Today we are going to deep dive into the world that Evan belonged to for the first 23 years of his life. A world that many consider bizarre yet harmless. While others, often those who have left this type of environment or similar ones, recognize the lasting impacts of the IFB on local communities and the U.S. as a whole. It should be noted upfront that this is an overview of the Independent Fundamental Baptists and we do not have the time to devote to a full history of the movement. Nor are we the appropriate platform to present such a detailed narrative.
However, we will focus on five figures who have been among the most instrumental in perpetuating the IFB’s hate against queer and marginalized communities. We will also track the trajectory of mounting hate over the last 100 years. From veiled threats against queer people in the name of anti-communism, to the demand today that LGBTQ+ people be put to death. While most churches and organizations have declined in their activism against the queer population, the IFB has only become more aggressive. So now, let us dive into a history of, arguably, the most anti-LGBTQ+ group in America today.
Frank Norris (1920 – 1952)
Our story begins with a man who never picketed a Pride event and never heard the term gay in his life. Yet the movement created by J. Frank Norris paved the way for the IFB today. Some would consider Norris the father of the Independent Fundamental Baptists, he was certainly a founding father of the movement. Born in Alabama in 1877, Frank grew up in the poverty-ridden South, an area still reeling from the failed Reconstruction Era. Like many around them, the Norris family struggled to make ends meet and the hardships were made worse by the fact that Frank’s father was a raging alcoholic. Warner Norris often beat his young son and was even responsible for getting Frank shot at the age of 14. Perhaps it was his desire to find a place of belonging that led him to a Baptist revival meeting in 1890.
For those who don’t know, revival meetings are often 3-7 day long affairs in which pastors and evangelists preach for several hours every night in an attempt to save lost souls (a.k.a anyone who does not follow their brand of faith). Initially, these were informal events that included a person walking to the center of a town and beginning to preach against the wickedness of those living in said town. Whether the preacher had ever actually been to the area before or knew anything about the community did not matter, in this vein of religion all people were wicked and lost. The eras would later be known as the First and Second Great Awakening and first fanned the flames of the modernist – fundamentalist split that began to appear on the horizon of America’s Protestant communities.
In 1891, Charles Augustus Briggs was appointed as Professor of Biblical Theology at the Union Theological Seminary. During his inaugural address, Briggs represented the New School view on the doctrine of Higher Criticism. We will not bore our listeners with a dissection of this theological debate. In essence, Briggs stated that the Bible was not the literal word of God and that the history being taught about the Bible was wrong. The point of literalism is crucial as it directly relates to the way the IFB justifies their treatment of the LGBTQ+ today. The Briggs Affair was the first official rift in the fundamentals desire to split away from mainstream religion. The second rift came over the argument of Evolution and was led by a new fundamentalist celebrity, J. Frank Norris.
After his conversion to the Baptist faith young Norris had gone off to a Seminary and earned his degree in Theology. He then pastored a few small churches before ending up at the congregation he would eventually turn into an early predecessor of the Mega Church. It was at the First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas that J. Frank Norris really began to make a name for himself, but mostly in a bad way. The 32-year-old preacher was arrogant, loud, and uninterested in listening to anyone who didn’t agree with him. He was against just about any form of progressive values of the early 20th century including women’s suffragette, immigration, rights for Black, Indigenous, and Latino people, and an assortment of other stances that policed or denied the rights of others. Norris also had a particular hatred of Catholics and blamed them for everything wrong with America. Catholics were the ‘gays’ of his time as LGBTQ+ people were so discriminated against in the early 1900s that pointing out Norris’s hatred of queer people is a moot point. However, he set in motion today’s fundamentalist movement.
A typical Sunday at First Baptist of Fort Worth was a mixture of part service part circus. He planned elaborate shows with animals, speakers, and huge choirs, followed by hours of Norris’s screeching sermons. The purpose was very clear, J. Frank needed the attention and trapped audience to feed his ego. In some ways, the services resembled T.V. evangelist stars today who perform fake healing ceremonies and throw their crowd into a wild frenzy. When he wasn’t putting on a show, he was either openly berating the sins of individual church members or inciting the rage of his congregation by blasting sins of the community at large. Norris was one of the pioneers of creating a spectacle out of religion and his biggest tools were controversy and hate.
