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.