Meet the Godfather of Fundamentalism, J. Frank Norris

Fairfax, Virginia Baptist Bible Fellowship local church pastor David Stokes grew up as a member of Detroit’s Temple Baptist Church, not twenty years after J. Frank Norris pastored that church at the same time that he pastored First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. In his day, Norris was known as the “Texas Tornado,” and the “Pistol-Packing Parson.” The memory of J. Frank Norris casts a long shadow for those whose lives were touched by his sensationalistic and controversial ministry. It must be as true for those like Stokes who grew up in the decades following Norris’ death, as it is for us down here in Fort Worth, who boast of relatives with stories of personal connections to the famous fundamentalist firebrand. For example, my own mother grew up playing with Norris’ grandson, George. He was my mother’s best friend’s boyfriend. My great-grandmother hosted the visiting preacher at her house, where lively discussions are said to have ensued between Norris and my great-great grandmother, charming them with the admission that “the only person who could ever change his mind was Mrs. Freeman.” Not only that, J. Frank Norris even performed the wedding ceremony for my first wife’s grandparents. For better or worse, J. Frank Norris is one of the more colorful cast members in the dramatic history of Fort Worth, Texas. Featuring his battle with the Southern Baptist Convention over Baylor University’s teaching evolution and his own personal war against corruption in local politics as well as the Prohibition-era liquor trade itself, I’ve always said, even as a one-time devoted follower, that the life story of J. Frank Norris would make a great gangster movie!

It looks like the novel on which that movie could be based has just been written by David Stokes. The book is called Apparent Danger: The Pastor of America’s First Megachurch and the Texas Murder Trial of the Decade in the 1920’s. Just a couple of weeks ago, Stokes held a book signing at Barnes and Noble just a few blocks away from the site of FBCFW during Norris’ ministry. On his Facebook page, Stokes reports that about a hundred people turned out for a book and an autograph, and even an unnamed “very nice” 91 year-old former associate of Norris protested his book by passing out a pamphlet with the title “The Real J. Frank Norris.”

My only regret is that I first heard about the book the day after the signing. But now I have my copy, and I’m currently reading it aloud to my wife so that we might enjoy it together. Enjoying it, we are. I let Bob Hayton of the blog Fundamentally Reformed know about it, and he said he plans to review the book on his blog after he reads it, to which I will dutifully link you when it’s posted. But in the meantime, allow me to whet your appetite for the book with the following trailer. If you’ve never heard of him, or if you’ve always known about him–love him or hate him, you’ll be both shocked and in awe of the story of J. Frank Norris and the trial that failed to sentence Norris to “Sparky,” the state of Texas’ newly acquired electric chair for the death of D.E. Chipps.


9 responses

  1. I am going to buy the book, of course. One of the last appearance J>F> made was in Roanoke, Virginia just before he died, at my father’s church. I was six years old. I went to Bible Baptist Seminary in Arlington Texas. I am sure that we don’t like the truth about those whom we hold up as a god you know. But again its not all about Norris it is about the Lord Jesus Christ.

  2. Amen, Brother Whisnant! I hope it doesn’t disappoint. I also don’t think the author approaches his subject with an axe to grind, just a great story to tell. I know that many folks close to the movement will be hesitant to embrace such a book, so you are to be commended for reading it.

  3. Gage Browning | Reply

    I’m in…knowing some of the history, as my Dad was a graduate of ABC in Arlington, and some of my families current leanings….I’m way intrigued. Can’t wait to get this and read it!

    1. Welcome to the club. Hope you enjoy it.

  4. Now that the book is being picked up by a major publisher. My post spreading the word about grabbing up the copies of the original book will have to stand as my review, unless I find the inkling to post more. Maybe you can continue to post your thoughts on it. (The nearly 50 books beckoning to be read argue for me to take that course with this soon to be no longer available (for now) book.

    1. There’s a good chance I will have further thoughts to post.

  5. […] Meet the Godfather of Fundamentalism, J. Frank Norris June 2010 6 comments 4 […]

  6. […] Fundamentalism, J. Frank Norris, Video. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. « Should 1 John 5:7 Be In The Bible? Jesus Storybook Bible as a bible study material (via […]

  7. should read the latest by jeffery lavoir.

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