In 1912, the now 35-year-old preacher faced a jury for the first time when he was accused of burning his own church to the ground to collect the insurance and build a bigger auditorium. The fire had conveniently happened just as Norris was feeling the pressure of his empty bank account. FBC of Fort Worth was growing but J. Frank hadn’t truly hit his stride in popularity. In fact, he was cutting off community support left and right and he had started name-calling local officials and airing their dirty laundry in his services. But even with all the circumstantial evidence, there wasn’t enough to convict Norris of the fire and he was acquitted of the arson. Seventeen years later he would again find himself in a bind, again his church and home would conveniently burn to the ground, and again he would be acquitted of all charges.
It was during those 17 years that Norris transformed from a hick, southern preacher to a National sensation. He built the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth Texas into the world’s largest Sunday School, due in large part to the support and funding of Ku Klux Klan members (many suspected Norris himself was a Klan member and he certainly adored the KKK). In addition to his church, the preacher also started the first ‘radio ministry’ in America, launched his own newspaper, and went on trial again – this time for murder. Whether or not J. Frank Norris had killed a man was not a question. There was ample evidence, witnesses to corroborate, and Norris proudly admitted his actions. The question was whether it was self-defense or cold-blooded murder. Dexter Chipps was the victim, a local Catholic, and friend of the mayor who had gone to Norris’s office to confront the preacher about Norris’s constant attacks on Mayor Meacham. However, J. Frank claimed Chipps came to murder him and shot the man in the back as Chipps was leaving the pastors office. The trial was a Nationwide story and attracted journalists and readers from across the country. Yet in the end, Norris was once again acquitted.
As we said, controversy and hate are what made J. Frank Norris so notorious and his methods would be adopted by his most ardent followers such as the men we will cover later in the episode. But the career-defining stance of J. Frank Norris and the issue that birthed the Independent Fundamental Baptist Movement was the subject of Evolution. The term “fundamentalist” was coined in 1920 just as the controversy around Evolution in the U.S. was reaching a fever pitch. Scholars, along with a majority of Christian believers, supported Darwin’s theory and supported it being taught in public schools. This was the group that Charles Briggs had represented when he reproached a literal interpretation of the bible. It was the center of the debate in the Protestant world and those who believed that every word, deed, and timeline in the Bible was literal and true were defined by what they called The 5 Fundamentals. Eventually they broke away from mainstream religion into the new Fundamentalists.
The Bible placed the Earth at 6,000 years old, created in 7 days, and populated by Adam, Eve, and their two sons. Later, after a great flood destroyed every other human on land, Noah, his wife, and 3 sons and their wives all re-populated the Earth and created Black people. The racist myth is borne in the equally homophobic story of Noah’s son Ham getting his father drunk, raping his father, and being cursed with Black skin for his sin of sodomy. This is the story the fundamentalists clung to as absolute truth and continue to believe to this day. And it complimented the deep racism that has always existed in the IFB. It was therefore impossible for them to support Evolution because the theory denounced every part of their creationist beliefs. While many Christians found a way to reconcile their faith with science, fundamentalists chose to reject science altogether and broke away from mainstream Christianity with J. Frank Norris leading the way. In 1923, after being snubbed by the Southern Baptist Convention for the second year in a row, Norris declared himself an Independent Fundamental Baptist and added the Southern Baptists to his long list of enemies.
That same decade the sub-world of the IFB was launched when Bob Jones Sr. started Bob Jones University in 1927. Several years later, Norris and a group of other IFB leaders established the Fundamentalist Baptist Bible Institute (later called Arlington Baptist College). While most other denominations are connected through membership to a convention or fellowship that answers to a governing body, the IFB has always been connected through its education system. As George Marsden wrote in Fundamentalism in American Culture, “Since dispensationalists lacked any clear view of the organized church above the local level, the Bible institutes played a major role in giving them some unity” [2- pg 128] It makes sense that the IFB’s rejection of the public education system would create a void and thus a reason to connect. For the last 100 years, fundamentalists have claimed to be solely independent of one another. And yet they train in each other’s schools and colleges, send their congregants to teach and lead in these schools and colleges, glean all of their information from these institutes, and use the web of connections to cover-up the trails of predators and abusers. They staff their colleges and schools with underpaid or non-paid followers, brainwash their children from birth, and weed out the troublemakers early by sending them to their “homes for troubled teens”.
