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Our Church History


 

The Years Of Foundation

1867-1908

Twenty-five years after Stephen F. Austin established Austin Colony in East Texas, another Missourian entered Texas.  John Allen Freeman, age 24, crossed the Red River into Texas and settled among friends from Missouri in southern Denton County.  On February 21, 1846, Freeman, meeting with twelve other Baptists in the log cabin of Charles Troop, organized the Lonesome Dove Baptist Church.  Revs. John Freeman & Joshua Hodges alternated preaching in various homes until 1847, when a church building was erected near Grapevine in Navarro County.  Then, in 1849, Major Ripley Arnold established Fort Worth on the banks of the Trinity River.

The Texas Legislature created Tarrant County, taking in part of Navarro County – which included the Lonesome Dove Church.  Major Arnold invited Reverend John Freeman to conduct services at the new fort, and in July 1850, he preached the first sermon in this new frontier outpost.  Reverend Freeman was a church planter, and also organized the Mount Gilead Baptist Church, the Bear Creek Baptist Church, and the Birdville Baptist Church.

The first church to be established in Fort Worth was the First Christian Church, organized in 1855.  The second church established in Fort Worth was the Fort Worth Baptist Church, in 1867, two years after the conclusion of the Civil War.  Revs. W.W. Mitchell & A. Fitzgerald led in the establishment of this great church.  Reverend Fitzgerald was a controversial man, who often found more reasons to disagree than to agree with those of like faith, and the young church became weakened as a result.

Soon Reverend Meredith H. Neal succeeded Reverend Fitzgerald as Pastor in 1871, but he would leave before the year ended, and in 1872 Reverend D.D. Swindell became pastor.  He, too, remained for a short tenure, and Rev. T.F. Lockett assume leadership of the struggling church.  In 1873, it seemed the church would not survive the difficult days and hard times when only a handful of people met to worship and pray; then Revs. J.R. Master and W.M. Gough challenged that faithful handful (approximately twenty-six people), to what God could do through their church if they were willing to recommit themselves to the task.  So revived and reinvigorated, they changed their name to The First Baptist Church of Fort Worth on September 12, 1873.  Reverend Masters served as Pastor until 1874, and then Reverend Gough served until 1877.  

The church worshiped in the Masonic Lodge until 1875, then moved to the Court House until it burned in 1876.  At this point, the church built their first permanent building on land donated by Hyde Jennings.  Former Confederate Army Chaplain, Henry C. Renfro was called as Pastor in 1877, but served only one month; the church then called Reverend J.S. Gillespie, who led them until 1883.  Reverend Gillespie left to accept the Pastorate of the Southside Baptist, which later became Broadway Baptist Church.  Revs. J.D. Murphy and Walter E. Tynes would serve as pastor until 1885.  The First Baptist Church entered a new era of promise, prosperity, and popularity under the capable leadership of Reverend  J. Morgan Wells.  Reverend Wells, a brilliant orator and tireless worker, was the first Pastor to lead the church to take truly bold steps of faith.  He became the first Moderator for the Tarrant Baptist Association when it was established in 1886, and later led the church to sell their structure on Jennings Avenue in 1888 to the city for a co-educational school.  This site would become the first home of Fort Worth High School, the first city-owned, co-educational secondary school.  This move was warranted because of the constant distractions and discomfort of being located next to the main cattle thoroughfare into the city – one can only imagine the noise, dust, odors and sounds of loud cowboys and livestock on their northward journey to the railhead in Dodge City and Abilene, Kansas, that filled the church each Sunday.  The church moved to a temporary location in a wood-frame building on Second and Jones Streets, while the new building was being constructed on Third and Taylor.  Finally, in September 1890, one thousand, two hundred fifty people attended the dedication services for the new facility.  

Reverend Wells became famous for his ability to raise funds, accepting money for the Lord’s work from gamblers as well as church attenders. 

In 1890, the church hosted the Southern Baptist Convention, who, while in session here, completed the preliminary work for the establishment of the Baptist Sunday School Board.  Then in 1896, at the age of 41, Reverend Wells suffered a stroke and died.  He was buried under a window at the church property, but was later interred at Greenwood Cemetery.  Reverend Arthur W. McGaha served the following year until he accepted the pastorate of First Baptist Church of Waco.  Then Reverend Luther Little became the pastor in 1898, and served for twenty-five years.  Reverend Little was followed by Reverend Charles Daniel, who served until June 1909, when he accepted the call to the First Baptist Church of Atlanta.

