Review: Hawkins book takes deep dive on two legendary Texas Baptists

O.S. Hawkins has found a good story to tell, and he tells it eagerly. In the Name of God is the tale of two pastors, two churches and the mythology that rose up around them. George W. Truett and J. Frank Norris pastored the largest churches in the world in the early 20th century—First Baptist Dallas and First Baptist Fort Worth. 

Though there were some similarities in their stories, the men were a study in contrasts. Both men were pragmatic in significant ways; Truett was more subtle in his efforts to impact Southern Baptists beyond his church. Truett also worked from within the convention; Norris was very much the outsider and gadfly for the latter half of his ministry. 

Hawkins is particularly engaged in telling this story. He is a native of Fort Worth whose father was saved under Norris’ ministry. He was called to ministry in a church heavily influenced by the membership that scattered from First Fort Worth after the death of their legendary pastor. Hawkins also pastored First Baptist Dallas and preached a memorable sermon at W.A. Criswell’s funeral. The author also seems to enjoy twisting the tails of those who know a little and assume a lot about the two giants among earlier Texas Southern Baptists. 

Without stealing any more of Hawkins’ thunder, two things struck me as I read this engaging book. First, men are more complex than the myths that grow up around them. The most popular Baptist histories draw Truett as larger, and more perfect, than life. Though brilliant, sincere and godly in his ministry, the pastor in Dallas was capable of being petty and manipulative when provoked. Though combative and sensational, Norris was more effective, compassionate and honest than those same histories acknowledge. This book straightens some of that mythology without scorning either legendary pastor.

Second, a great man’s legacy is often different than he dreams. Truett was a builder, Hawkins says, and as such supported the status quo for its own sake when controversary arose. This bore sweet and bitter fruit even decades after his death. Norris lost most of the denominational battles he fought but was vindicated in some ways by the success of the Southern Baptist Conservative Resurgence he did not live to see. 

Most readers will be surprised to know of the innovations that began in the Fort Worth megachurch. The originality and evangelistic power of Norris’ ministry was a revelation to me. The pathos of Truett’s darkest personal moment, though known to me, is explained to have a deep impact on his later ministry. You likely know that both men were involved in deadly shootings. Hawkins’ book explains both of those more clearly than I have previously heard. 

The story of Baptists in Texas is full of colorful characters and has filled books in efforts to tell the story and its modern outgrowth. This story is of the transition between the second generation of significant leaders, dominated by B.H. Carroll, and the third generation, the framers of what Baptists would be for the next century—men like L.R. Scarborough, and yes, George W. Truett and J. Frank Norris. Scarborough and Truett are rightly known for some of the important infrastructure they provided for the generation to come. Norris, true to his view of the denomination he saw from the outside, left his most significant marks on the churches that make up our Baptist fellowship. 

If you know a little about Truett and Norris, you’ll learn something you haven’t heard and maybe understand something you’ve misunderstood. I found In the Name of God an enjoyable way to learn more about two men who made a difference for good in our Southern Baptist Convention. (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 213 pages, $29.99) 

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan

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