This was the movement born in the 1920s and it began over the IFB’s refusal to admit the facts placed before them. With leaders like Norris, it is no surprise that this attitude became the standard for the fundamentalist world. Over the next 3 decades, J. Frank’s popularity ebbed and flowed and then steadily declined in the 1940s when he was faced with a libel suit against another IFB pastor. The suit resulted in the only guilty ruling ever made against Norris and he paid a $25,000 fine. But the publicity around the case caused support for Norris to fade. His last public stance was against the IFB’s most feared boogeyman, Communism. A term that in the 1940s and 50s was used interchangeably with the word homosexuality. In the public’s mind, and certainly, in the fundamentalist’s mind, every queer person was a communist and thus the greatest threat to the American way of life. The Kinsey Report was released just 4 years before Norris death, bursting open the boundaries of conversation previously held around public talk of homosexuality. The first open protests by queer people would be held a few years after his death in 1952. Though Norris would have little to do with stifling the growing Queer Revolution, the next man did his best to destroy as many LGBTQ+ young people that he could.
Lester Roloff (1950-1982)
**Before we begin this portion, we want to warn our listeners of talk of extreme acts of violence, torture, and abuse***
Perhaps the most cruel man we will cover in our series is the man responsible for the torture and abuse of queer teens born into fundamentalism. Lester Roloff looked like the poster boy of a 1950’s White Supremacist, a title that suited him just fine. Born in Dawson, Texas in 1914, Lester was just six years old when J. Frank Norris took over the denomination newly named, ‘Fundamentalism’. Yet like most children being raised in the south at the time, Roloff grew up a Southern Baptist and stayed with the denomination for the first half of his life. After graduating from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Roloff pastored a few small churches across Texas. In 1944, following the footsteps of J. Frank Norris, Roloff established his own radio show called The Family Altar. The program was a combination of Roloff’s sermons mixed with spontaneous singing.
Again the ego of a fundamentalist raised its ugly head and Roloff began to make more enemies than friends when he started attacking other pastors and calling everyone who disagreed with him a communist. For a while his radio show, which had been aired in 22 states at the time, was banned from the airways. Blaming everyone else for his exile, Lester split from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1956 and became an Independent Fundamental Baptist. He launched Roloff Evangelistic Enterprise and started touring the country preaching – hosting the revivals that attracted so many to the IFB. Eventually the preacher got his pilot’s license and bought a plane. And over the next decade he drove and flew across the country warning fundamentalists about Communism, Catholics, Evolution, and that growing problem of the Homosexuals.
Just as wave of Queer liberation were really beginning to spread across the nation, Roloff was on a journey to counter act the movement. He established a mission for homeless men and later turned it into a quasi-rehab for alcoholics and addicts. This work inspired Lester to start his first home for troubled teens in 1967. He launched Anchor Home for Boys that year and the following year the Rebekah Home for Girls was established followed by the Bethesda Home for pregnant teens. The term troubled teen was often passed off to mean criminals and dope-fiends (one of Roloffs favorite descriptors). The reality was a far different story.
The extreme abuse of children has always been a hallmark of the IFB even today. In the world of fundamentalism children have no autonomy over their bodies and are taught to submit completely and immediately. Songs and childrens stories about obedience begin the conditioning process during the toddler stage. Violence is the answer to every problem and even the slightest offense of forgetting to answer an elder the response of ‘Yes Sir’ or ‘Yes Ma’am’ will often result in a beating. And parents are not the only ones who administer corporal punishment. In many IFB schools and in Teen Homes, parents sign a waiver allowing the Institute leaders to hit their children as well. And though this process has been on the decline in the last 10-15 years, due to government and community interference, parents are still encouraged to administer violent punishments for the slightest infractions. The man we will cover next week, Jack Hyles, taught his people to begin hitting their children as soon as they could walk. It is also no wonder that those born in the IFB only know how to answer any problem with violence.
This fixation on child submission led many parents to label their child as ‘wayward’ or ‘lost’ simply because the young person was going through puberty or acting like a normal teenager. Countless so-called troubled teens were – and still are – sent to these homes because of depression, anxiety, bad attitudes, or having sex. Fundamentalists are decidedly anti-psychology or psychiatry and believe depression, anxiety, or ADD/ADHD can be cured through beatings, prayer, and Bible reading. There is also a zero tolerance for sex before marriage and most have rules that forbid kissing or even touching another person intimately. More serious offenses included drinking, experimenting with drugs, attempting suicide, getting pregnant, being raped or assaulted, and being queer. Few teens were actually in the homes due to a criminal record or real addiction, though that’s how Roloff billed his homes and that’s how they’re still passed off today.
