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 son’s great-grandparents on his mother’s side. 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 The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America (©2011 Steerforth Press). The only difference is, Stokes’ story is more of a courtroom drama. But that’s alright with me. At 1pm Central time today, Stokes will be interviewed on the local NPR station, 90.1FM KERA on “Think with Krys Boyd.” (you can sign up for the podcast here if you miss it live). Tomorrow night, from 7:00 to 9:00pm Central time, Stokes will hold a book signing at Barnes and Noble in Fort Worth’s Sundance Square just a few blocks away from the site of FBCFW during Norris’ ministry (see my previous post). On his Facebook page, Stokes reports “apparently there will be some “protesters” on Tuesday night when I speak at the Barnes and Noble in Fort Worth — should be interesting.” You can get familiar with one of those potential protesters at The J. Frank Norris Historical Society, started a year ago by a former associate of Norris’, Roy Emerson Falls.
If you’ve never heard of J. Frank Norris, 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 the electric chair for the death of Dexter Elliott Chipps.