"Norris-Wallace Debate Draws Immense Crowds"
(W. E. Brightwell, in Gospel Advocate, 1934)
Norris-Wallace Debate Draws Immense Crowds At Ft. Worth
Old Fashioned Discussion in Brilliant Modern Setting. Close to thousand preachers present. Dr. Woods of Dallas featured by Norris. Many wonder about apparent friend ship between Norris and Premillennialists in our own ranks. Norris claims Campbell on three propositions. Battle friendly, but fierce. Declines to meet Wallace again.
It was a "battle of giants" which drew 6,000 to 7,000 people to Fort Worth, Texas, to hear J. Frank Norris, Fundamentalist-Baptist, and Foy E. Wallace, Jr., church of Christ, on November 5-7. The five to eight hundred preachers of the church of Christ who attended will tell you that Wallace slew the Goliath who has terrorized the regular Baptists of Texas for years, and has caused the timid in all religious ranks to quake, with his thunderings from pulpit, press, and radio. It all hinges on the meaning to be applied to the word "slain." That Wallace bested his opponent in every stake of the fight, in so far as making and meeting the arguments on the four propositions goes, is fairly evident to all impartial observers. I am sure that the members of the First Baptist Church at Fort Worth were surprised at the strength with which Wallace maintained his positions, and with which he assailed the doctrines to which they had responded with such hearty "amens" as they were propounded by Dr. Norris. Even though they may feel that Dr. Norris was the victor, they doubtless sensed that all things were not exactly to their liking. There must have been some air pockets in their confidence.
The mild refusal to meet Wallace in debate again, founded on the flimsiest and most inconsistent sort of an excuse, lends some color to the theory that the giant is slain. Yet, J. Frank Norris gave no other visible evidences of being conquered. If he really went down, he went down with every outward appearance of the confidence of a victor. This confidence could have easily been feigned, for Norris is the greatest showman in religious circles. There are Baptist preachers who can make a better argument for "faith only" or the "final preservation of the saints;" there may be those in religious ranks who are more convincing on the "thousand, years" reign on the earth" or "the restoration of the Jews;" but there is not a campaigner more clever and effective in directing the sentiments of the plain people in the pulpits of today.
Many Preachers Attend
It was the first religious discussion in which Norris had engaged, a published debate with Martin, Baptist, being denominated by him as merely a "family row." It is probably true of him, however, as Wallace suggested, that Norris had been debating all of his life--with an opponent who was not present. But the opponent being present really does make a difference. It was the most serious opposition that Wallace has encountered in his brief career as a debater, and, as on all previous occasions, he met it with a strength more than commensurate with the demand. Another consideration that seems to justify the use of the trite term, "battle of the giants," is that the speakers were surrounded by as great an array of fellow preachers as has ever been seen in a religious debate. The discussion came, and was planned to come (for Norris invited it), in, the midst of a Millennial School conducted by Dr. Norris in his church. This meant that more than a hundred Baptist preachers from many States, who are in sympathy with his views, were present.
It was generally conceded that there were more preachers of the church of Christ in attendance than were ever together, on any occasion. The sisters of the Southside Church in Fort Worth fed the out-of-town preachers and their wives on Tuesday and Wednesday. On Monday night, when Brother Dickey, who preaches for the Southside Church, asked for all the preachers to stand, so they would know how to plan for feeding them, the number was so surprising that he feared the proposition had been misunderstood. It was explained, and they were asked to stand again. There was no mistake. There were simply more preachers present than anybody had guessed. There must have been 500 who stood. The Southside Church will seat from 600 to 700. It was comfortably filled, and most of them were preachers. This did not include many of those living in Fort Worth, Dallas, and other North Texas points, close enough for the preachers to return to their homes. There were doubtless 800 preachers of the church of Christ who attended one or more sessions of the debate. At one of the meetings at the Southside, Leroy Elkins announced: "This is the greatest gathering of preachers since Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem to find out whether or not the Gentiles must be circumcised." They came from as far away as Florida and California.
A Brilliant Setting
H. L. Whiteside acted as official counselor to Brother Wallace. In reserve were such veterans as Early Arceneaux, Joe Warlick, and J. D. Tant. A list of all the names of debaters, preachers, and evangelists present would read like a yearbook. The number included some two or threescore of student preachers from Abilene Christian College, piloted by Batsell Baxter, head of the department of the Bible.
It is probably difficult in this age of indifference to debating to visualize thousands of people coming great distances, arriving at the sessions thirty to sixty minutes ahead of time to get a seat, sitting in the basement or in Sunday school rooms where they could hear, but not see the speakers, or standing in the aisles or outside the building through two-and-one-half and three-hour sessions. That is what happened at the night sessions. Twice the first day the crowds listened through two speeches of an hour and a half. The other two days the sessions were two and a half hours in length, with two speeches each.
