J. B. Cranfill, Baptist leader, was born in Parker County, Texas, on September 12, 1858, the son of Eaton and Martha Jane (Galloway) Cranfill. As a young man he was converted to the Baptist religion in a brush-arbor meeting in Coryell County. Although he received no college or seminary education, from 1877 to 1878 he taught at a country school at Crawford, McLennan County. He married one of his pupils, Olivia (Ollie) Allen, on September 1, 1878. He learned about medicine from his father, passed the state medical examination, and early in 1879 was licensed as a doctor. He practiced general medicine at Turnersville, in Coryell County, from 1879 to 1882. In 1880 he also opened J. B. Cranfill's Cash Store in Turnersville. In 1881 he established the Turnersville Effort, a monthly paper devoted to combating mob rule and saloons. He moved to Gatesville in 1882 and began publishing the weekly Gatesville Advance. These journalistic ventures led to his move in 1886 to Waco, where he established and edited the Waco Advance. This daily paper represented Texans who wanted to add a prohibition amendment to the state constitution. Cranfill served as financial secretary of Baylor University in 1888–89 and as superintendent of Baptist mission work in Texas from 1890 to 1892. While superintendent of state missions, he initiated publication of the State Mission Journal. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1890 and toured the South in 1892 as the national Prohibition party candidate for vice president of the United States.
In 1892 Cranfill and M. V. Smith, a Belton pastor, acquired the Western Baptist, which they brought from Dallas to Waco and renamed the Texas Baptist Standard (see BAPTIST STANDARD). During his tenure as editor of the Standard, Cranfill engaged in a heated controversy, called the Paper War, with Samuel A. Hayden, editor of the Texas Baptist and Herald. The controversy centered around the state convention's administration of organized, cooperative mission work among Texas Baptists, which Hayden distrusted. After fire destroyed the Standard's Waco plant in 1894, Cranfill moved the paper to Dallas and continued as editor until 1904. In that year a confrontation with Hayden on a train en route to the Southern Baptist Convention at Nashville, Tennessee, induced Cranfill to sell the Standard to George W. Carroll.
Cranfill remained an active Baptist leader in his later years. He edited the Baptist Tribune from 1905 to 1907 and was vice president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1928. He also served as a trustee of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1909 to 1942, and of the Relief and Annuity Board from 1920 to 1942. In a more secular vein, he pushed for Trinity River canalization, believing the project crucial to the future prosperity of Dallas. Cranfill wrote several books, including Courage and Comfort (1895), Cranfill's Heart Talks (1906), Cranfill's Chronicles (1916), From Nature to Grace (1924), and From Memory (1937). He was also the joint author of R. C. Buckner's Life of Faith and Works (1915). Cranfill compiled and edited humorous treatises and sermons by Benajah Harvey Carroll and James Milton Carroll. He edited B. H. Carroll's Interpretation of the English Bible (1914) and J. M. Carroll's A History of Texas Baptists (1923), as well as three books of sermons by George Washington Truett: We Would See Jesus (1915), A Quest for Souls (n.d.), and God's Call to America (1923). Cranfill died in Dallas on December 28, 1942.