THE YEARS OF Innovation

1909-1952

The church then embarked upon her most colorful, celebrated, and controversial period of history.  A young 32-year-old preacher named J. Frank Norris accepted the call as pastor.  Dr. Norris was a Baylor graduate and had completed his studies at Southern Seminary in Louisville before coming to Fort Worth.  He had previously served the McKinney Avenue Baptist Church in Dallas.  Under his leadership, the church became owner and publisher of the Baptist Standard of Texas.  He and Dr. B.H. Carroll were among the primary driving forces behind an effort to bring the Southwestern Seminary from Waco to Fort Worth.  Using the Baptist Standard as a vehicle to promote this idea and leading the First Baptist Church to raise a large sum of money, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary came to Fort Worth.  This occurred over the objections of a number of influential leaders and planted seeds of discontent with this young pastor as well.  First Baptist later became the first church in America to own and operate their own religious radio station, according to Ed Brice of the Star-Telegram. Norris was later called “The Texas Tornado” because of his tirades and sermons against any and every establishment, personality or philosophy that didn’t see eye to eye with his view of Scriptures or his methods; yet no other organization in the city did more to feed and care for the people than the church under his leadership.  

Enemies to Norris’ work began to increase as the church was instrumental in closing several popular gambling and prostitution establishments.  On January 12, 1912, fire tore through several rooms at the rear of the church, causing damage in excess of $10,000.  On February 4 of that year, arsonists struck again, this time succeeding in setting fire to the beautiful stone facility, leaving nothing to be salvaged from the ruins.  That same night, the home of Dr. Norris and his family was also set alight, and like the church, was totally destroyed.  The church met temporarily in a crudely constructed wooden tabernacle at Lamar and Seventh Streets, on a parcel of land now known as Burnett Park.  The old Byers Opera House, which was later the Palace Theater, was also utilized for worship during this time.  Eight years later the new church was completed, with a seating capacity of thirty-five hundred.  One of the first concerts of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra was given in the Auditorium of First Baptist Church, and the Symphony’s founding Director, Brooks Morris, became Minister of Music and served in that capacity for over thirty-five years. 

Dr. Louis Entzminger also joined the staff, accepting Dr. Norris’ challenge “to build the largest Sunday School in the world!”  Looking back on that era, Dr. Bill Taylor from Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas said, “First Baptist Church of Fort Worth became the first mega-church of the twentieth century!”  The church was burned for the second time in 1929, and was rebuilt at the corner of Fourth and Throckmorton.  

Trouble began to brew when a young Baylor student brought irrefutable evidence of evolution being taught in Baylor University.  Not everyone shared his view that a drift in the denomination could begin at Baylor, and when others attempted to quiet Norris on these issues, he became more vocal.  Finally, in the early 1920s, the Tarrant Baptist Association voted to disassociate with Dr. Norris and the church.  Undaunted by this action, yet unsuccessful in reversing their decision, he pressed on.  Then, in 1924, The Baptist General Convention of Texas voted to deny recognition of messengers from First Baptist Church, yet Dr. Norris continued his support of the Cooperative Program until 1948, when the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Memphis passed a resolution aimed at denying recognition of the messengers from the church.  That was the final severance with the Convention of which Dr. Norris had been a part of for his lifetime.  One member recalled those days and said “those were not days of celebration and joy, but were days of sadness and sorrow.” 

The First Baptist Church of Fort Worth never voted to disassociate with the Southern Baptist Convention, leading J. Frank Norris Jr. to say, “my dad died a Southern Baptist, he never really regarded himself otherwise!”  However, during those days of ministry outside of the Convention, Dr. Norris led in forming the largest Independent Baptist Fellowship in the world.  With the benefit of radio, and his new paper The Fundamentalist, Dr. Norris attracted hundreds of Bible students to his Fort Worth Bible Baptist Seminary, and sent out hundreds of preachers and missionaries.  Few Baptists have not heard of Norris.

In March of 1935, Dr. Norris was called to become the Senior Pastor of Temple Baptist Church of Detroit, Michigan, and commuted between the two churches until 1950, when failing health forced him to resign the Pastorate of Temple Baptist.  The combined membership of these churches – averaging twenty-six thousand by 1946 – was the largest of any evangelical congregation in the world.  Following a stroke in 1950, his Independent Fellowship divided, and J. Frank Norris died in August of 1952.  Friend and foe alike respected him, and regarded him as one of the most powerful preachers of our time.  One newspaper columnist said, “there is an eleventh commandment in Fort Worth, thou shalt not mess with J. Frank Norris.”

THE YEARS OF Perpetuation

1952-2017

Following the passing of Norris in 1952, Homer Ritchie, at the young age of 25, accepted the call as Pastor of First Baptist Church.  He, as J. Morgan Wells and J. Frank Norris before him, led the church to new ventures in faith, relocating the church to Fifth and Penn Streets and commissioning the building of a beautiful two and a half million-dollar facility in 1965.  The church continued her leadership in reaching hundreds of people for Jesus, and in supporting countless numbers of missionaries and mission projects around the world.  Then, with the steady move of people toward the suburbs, the church was faced with the reality of a declining membership, and plans to relocate out of the downtown area were discussed and agreed upon.  The facility at Fifth and Penn was sold to Calvary Chapel in 1974, and remained in use until the year 2000, when an F3 tornado swept through downtown Fort Worth, causing extensive damage to the structure’s foundations. After meeting in a temporary location in the Tandy School building the church built on a thirty-acre tract of land purchased in 1979.  The first phase of the new facility in Northeast Fort Worth was completed in 1980.  In 1981, Dr. Ritchie approached Dr. Johnnie H. Ramsey, Jr. about the prospects of merging the Rolling Hills Baptist Church into First Baptist Church.  After merging congregations with Diamond Oaks Baptist Church several years earlier, Dr. Ramsey had led the Rolling  Hills Baptist Church to relocate in the same area.  After much prayer and deliberation, the church voted in favor of the merger, and Dr. 

