and the First Baptist Church met in the Tandy School building. In 1981 the First Baptist Church, Fort Worth, and the Rolling Hills Baptist Church merged and moved to Haltom City. The new church retained the name First Baptist Church, Fort Worth. When the merger occurred, Homer and Omer Ritchie resigned as pastors, and Johnny Ramsey became pastor.

Bill Ramsey succeeded his father as pastor in 1984 and still served in that role in 1992. Following his mediating leadership, the First Baptist Church petitioned the Tarrant Baptist Association for membership on October 8, 1990, and was received under a "Watchcare" program for one year. Under this provision, the church was encouraged to participate in all association activities and responsibilities, and special efforts were made to help the congregation better understand the work of the Southern Baptist Convention. After almost seventy years, on October 14, 1991, the First Baptist Church, Fort Worth, was fully readmitted into the Tarrant Baptist Association as a member in good standing with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. In 1993 the First Baptist Church had 2,500 members.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

James E. Carter, Cowboys, Cowtown and Crosses: A Centennial History of the Tarrant Baptist Association (Fort Worth: Tarrant Baptist Association, 1986). Roy Emerson Falls, A Biography of J. Frank Norris, 1877–1952 (Euless, Texas, 1975). James Leo Garrett, Living Stones: The Centennial History of Broadway Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas, 1882–1982 (2 vols., Fort Worth: Broadway Baptist Church, 1984). J. Frank Norris, Inside History of First Baptist Church, Fort Worth, and Temple Baptist Church, Detroit (Fort Worth, 1938). C. Allyn Russell, "J. Frank Norris: Violent Fundamentalist," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 75 (January 1972).

Karen O'Dell Bullock

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Karen O'Dell Bullock, "FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH, FORT WORTH," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ibf01), accessed September 23, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.