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Kirkus ReviewsA one-dimensional biography of the firebrand fundamentalist preacher.
Hankins (History/Louisiana Coll.) has done readers a service by bringing some attention to J. Frank Norris, a populist Baptist leader active from the the 1920s to the 1950s and often overlooked in histories of modern fundamentalism and in Southern cultural studies. Norris, who once shot and killed an unarmed man in his office (he won acquittal after claiming that he believed the man, angered by Norris's attacks on local politicians, was about to attack him), and who was almost constantly embroiled in controversy, is a colorful, outsized figure, not rendered here with much depth. Hankins offers virtually no information on Norris's private life, a fault which he attributes to a paucity of private documents such as letters and diaries. Norris's family is reduced to exactly one paragraph in the first chapter; his eldest son reappears briefly when he succeeds his father as pastor of Norris's Fort Worth megachurch. Hankins offers an overview of the preacher's career but gives little insight into his possible motivations. The author is clearly most interested in Norris's extensive political activity. Like many fundamentalists, Norris thought he saw the "anti-Christ" in many modern guises, and he actively campaigned against such evils as Darwinism, modernism, liquor, Roman Catholicism, organized labor, and communism. Norris's tireless political crusades and his combative style won him thousands of followers in two enormous congregations, his own seminary, a radio ministry, and impressive political clout in Texas and Washington. But his controversial and underhanded personal tactics often got him into trouble. He was once accused of setting fire to his own church to collect the insurance money; his influence ensured his acquittal.
This portrayal of the "Texas Cyclone" doesn't convincingly penetrate to the eye of the storm.