A 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.
From the Publisher
"Truth, as the old saying goes, can sometimes be stranger than fiction. In an important way, the book sketches out most of the major characteristics of American fundamentalism during these years while it addresses the details of Norris's personal ministry." Church History"
"Fine exploration of the regionalism of American fundamentalism. An illuminating portrait of the most popular fundamentalist preacher of the early twentieth century." Filson Club Historical Quarterly"
"Norris, a Texan who helped shift the center of fundamentalism from North to South, emerges as a thoroughly human and unapologetically cantankerous figure, a regional leader with national significance." Booklist"
"Fundamentalist leaders have often been colorful but few can match J. Frank Norris.... Hankins expertly weaves together the various threads of the Norris story, in the process filling a major gap in the scholarship of fundamentalism." Choice"
"A clear portrayal of the life and ministry of one of the most colorful Texans of his, or any other, era." Faith & Mission"
"Describes and analyzes Norris's career and outlook commendably." Journal of Church and State"
"Hankins has placed Norris within the context of his time and the movement he endorsed. The study is an accurate portrayal of a man who, more often than not, defies interpretation." Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas"
"Hankins has written an interesting and insightful book on an important fundamentalist leader." North Carolina Historical Review"
"The fact that Norris's role ranged from cantankerous to confrontational to criminal makes this investigation of his life and times simply fascinating. Whether considering his personal or his public life, one faces a remarkable figure. Hankins never pulls his punches." Samuel Hill, professor emeritus, University of Florida"
"A fine starting place for anyone interested in researching the long struggle between fundamentalists and moderates in the Southern Baptist Convention." Southern Historian"