Brought Their Bibles
Hundreds brought their Bibles and followed the readings. Hundreds brought notebooks and took down references. Norris, originally a member of the church of Christ, professes to admire our "contending for the faith," and seeks to outdo us in sticking to a "thus saith the Lord." As to how consistent he is to that ambition those who heard him may judge. His church uses no Sunday-school literature. They preach against it. The instrument was not used during the debate. The oldest hymns, such as "Amazing Grace," "There Is a Fountain," and "How Firm a Foundation," were used, and the melody literally swept over the great audiences in waves. Only Norris could have brought so many of his people to a religious discussion. The debate was orderly and conducted on a high plane. There was practically no demonstration, except that the Baptists could not forego their "amens." Wallace insisted that even that be dispensed with when he was speaking. The speakers maintained a fine spirit, although they both fought as fiercely as they had force to impart. Dr. Norris, considering himself as a host, by virtue of the debate being in his building, was the personification of courtesy throughout.
The tabernacle, as it is called, is a new but plain brick building, plainly furnished. Loud speakers carried the voice of the debaters to the basement, outside the building, and to the Sunday-school rooms, but not to the auditorium itself. No successful system had been worked out for the auditorium. The acoustics are splendid, however. Wallace was handicapped by being forced to make two speeches of an hour and a half each the first day, before he had time to find the range of the building. He developed a slight huskiness, which is unusual for him, but this improved as he spoke, But surprisingly his voice carried better to the rear of the auditorium than did that of Dr. Norris. The debate was not broadcast.
Claims Alexander Campbell
One of the outstanding features was the claim made by Dr. Norris through three propositions of the debate that Alexander Campbell stood with him. "I never call them Campbellites," he said, "except sometimes in fun. They do not want to be called Campbellites, and on these propositions they are not entitled to be called Campbellites. I am a Campbellite. Campbell is on my side, not theirs." Wallace pointed out that he was misrepresenting Campbell on the millennium and the restoration of the Jews, and that when they came to baptism and apostasy, Dr. Norris would impeach his own star witness. Wallace also stated that Campbell had gone through a long process of change in his views, being at one time a Presbyterian, later associated with the Baptists, and finally a Christian only; and that he was not there to defend Campbell, but to discuss what the Bible teaches.
But, to the distinct surprise of everybody, when Wallace affirmed that baptism is essential to salvation on the second day, Dr. Norris again attempted to claim Campbell, challenging Wallace to show in any of Campbell's writings where he had said that it was essential. It turned out to be a play on the word "essential." Dr. Norris read from the "Campbell-Rice Debate" a quotation purporting to support his contention, but the Campbell claim was virtually settled when Wallace suddenly interrupted Dr. Norris and asked him to explain to the audience why he had read a quotation from Martin Luther, as if they were the words of Campbell. Dr. Norris merely said: "Yes, he quoted from Luther, and later on he quotes from Baptists." He never did explain whether or not he knew that the passage which he had read publicly was quoted from Luther and not Campbell's own words. Dr. Norris dropped the matter and went on with his speech. The whole Campbell claim was one of the weakest arguments made by Norris, and the turn just mentioned was one of the most telling blows which Wallace delivered in its effect upon the audience.
Features Dr. Woods
It was on the second day, when baptism was being discussed, and after the millennial questions had been disposed of, that Dr. Norris introduced into the debate a matter which somewhat detracted from the pleasantness of it. He intimated that he had experienced some difficulty in obtaining information in advance as to what Wallace believed on the propositions. He said that he had eventually obtained a copy of the "Neal-Wallace Discussion" and other data from his friend, Dr. Eugene V. Woods, of Dallas. When Wallace made some reference to the position in which this placed Dr. Woods in the debate, Dr. Norris in his next speech defended Woods and introduced him to the audience. He also announced that he had invited R. H. Boll to deliver a series of lectures in his church at Fort Worth.
Before the night session opened, but with most of the great audience present, Dr. Norris introduced Frank M. Mullins, who preaches for the Mount Auburn church of Christ at Dallas. Dr. Woods, Brother Mullins, and the Mount Auburn Church are understood to be in sympathy with the teachings of R. H. Boll on premillennialism. Brother Mullins announced that he was going to start a Millennial School in Fort Worth for the churches of Christ, if it could be arranged, similar to the one which was being conducted by Dr. Norris at the First Baptist Church. C. E. Wooldridge, Dallas, arose and requested to be enrolled as the first student. C. M. Stubblefield and Early Arceneaux also indicated that they would attend. All three, of course, are opposed to premillennialism.
In practically every speech after the first mention, Dr. Norris referred to Dr. Woods. At the night session he stated that he was going to give Dr. Woods unlimited radio privileges to speak on premillennialism. Wednesday afternoon he again introduced Dr. Woods to the audience. The Baptists applauded, and Dr. Woods apparently waved a friendly greeting to the Baptists on the platform. After Wallace's first speech on the last night, Dr. Woods and Brother Mullins came to the platform. After his second speech, and prior to Dr. Norris' last speech, Brother Mullins was introduced and spoke briefly in defense of his belief on premillennialism. After the debate was over and one song had been sung, Dr. Woods was introduced and attempted to defend himself against references which Wallace had made to him. The crowd was already dispersing, and Dr. Woods could not be heard effectively.
