In the 1920s and 1930s, the Rev. J. Frank Norris was one of the most powerful Fundamentalist preachers in America. By the mid-1930s, he was running mega-churches in Fort Worth, Texas, and Detroit as well. He claimed more than 20,000 devout followers. But Norris was hardly a warmly inspirational figure like Billy Graham, who became a powerhouse preacher in the late 1940s. No, the Rev. J. Frank Norris embodied all the worst of ‘20s and ‘30s Southern Fundamentalism, including virulent racism, support for the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Catholicism. Plus, he was a ruthless killer.
On July 17, 1926, Norris was in the midst of a bare-knuckle, hate-filled political dispute in Fort Worth, Texas. The feud was so brutal that one angry local businessman, known as D.E. Chipps to neighbors, came to warn Norris away from unleashing any more political tirades from his pulpit. Chipps was not armed, and the argument seemed to be ending, when “at 4:40 p.m. on July 17, 1926, J. Frank Norris, the leading Fundamentalist in the nation, heir to William Jennings Bryan himself, and with his own portrait of Bryan looking on, fired three shots into the massive frame of Dexter Elliott Chipps. The wounded man staggered and fell to the floor in the rear corner opposite Norris’s desk, blood spilling from his body.” Neither Norris nor his staff approached the wounded man to aid or comfort him. In fact, Norris simply gave up the .38-caliber Smith & Wesson he had just fired and left his office to await the police.
Now, that could be the opening of a terrific episode of Law and Order or CSI, if either series looked back at historical killings. Over the next year, the entire nation followed this shocking case in which the preacher claimed that he was not guilty of murder. That’s why The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America is such a great choice as a gift for someone on your holiday shopping list who can’t seem to get enough of murder mysteries. And, as we pointed out on Monday, that number of Americans is in the millions.
Today, we welcome the author of this new book, David R. Stokes …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH DAVID R. STOKES
ON THE SHOOTING SALVATIONIST AND J. FRANK NORRIS
CRUMM: Readers may be surprised to learn that you are an evangelical pastor yourself with roots in the Fundamentalist movement. Now, you’ve moved more to the middle of the evangelical movement, and of course you’re not part of the hateful bigotry that Norris represented. So, as I understand it, this book is a way of transparently clearing the air about the bad old days.
STOKES: Yes, I am an evangelical pastor and a writer. I was born in Dearborn, Michigan, and my mother was a part of Norris’ church in Detroit. I grew up Baptist and Fundamentalist in my childhood. But my church now in Fairfax, Virginia, is a nondenominational church. I moved away from those ultra-Fundamenalist issues a long, long time ago. I spent years collecting the materials for this book and I also had to travel to archives and libraries to complete the research. Yes, Norris was a very severe, racist pastor with a close relationship to the Ku Klux Klan. I wrote this book because, even though Norris died in 1952, there are still some people out there who remember him and refuse to believe what really happened in 1926 and 1927. I think I owed it to the country to fully research and write this kind of complete book about the case.
CRUMM: We are going to compare this book, for our readers, to an episode of Law and Order. The bulk of your book is a detailed account of the trial. And, just like in some episodes of Law and Order, the killer is not convicted of murder in the end. That’s not a “spoiler,” because the suspense here involves all the twists and turns in this amazing case. It’s true that Norris was a popular preacher, but he gunned down an unarmed man, then left him to die. How could he beat this rap?
STOKES: That’s why this is such a great courtroom story. These were brilliant lawyers. Yes, Norris was popular with many people, but he also was detested by his many enemies who he had attacked around Fort Worth. The hatred of people involved in the prosecution ultimately prompted them to overreach in their strategy to convict Norris. It’s quite a story.
CRUMM: Americans were primed for this front-page story. In 1925, the nation had followed the Scopes evolution trial. Then, shortly after that trial in the summer of 1925, the great William Jennings Bryan died, another big story. In 1926, a famous female evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson, vanished in California. When she returned there was another front-page trial. Then, the Norris trial hit the front pages.
STOKES: That’s right. This was a very exciting era. Think about how—during wartime mobilization, new technologies are developed that wind up being used in peacetime. The same is true with this series of front-page news stories about religion, one after another. Each event perfected systems and developed the press corps that could jump on the next one for readers across the U.S. By the 1930s, when there were more big stories like the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932, the whole system of reporting national news had developed to keep the news coming at a rapid pace.
J. Frank Norris, Sinclair Lewis and the Infamous Elmer Gantry
CRUMM: Most of our readers won’t recall the name of J. Frank Norris, but many of them will remember Elmer Gantry, the famous 1927 novel by Sinclair Lewis that later became a hit movie. You argue that Frank Norris helped to shape Lewis’ character, right? Now, it’s true that Lewis finished his novel before the shooting and it already was at the publisher by the time of the trial. But, there’s a bit of Norris in Elmer Gantry.
STOKES: This is very interesting. In early 1926, Sinclair Lewis was going coast to coast and made a detour to Fort Worth, Texas, just to see Norris in action in his church. Lewis remarked that he had never seen so many people in one church at one time. Lewis collected a file of materials on Norris. Of course, Lewis also was looking at figures like Billy Sunday and other evangelists. But to make a point of traveling out of his way to Norris’ church, I think it’s safe to say that Norris helped to shape Elmer Gantry.
CRUMM: Norris pioneered a lot of what, half a century later, we would refer to as Religious Right activism. He broadcast via radio. He regularly preached about political issues from his pulpit.
STOKES: And, even though air travel in the 1930s was still fairly primitive, he was the country’s first pastor at venues as far away as Texas and Michigan. There are a lot of similarities between Norris and the national reporters who covered him. He commuted like they did.
CRUMM: Will we see a movie version of The Shooting Salvationist?
STOKES: I hope so. He was a sensational figure, a showman among showmen. I hope someone comes forward to make this into a movie.
CRUMM: Well, keep in touch with ReadTheSpirit. We’ll report on future developments. This really is a must-read story about the roots of bare-knuckled religion and politics in America.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.