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The Reverend Doctor J. Frank Norris was many things in the 1920's: a pastor who led the nation's first megachurch, a provocative publisher, and a pioneer broadcaster. With the flair of a great showman, he railed against vice and conspiracies he saw everywhere to a congregation of more than 10,000 at First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. His church served as a venue for a steady stream of politicians and performers, from William Howard Taft to Will Rogers, but Norris himself was by far the biggest attraction. Following the death of William Jennings Bryan, he was poised to become the leading fundamentalist figure in America. This changed, though, in a moment of violence one sweltering Saturday in July when he shot and killed an unarmed man in his church office.
Saturated with vivid detail, The Shooting Salvationist skillfully explores the events leading up to one of the most intriguing — yet largely forgotten — crime stories in America's history. Set against the backdrop of the post-World War I oil boom, when oilmen lit cigars with $1,000 bills in hotel lobbies, and while Prohibition was the law of the land, it leads to a courtroom drama pitting some of the most powerful lawyers of the era against each other with the life of a wildly popular, and equally loathed, religious leader hanging in the balance.
"For all the colorful characters who became part of Fort Worth's history, surely none surpassed J. Frank Norris, the fiery fundamentalist preacher at Fort Worth's First Baptist Church in pure outlandishness. . . . In this book David Stokes tell the J. Frank Norris story. If I hadn't grown up in Fort Worth, I would have thought someone made all this up but no one did. It really happened." from the Foreword by Bob Schieffer
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About the Author
David R. Stokes is a minister, author, broadcaster, and columnist. He and his wife Karen have three married daughters and seven grandchildren. They divide their time between homes in Northern Virginia and Florida's Treasure Coast.
About the Foreword Author:
Bob Schieffer grew up in Fort Worth and is the Chief Washington Correspondent for CBS News. He believes Fort Worth is the best place in the whole world.
Read an Excerpt
The Shooting Salvationist
J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America
By David R. Stokes
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2011 David R. Stokes
All rights reserved.
"The Outstanding Fundamentalist of This Country"
HIS HAND FIRMLY fixed on the throttle, veteran engineer Henry L. Miller eased the special Southern Railway train away from the gravel platform surrounding the tiny red-brick rail station at Dayton, Tennessee. It was shortly after nine o'clock in the morning on Wednesday, July 29, 1925.
The train would snake through the hills and towns of a section of rural America on its five-hundred-mile trek. The trip would be interrupted again and again as the train made frequent stops, some scheduled, others by popular demand, en route to its final destination: Washington, DC.
Miller approached his duties that day with a mixture of sadness and pride. He shed tears along the way. His was a tough business, not something for the tenderhearted, but he could not help having to go back again and again to his large handkerchief as he wept. Just as he got his emotions under control the train would slowly pass yet another group of grieving witnesses, and the tears would flow anew.
The famous passenger making his final journey in the last car of the train was the cause of this overwhelming sadness. He was also for Miller an immense source of pride.
Engineer Miller had accompanied the same passenger over these familiar Tennessee rails twenty-nine years earlier, in 1896. Back then his charge was a youthful and charismatic political phenomenon who, at the just barely constitutionally qualifying age of thirty-six, had eloquently and rousingly talked his way to the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. He had a way with words.
The young candidate narrowly lost the election that November. In fact, he would go on to lose two other national elections to Republican rivals: William McKinley and William Howard Taft. But in doing so he would make quite a name for himself, earning the lasting loyalty and deep affection of a vast throng of everyday people across the country. They are the people President Abraham Lincoln was surely referring to when he talked about how "God must love the common man, because he made so many of them." These common people felt that the man with the silver tongue was one of them. And somewhere along the way, the unofficial title of "the Great Commoner" permanently attached itself to populist politician, Christian statesman, and hero of the little guy William Jennings Bryan.
He had been in tiny Dayton to participate in what became a celebrated courtroom drama. It was already being referred to as the trial of the decade; some said, the century. All the fuss was about evolution, specifically the fact that a schoolteacher in the Tennessee town had violated a recently enacted state law forbidding the teaching of "Darwinism." But the trial's scope became much bigger than a handful of pupils in one small classroom. It amounted to a war of ideas and ideals.