Ritchie retired after 29 years in the Pastorate of First Baptist Church.

Johnnie H. Ramsey, Jr. had graduated from Norris’ Bible Baptist Seminary in the 1950’s, and was pastoring a church many believed started as a direct result of the influence of Norris and the First Baptist Church.  Under his leadership the church built a new balcony, added parking lots, and constructed an eighty-foot sign complete with a computerized message center.  The church enjoyed wonderful and continued growth.  In 1984, after over thirty years in the pulpit, Dr. Ramsey announced his retirement from the pastorate.  His son, Bill Ramsey, had served with his father for ten years, and in 1983 the church called him to serve as co-Pastor with his father.  With his father’s retirement, it was his desire for the church to vote on him becoming their pastor.  So, in December of 1984 a unanimous call was extended to another young preacher (Bill was just 26 years old at the time), to become the Pastor of First Baptist Church.  Under his leadership the church started an additional worship service to accommodate the growing congregation and began new adult classes as well.  The church membership grew to over two thousand during this period.

Like those before him, Bill Ramsey led First Baptist Church in another leap of faith.  In 1992, after studying the historical position of the church in relation to the Southern Baptist Convention, and after a careful study of the Baptist Faith and Message, he felt the leadership of the Holy Spirit to lead the church back into full fellowship with the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention.  This controversial proposal was met with stern opposition from some, but with enthusiastic approval from the majority of the church.  One member who had been baptized by Norris said, “What this young Pastor has told you is the truth; it was a sad day when we were kicked out of the Convention.  We wept when we left, but we will rejoice when we return!” Someone remarked, “History is still being made in the old First Baptist Church of Fort Worth!”  This was not an effort to burn bridges with old friends, but an effort to rebuild bridges with those who love the same inerrant Word, and who are endeavoring to reach this lost world for our soon coming King.  The prospects for the future are bright because God is still on the throne, and the church is His divine institution, guided and guarded by Almighty God. 

In 1987, Dr. Ramsey felt God calling First Baptist to embark on the task of ministering to “people who, in the past, would have never entered a church.”  To this end, he continued in the rich tradition of the pastors before him, ministering to a growing congregation and overseeing a number of thriving outreach ministries that reached into the surrounding community of Fort Worth.  After much prayer and consideration, and in view of God’s continuing guidance to reach the un-churched, Dr. Ramsey led First Baptist to start a satellite campus in what is now Southlake in August of 1996.  Starting with services held in Carroll High School, the campus quickly grew, and in February of 1997, after pastoring two campuses for six months, Dr. Ramsey felt God calling him to resign as Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church and devote himself to growing what is now the Metroport Cities Fellowship (The Met Church). 

Following Dr. Ramsey’s departure, a search committee was formed, and began reviewing resumes and praying for God’s guidance in seeking a Shepard for the church.  After reviewing and interviewing several promising candidates, the church called Donald J. Wills, then on staff as Music Minister, to become Senior Pastor.  During his twenty-year tenure, Pastor Wills has taken the mantle of those remarkable men who came before him, and has continued the rich tradition of spreading God’s word and ministering to the surrounding community.  Under his leadership, a new sanctuary was built in 2003 to accommodate congregational growth, with the original building being converted into the present-day educational building.

Wills has guided the church in keeping close ties not only with the surrounding community of Fort Worth, through programs such as the Daily Bread and Food Pantry ministries, but to the world around it as well.  The church has kept close ties with the Southern Baptist Convention of Texas, partnering with their global mission arm as well as other churches in the area, to send missionary teams throughout the world.  Teams have gone to Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, and Tanzania, as well as to help provide disaster relief in Haiti in 2014 after Hurricane Matthew.  

Ministries for all ages continue the legacy of sharing the gospel locally and globally in innovative ways. Through the Children’s Ministry, we use platforms such as Awana, VBS, Good News Club, along with partnerships with individual schools in Birdville ISD. The Student Ministry continues to reach out through Student Camp, DNow, and regular opportunities for missions and service. College and Young Adults seek to minister through sports, such as volleyball, and mid-week Bible Studies. The Legacy Adults use trips to share the gospel along with being actively involved in the community through Senior Centers and Senior Living Communities. We still continue preaching the gospel on Tuesdays 100 years after the Bible Study and fellowship was started by Mrs. Norris to facilitate outreach.