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Fundamentalist church rejoins Southern Baptists

Fundamentalist church rejoins Southern Baptists

FORT WORTH, Texas -- The "mother church" of a Baptist fundamentalist

movement that led many churches to break with the Southern Baptist Convention

in the 1920s has voted to rejoin the denomination.

First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, once led by the fiery fundamentalist J.

Frank Norris, voted overwhelmingly Sunday to seek affiliation with the Southern

Baptist Convention, based on the denomination's trend toward fundamentalism,

said the church's pastor, the Rev. Billy Ramsey.

The action could lead the way for other independent fundamentalist churches

to join the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant group,

said the Rev. Paige Patterson, a fundamentalist leader and president of

Criswell College in Dallas.

"This is kind of like patching up an old family spat," Patterson said.

The vote by First Baptist to rejoin the convention followed the

denomination's national convention in New Orleans last week, during which a

fundamentalist president was elected for the 12th year.

The legendary Norris, who was acquitted of murder and arson during

sensational trials in the 1930s, kept the church's ties with the national

Southern Baptist Convention until 1948, when delegates voted to deny him status

as a delegate at a national convention in Memphis, Tenn.

While attacking liberalism in the Southern Baptist Convention, Norris

founded an independent fundamentalist Baptist movement that has ties with

conservative colleges, seminaries and Bible schools, and many congregations,

including Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., whose pastor is TV

evangelist Jerry Falwell. Norris died in 1952.

Ramsey said Norris would have approved of his church's action in seeking

ties with Southern Baptists, but Ramsey expects to be "hammered" by criticism

from other independent fundamentalist Baptists who oppose the move.

"I feel if Dr. J. Frank Norris were here today and saw the direction the

Southern Baptist Convention was moving, he would vote with us to reunite with

the Southern Baptists," said Ramsey, 32. "This is an effort to complete the

fight for the Bible started under Dr. Norris."

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Ramsey said nothing shows that First Baptist members ever voted to leave the

Southern Baptist Convention.

He said his "dream is that other independent fundamentalist churches will

join" the Southern Baptist crusade of conservatives.

Patterson hailed the action of Ramsey's church and said he believes that

more churches involved with the independent fundamentalist Baptist movement

will seek affiliation with Southern Baptists.

"I think it was a most historic Sunday when they voted to rejoin our

Southern Baptist Convention," Patterson said. "And I frankly believe you will

see more movement (by independent Baptist fundamentalist churches) toward

unification with Southern Baptists."

The Rev. James Draper, former Southern Baptist president and pastor of First

Baptist Church of Euless, a city between Dallas and Fort Worth, appeared with

Ramsey at a pastors' conference of the Tarrant Baptist Association, the county

association of Southern Baptists, on Monday to announce the vote by Ramsey's

church.

"I think if First Baptist rejoins the Southern Baptist Convention, it is a

tremendous testimony that a healing is taking place," Draper said. "When Dr.

Norris was expelled, it was a very bitter and hostile time."

Also, Ramsey conferred with fundamentalist leaders, including the Rev. W.A.

Criswell of Dallas, before pursuing the affiliation with Southern Baptists.

Criswell, he said, was elated by the possibility of Norris' old church

coming back into the denomination.

The action was met with amazement by some independent fundamentalist

Baptists, who have railed for decades about liberalism in the Southern Baptist

Convention.

"J. Frank Norris Is Turning Over in His Grave," says a headline in the

Searchlight, a newspaper published by Independent Baptist Fellowship

International, a fundamentalist group based in Fort Worth, which carried an

article critical of the church's possible return to the Southern Baptist

Convention.

The Rev. Raymond Barber, pastor of Worth Baptist Church in Fort Worth and

president of Independent Baptist Fellowship International, which is dedicated

to preserving Norris' teachings, said he was saddened by First Baptist's vote.

"I am grieved that the mother church of fundamentalist and independent

Baptists has voted to go back into the Southern Baptist Convention," Barber

said. "It is a sad day for all independent Baptists."

First Baptist, originally in downtown Fort Worth, is now in the Fort Worth

suburb of Haltom City. It has 2,000 members on its church rolls and about 700

active members, Ramsey said.

In the past, Patterson and other Southern Baptist fundamentalists have

shunned any comparisons to Norris, who became notorious for his vituperative

attacks against influential pastors and seminary presidents.

Norris is hailed by many as a master pulpiteer, and his sermons are still

quoted.

His flamboyant style drew thousands to his church, and he once rented

several monkeys to play around his pulpit as he preached a sermon against

evolution.

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