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America’s history is punctuated, and at times littered, with the stories of religious leaders of every denomination, stripe and reputation. From Cotton Mather and Charles Wesley to Billy Sunday and D.L. Moody to Oral Roberts and Jerry Falwell, a nation born out of a desire to worship God as we are inclined to do so has given rise to some interesting personalities.
Among the most flamboyant, notorious and controversial of these was “Dr.” J. Frank Norris, Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, Texas. He was, inarguably, one of America’s first “megachurch” pastors, but he was much more than that. He was also a showman, muck-raking journalist, astute businessman and, in the minds of some, a murderer.
Pastor David Stokes,* a man who grew up in fundamentalism and one who was well-acquainted with the reputation of J. Frank Norris, has written a mesmerizing book about the sensational murder trial of the pastor from Fort Worth as he stood to account for the shooting of D. E. Chipps with a pistol from his desk—right in the pastor’s office. The Shooting Salvationist is impeccably researched from the archives of Ft. Worth and Austin, Texas newspapers, Norris’ own Searchlight tabloid and numerous other documents located in the archives of the local libraries, the University of Texas at Arlington and the Arlington Baptist College.
The book is not intended to be a treatise on southern fundamentalism, the gifts of Norris or the history of religion in Texas or elsewhere. Instead, it is clearly a historical work with nary a suggestion that it was being written by a minister—let alone one who can trace his spiritual heritage back to the doorstep of the infamous “Texas Hotel,” located very near Norris’ office. It is a work of history and fact that has the feel and vibe of a John Grisham novel about some sort of trial in a hot and humid southern town.
Every generation or so, Hollywood takes the story of some real or imagined colorful religious icon and makes a movie about it. Works like “Elmer Gantry,” “The Apostle” and “Leap of Faith” are examples. If ever there was a book that was ready to be turned into this generation’s “Elmer Gantry” it is The Shooting Salvationist. In fact, the book reads much like a movie script with a precise coverage of detail that can, at times, be almost mind-dulling. Stokes expertly captured the feel and atmosphere of American life during that era from his examination of the Scopes Monkey Trial to the heydays of Ft. Worth’s rise to prominence to the powerful influence of the tabloid style of journalism then practiced by the likes of William Randolph Hurst and Norris himself.
The story begins with a look at Norris’ fascination with William Jennings Bryan, who was winding down his public career as the lawyer who represented the plaintiff in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. Norris had a yearning for notoriety and attention that flew right past simply having a strong ego or excessive self-confidence. As such, he constantly looked for ways to find the limelight, to attach himself to others who would bring him acclaim and an attitude that gave little thought to representing the softer and more humble attributes of the gospel he thundered from his pulpit. Stokes gives the reader insight into Norris’ childhood and early days, which would later encourage inferences as to why he ended up shooting a man in what appeared to many to be cold blood. The author tracks and traces the meteoric rise of Norris’ career to assume the role as one of Texas’ most influential pulpiteers, as he took on the role of pastor of First Baptist Church of Ft. Worth.
Norris quickly made a name for himself by combining lead articles in his weekly periodical, The Searchlight, with sensationalist sermons that were promoted and then printed in it. He would foreshadow sermon topics and promise scandalous revelations about local politicians and businessmen that he called out by name from his pulpit. Accuracy of speech was not an encumbrance to Norris and innuendo and suggestion were tools he artfully deployed when speaking and writing. As a result, he made myriad enemies with people of influence across Texas.
Ultimately, one of the most pivotal experiences of his life, and the source of the topic for this book, occurred when Norris shot D. E. Chipps after Chipps allegedly threatened him and perhaps even made a move toward him with the intent to do the minister harm. Interestingly, not even twenty-four hours later, Norris was back in his pulpit—soon to face the charge of first degree murder and the possibility of the death penalty. Stokes masterfully reveals different facets of Norris’ complex personality. As the trial unfolds in Arlington—moved there to find a better venue—we see a man who was unrepentant and arrogant, charming and witty, and even at times frail and sickly. Indomitable, he took on the trial process and its tapestry of politics, law and theatrics and made his case through his attorneys. Truly, it was the O. J. Simpson trial of his day.
In the end, though Norris was acquitted, Stokes never quite answers the question of whether or not the flamboyant preacher indeed murdered the oft-drunk Chipps. Certainly, reasonable doubt existed and, at the same time, the specter of plausibility as the facts of the trial and the testimony of the witnesses played out.
Value for fundamentalists
So why is such a book featured in a fundamentalist website in the form of a review? I admit that the book was quite different from what I anticipated. This is a secular book—that does not even covertly defend or explain Norris’ theology. Nor does it give a rolled-eye or an up-turned nose toward Norris’ excesses and arrogance. The author simply lays out precisely what happened and lets the reader draw his own conclusion. The book reads like a crime novel, only it’s true. It is peppered with the earthy, and at times blasphemous, language of the unconverted. It doesn’t hold back on the details of hypocrisy, yet it doesn’t try to portray the story as a microcosm of a bigger movement. This book is simply about J. Frank Norris and his murder trial, nothing more or nothing less.
Yet, for those who might be familiar with Norris and the fundamentalist names of that era ranging from Jones, Rice, Vick, Sunday and others, the book offers fascinating insight into the cradle of modern fundamentalism—particularly of the Southern variety. We see ego and the KKK, cantankerous spirits and pragmatic methodology, raw ambition and yet, a concern for reaching others with the gospel. It’s hard at times to sift through the debris in search of the good elements, but it does help us understand the nature of many who lay claim to the title of “fundamentalism” today. Indeed, many of the same tactics, techniques, manipulation and even mannerisms still exist in some branches today.
At the conclusion of the book, one is left slightly unsatisfied. Unsatisfied that we don’t have a sure conclusion as to the guilt or innocence of the “preacher.” Unsatisfied that we don’t have a lot of additional insight into Norris’ activities, or even accomplishments, after the trial. Unsatisfied with the lack of dogma or conclusions that would allow us to agree or disagree with the author. Obviously, that was his intent.
Norris went on to found a movement of Independent, fundamentalist Baptists. That movement split in the 1950’s and the Baptist Bible Fellowship based in Springfield, Missouri formed. The remaining movement became the World Baptist Fellowship and Arlington Baptist College became their flagship institution. Norris was the pastor and co-pastor of the Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan whose pulpit he shared with G. Beauchamp Vick—the eventual lead pastor and the first president of Baptist Bible College in Springfield. Today, that same church bears little resemblance to its famous pastor of years gone by and is known as Northridge Church, led by Pastor Brad Powell—himself the son-in-law of a firebrand fundamentalist icon—the late Wally Beebe. The roots of many in today’s fundamentalism and evangelicalism can be traced back to one J. Frank Norris, the shooting salvationist.
If you are into history of any sort, curious about the origins of today’s fundamentalism or simply interested in one of the most colorful and controversial characters in American religious history, read this book. It is not a brief tome, but it kept my attention from start to finish.
In an interesting twist of irony, the school founded by one of America’s most flamboyant and controversial religious leaders has just hired another one of America’s most flamboyant and controversial leaders to serve as its provost and vice-president—Ergun Caner. Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.
* David Stokes is a friend and colleague of mine. In addition, I was once active within the Baptist Bible Fellowship and served as the senior pastor of a Baptist Bible Fellowship affiliated church.