Refuses To Debate Wallace
Plans for three other debates--at San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas--had been mentioned during the discussion. In his first speech, the last night, Wallace announced that he had been invited by the brethren at Dallas to debate. "The debate will be held unless Dr. Norris backs out," he stated. In his last speech Dr. Norris referred casually to the Dallas debate, and stated that he would not meet Wallace, because of what he had said of Dr. Woods, but that he would meet anybody else. Later, however, Dr. Norris intimated that this difference might be ironed out and the debate held.
Many thought that his declining to debate Wallace on these grounds was merely an excuse to avoid the second debate, especially in view of the harshness that Dr. Norris is known to employ in dealing both with his political and religious enemies. "It comes with poor grace from Dr. Norris," several were heard to remark, "to refuse to debate on such a pretext. Manifestly, the two outstanding points of the debate with Dr. Norris was the attempt to claim Campbell and the effort to embarrass Wallace by showing that some of his own brethren were against him on the millennial questions. The fact that all of this featuring of the millennial brethren of Dallas came while baptism and apostasy were under consideration made the attitude of these brethren more conspicuous.
Suspect A Coalition
This turn was not altogether a surprise to some of the preachers present, for many had come to the debate with a question in their minds as to why Dr. Norris had been willing to meet us in debate. This suggested a possible explanation. Some had noted, too, during the first day of the debate a marked resemblance between some of the arguments which Dr. Norris had advanced with certain writings of R. H. Boll and C. M. Neal. The friendship between Dr. Norris and the Dallas premillennial brethren was evident enough, and his familiarity with the names of Boll and Neal led some to suspect a possible coalition, more far reaching that Dallas, for the future. Norris is virtually the head of a denomination of his own, known as "Fundamentalist-Baptists," with many churches outside of Fort Worth and many Baptist preachers cooperating with him.
Another contributing factor to the impression that there was a foreign, if not sinister, influence in the discussion was produced by the unfairness which Dr. Norris manifested in the last session anent the division of time. The first day Dr. Norris was in the affirmative, and he insisted upon one speech each of an hour and a half to each session. The last two days Wallace was in the affirmative, and he insisted that they both make two speeches in each session one of forty-five minutes each and one of thirty minutes. Just before the final session, John Rice, a Norris assistant, phoned Wallace that Dr. Norris could not concede this division for the last session, but that they would make one speech each of an hour and fifteen minutes length. Wallace replied that since there were no rules governing the division of time, and that he had as much in it as Dr. Norris, and that he was in the affirmative, he would make two speeches. Dr. Norris could arrange his time in his own way.
Loses His Poise
After Wallace had spoken for forty-five minutes and a song had been sung, Dr. Norris stepped over to Wallace and asked him, privately, to use the rest of his time. Wallace replied that Dr. Norris could speak, or else the debate was over, Dr. Norris spoke, but he spoke only fifteen minutes. Dr. Norris was within his rights, but his action did not seem fair. Wallace charged him with being mad, and Norris seemed to confirm this, for in the beginning of his last speech, with a tenseness pervading the audience, some one near the stand interrupted him, and he said: "Shut up! If you say another word, I will make you stand up, and there are a hundred men here who will carry you out." C. M. Stubblefield arose and reminded Dr. Norris that he was going too far; that he was not manifesting a Christian spirit, etc. Dr. Norris sought to turn it off as a pleasantry, but insisted that he was not going to be interrupted by anybody, and that Brother Wallace would have no opportunity to interrupt or reply, as he had been granted on the previous night.
He proceeded to introduce seventeen new arguments in his final negative of an hour, but Wallace had so successfully anticipated them that they were not effective. In fact, Dr. Norris made a speech, or preached a sermon. That was his strong point in the debate. He delivered some very eloquent speeches. He raised an old-fashioned shout on Monday night with one of his appeals, and apparently sought to stir up emotional fervor at the end of the other two night sessions, but with the audiences in the process of leaving the building, these did not reach the flood stage.
It is impossible to even touch all the high points in one article. In setting, in interest and attendance, and in argument, it was one of the greatest debates in recent years.
Yet there were some rather strange and freakish angles to it. My impression when the debate ended, and I have not yet been tempted to revise it, was that, in the words of some of the boys who returned from France after the late war, I would not take a million dollars for the debate and the privilege of attending it, but I would not give a dime for another one just like it. This estimate is purely personal, and the after effects may prove that it is unjust to the facts, but it must be confessed by most of us who attended that we entered upon the experience with misgivings, and were, therefore, susceptible to impressions.