God's Rascal: J. Frank Norris and the Beginnings of Southern Fundamentalism

Overview

Colorful and outrageous, influential yet despicable, J. Frank Norris was a preacher, newspaper publisher, political activist, and all-around subject of controversy. One of the most despised men in traditional Southern Baptist circles, he was also the man most responsible for bringing hard-edged fundamentalism to the South. The life of this religious rapscallion makes 1990s televangelists seem like naughty toddlers. In God's Rascal, Barry Hankins traces Norris, the "Texas Cyclone," from his boyhood in small-town ...
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Overview

Colorful and outrageous, influential yet despicable, J. Frank Norris was a preacher, newspaper publisher, political activist, and all-around subject of controversy. One of the most despised men in traditional Southern Baptist circles, he was also the man most responsible for bringing hard-edged fundamentalism to the South. The life of this religious rapscallion makes 1990s televangelists seem like naughty toddlers. In God's Rascal, Barry Hankins traces Norris, the "Texas Cyclone," from his boyhood in small-town Texas to his death in 1952. Along the way Norris pastored two of the largest churches in America simultaneously, one in Fort Worth and the other in Detroit, together comprising 25,000 members. Among other escapades, he once shot and killed a man in his church office and was accused of burning down his own church for insurance money. Despite such scandals, Norris was a man of considerable public influence who traveled the world, corresponded with congressmen, and attended the inauguration of Herbert Hoover at the president-elect's invitation. Throughout his preaching career he battled anyone and everyone he saw as part of the leftist conspiracy to foist liberalism and immorality on America. His list of evils included evolution, liquor, Catholicism, communism, and organized labor. Hated by moderate Southern Baptist leaders, Norris nevertheless had a larger following than any other American preacher of his time. His thousands of constituents saw him as their spokesman against big government and bigger religion. While recounting Norris's life, Hankins discusses the early history of fundamentalism as well as the social and cultural battles Americans fought during the first half of the twentieth century. This account reveals a remarkable man who helped shape the current American religious landscape while outdoing the likes of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker as "God's rascal."
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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
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" --

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813119854
  • Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
  • Publication date: 8/28/1996
  • Series: Religion and the South Series , #2
  • Pages: 220
  • Product dimensions: 6.33 (w) x 9.36 (h) x 0.89 (d)

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2001

    An Axe to Grind?

    J. Frank Norris was one of the most entertaining and engaging preachers of the 20's and 30's. He had a personality that reflected the brashness of his home state of Texas; he was larger than life to those who knew him. It is unfortunate that Barry Hankins presents such a biased view of Norris in this work. As an assistant professor of history at Baylor University, Hankins feels a need to defend the school that Norris sometimes targeted as a bastion of theological liberalism. Indeed, Norris was a flawed figure. But he does not deserve such a mean-spirited re-telling of his life.

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