Apparent Danger: The Pastor of America’s First Megachurch and the Texas Murder Trial of the Decade in the 1920’s by David R. Stokes.
I get a lot of emails from publicists pitching books that I might want to review here on the blog. Mostly, I don’t respond because a) most of the books just don’t sound that interesting to me, and b) I don’t like being pressured to read a book and write a review on someone else’s time schedule. However, when I received an email about Apparent Danger, I took the bait because I am interested in Texas history, particularly Southern Baptist history in Texas, and the book was about the notorious J. Frank Norris, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth from 1909 until Norris’s death in 1952.
What I knew about Norris before I read the book: He was the pastor of FBC, Fort Worth. He got thrown out of or left the Southern Baptist Convention with his church. He was a real, live “fundamentalist.” He was involved in some kind of scandal or something?
What I learned from the book: J. Frank Norris was much more than just a run-of-the-mill pastor of a large church. He was a celebrity with aspirations to become the religious and political leader of the fundamentalist movement after the death of orator and politician William Jennings Bryan. The “scandal” I vaguely associated with Norris was really more than one scandal, but the biggest one was that he shot and killed an unarmed man in his church office —and was subsequently indicted and tried for first-degree murder. (And we think we have outrageous behavior among the clergy nowadays!) Of course, the book goes into much more detail about Norris, the murder, the trial, Norris’s relationships with Fort Worth’s finest, almost everything you’d ever want to know about Fort Worth and its politics and culture in 1926.
And I ate up every word. The picture that Mr. Stokes paints of this larger-than-life preacher and his strange reaction to criticism and controversy is fascinating. I kept trying to figure out what made J. Frank Norris tick and why so many people were so devoted to him and to his church for so long. That I never completely understood or got answers to those questions was not the fault of the author so much as the subject. Pastor J. Frank Norris didn’t seem to want to be understood so much as feared and followed and obeyed and admired. He was virulently anti-Catholic, associated with the Ku Klux Klan if not a member, and yet he spent a lot of time visiting in the homes of his six thousand church members and and seemed to see himself as a crusader against the evils of alcohol, gambling, and immorality in general. But he didn’t see anything immoral or even questionable about his shooting of Mr. D.E. Chipps in cold blood in the church building on July 17, 1926.
I thought the book, again, was wonderful in its detailed and comprehensive view of the time period and of the particular circumstances of Chipp’s death and the subsequent trial of J. Frank Norris. At the same time I very much wanted to know who Norris was and why he did what he did. Did he really believe what he preached? Was he a charlatan out to make a buck and enjoy his power over the masses? Was he ever sorry for the events of July 17th? What did his children think of him? Or his grandchildren? If he didn’t really believe the Bible, how did he sustain such a ministry for a lifetime? If he did, how did he square his actions with Jesus’s commands to practice peace and humility and lovingkindness? How could a Christian man ever feel justified in killing another human being, even in self-defense? (Oddly enough, George W. Truett, pastor of FBC, Dallas, during the same time that Norris was in Fort Worth, accidentally shot and killed a friend in a hunting accident, and it nearly ended his ministry. Truett was deeply depressed by the accident and only recovered after much prayer and encouragement from his congregation and family.)
I found this article, A Tale of Two Preachers, by author David Stokes linked at his website, and it added some to the story. But still I came away from the book wishing I knew more about this man, Doctor J. Frank Norris. (He received an honorary doctorate from Simmons College, as my alma mater, Hardin-Simmons University, was called back in those days.) How could he continue on for twenty-five more years in the ministry at the same church without ever revealing his heart? Did he have a heart? Did he preach the gospel, or just so much legalistic, racist, anti-Catholic nonsense? Was it all so mixed-up that you couldn’t sort it out? What really sustained Norris, besides Kipling’s poem If, a poem he had posted on his study wall and could quote by heart?
Apparent Danger is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of fundamentalist Christianity, of Fort Worth, of Texas Baptists, or of religion in the 1920’s. It reads like a fresh news story and seems to be well-researched and sourced without having the story itself get bogged down in footnotes and minutia. Recommended history.