Roloff was just as much a showman as Norris was and he loved to show off his Rebekah Home Girls. He spun the tale of saving these poor girls from a life of prostitution and addiction. The Texas Monthly, reporting on Roloffs story more than 30 years later, added this quote from the evangelist who loved to tell the crowds he found the girls in, “jail houses, broken homes, hippie hives, and dope dives….walking through the wilderness of sin,”. He would bring the girls on the radio to give their testimony (a term for a story about religious redemption) and even created a quartet out of some of the girls. The Honeybee Quartet would accompany Roloff on his travels, singing in churches, sharing their stories, and making Lester look like a saint. At the end of the services or radio programs the girls also helped in asking for funds to keep the homes open. Fundamentalists obliged by sending their jewelry, wads of cash, and anything of value that could help Lester Roloff in his ministry of salvation.
But while the wool was pulled down hard over the eyes of Roloff’s supporters, local authorities and community activists were quickly alarmed by the things they saw and heard about town. Five years after the Rebekah Home was opened the first allegation of abuse was levied against reformatory. Parents visiting the home witnessed a young girl being whipped and reported the abuse to authorities. When social workers attempted to enter the home Roloff blocked their path and declared separation of church and state! Still, at least 16 former prisoners of the Rebekah Home came forward to give sworn affidavits of Roloffs’ abuse. The stories could rival the most terrifying horror films.
Girls reported that they were brought into the homes and stripped of all possessions and rights. They were told when to get up, when to go to sleep, when to eat, and when to urinate. The slightest act of disobedience or offense would result in physical abuse. Bibles were the only reading material provided and daily memorization of verses was required. Failing to recite their memorizations without error ended in a whipping. Girls were chained to drainage pipes and beaten with leather straps or wooden paddles. One girl testified that a single whipping left inch-high welts all over her body. Another form of torture were the isolation cells where girls were locked for days, denied food, and forced to listen to Roloff’s sermons on loop. One victim remained in lock up for a month, the smell of the room so bad that it leaked out into the hallway.
Despite Roloff’s resistance, the testimony of the survivors was enough to bring him before a court. The fundamentalist arrogantly defended his abuse to the judge infamously stating “Better a pink bottom than a black heart!” to which Attorney General retorted “I’m more concerned with the bottoms that are black, blue, and bloody”. Though he was fined and served a whopping 5 days in jail, the homes remained opened. In the late 1970s Roloff refused to renew his license for the homes claiming the government had no right to oversee his reformatories. He distributed pamphlets that showed a girl strapped to a cross while Roloff stood beside her. He sold his story of martyrdom telling folks “It’s not a sixty-four-year-old preacher that’s being crucified [by state licensing requirements], it’s little boys and girls,”. 
The resistance eventually culminated into what fundamentalists dramatically called The Christian Alamo. When the Texas Supreme Court formally ordered Roloff to obtain licenses in 1979 or face closure, the evangelist balked. He rallied thousands of protesters who made a human barricade along the 557 acre plot of land to stop law enforcement from entering the premises. After a 3 day stalemate Roloff and authorities reached a compromise when Lester agreed to send the girls out of State. Yet the battle was far from truly finished. Though Roloff was temporarily defeated, his movement sparked a wave of troubled teen homes created by IFB members across the country. Some sources have linked more than 30 facilities today to Lester Roloff. If the institutes weren’t directly tied to the leader, they were certainly inspired by him.
As Roloff bid his time, finding ways around the restrictions and activism rising against his homes of horror, he continued his evangelism. Around the time Anita Bryant launched her infamous anti-gay campaign, Roloff delivered his own anti-gay message. He declared homosexuality a sign of the coming apocolypse in his sermon The End-Time Sin of Homosexuality. A long opponent of LGBTQ+ rights, Roloff had dedicated most of his time attempting to cure homosexuality in the youth. He planned to redouble his efforts in the coming years but was cut short. On November 2, 1982 Lester Roloff and 3 women from one of his homes died in a plane crash when Roloff decided to fly during a storm. After his death, several followers took up Roloffs mission and expanded his ministry to the hundreds of homes that have been opened, and often shut down, in the 38 years since his death.
Next week we will continue our coverage of the IFB with the story of J. Frank Norris fanboy and Lester Roloffs good friend, Jack Hyles.Your recommended resources are Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story available on Hulu. And The Shooting Salvationist: J Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America by David Stokes.