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.