On one side, armed with religion and righteousness, were the forces of traditionalism and a young but rising movement sweeping the country, fundamentalism. On the other were the forces of modernity and skepticism. Mr. Bryan was the hero of the fundamentalists. Famed barrister Clarence Darrow represented modernism. It was an epic battle. The two went toe-to-toe for several weeks, captivating the nation. Bryan won the battle on points, gaining a conviction of the schoolteacher, one John T. Scopes, swelling the coffers of the commonwealth by one hundred dollars when the fine was paid. But in the judgment of many, Darrow had all but knocked out Bryan, and the verdict of history was a win for those who preferred to believe that, if there was a God, his actions weren't literally those described in Bryan's Bible.
Now William Jennings Bryan was dead, having passed away in his sleep the previous Sunday afternoon. He fell sick after the trial had suddenly ended, and when he did finally leave town, it was in a coffin in the back of a train.
One man who had watched the trial with great interest, but from afar, was the Reverend Doctor J. Frank Norris, nationally known revivalist preacher and pastor of America's original megachurch, First Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas. He, in fact, had played a crucial role before the Scopes trial by urging and ultimately persuading Bryan to take the case in the first place. He had planned to be there himself but decided against it at the last minute, sending his own stenographer, L.V. Evridge, to take down every word of the trial instead. Now Norris was among the millions of Americans mourning the passing of the nation's premier fundamentalist.
Norris's sadness, however, was tempered by ambition. As Bryan's train meandered through the hills of Tennessee, Norris sat at his cluttered oak rolltop desk in his book-lined church office, directly under the Great Commoner's portrait. Pen in hand, the preacher was putting the final touches on the latest edition of the tabloid newspaper he published every Friday. It was called the Searchlight, and he knew that its more than fifty thousand paid subscribers would be impressed by what they'd see on the front page: a photograph of "Bryan's last letter."
A couple of days earlier, on Monday morning, the day after Bryan's death made national news, Pastor Norris went through his mail and noticed an envelope postmarked "Dayton, Tenn." It had been addressed by hand, and in the upper left corner he instantly recognized the initials: "W.J.B." He quickly grabbed his letter opener and opened the envelope. It was indeed a personal note from the Great Commoner to J. Frank Norris. As he read it, then reread it, he smiled and instantly knew he was holding a journalistic nugget, and a golden opportunity for himself. He showed it around the office, impressing the secretaries. The note said:
My Dear Mr. Norris, Well, we won our case. It woke up the country if I can judge from the letters and telegrams. Am just having my speech (prepared but not delivered) put into pamphlet form. Will send you a copy, I think it is the strongest indictment of evolution I have made. Much obliged to you for your part in getting me in the case. Much obliged to you too for Evridge. He is delightful and very efficient. I wish you would let me correct my part in the trial before you publish it. Sorry you were not there. Yours, Bryan
The note was an undeniable link between a late, great leader and a man who knew he wanted to take up the fallen icon's mantle. Norris had been singing the praises of the Great Commoner for many years. When he'd invited Bryan to speak at his church the year before, that event had drawn a crowd of more than six thousand.
John Franklyn Norris embodied the combative and charismatic elements of fundamentalism. He was strong-willed, aggressive, and fiercely ambitious, and the news of Bryan's death set him on a mission to seize the moment. There were, of course, other men mentioned in the papers in the days following Bryan's death as potential heirs apparent, but no one caught up with Norris once he began to make his move. Within a year nationally known journalists were writing things such as: "Since the death of William Jennings Bryan, the Rev. J. Frank Norris has been the outstanding Fundamentalist of this country."
His church was reputed to be the largest local Protestant congregation in America, a fact even his critics had difficulty discounting. During his sixteen-year pastorate, the First Baptist Church in Fort Worth had grown from a few hundred members (after an initial mass exodus protesting Norris's methods and motives) to more than seven thousand active and aggressive congregants, an unheard-of number for a Baptist church in those days. During his visit to the church, Bryan himself had referred to Norris as a "genius" and was clearly impressed with the facilities and work of First Baptist.
J. Frank Norris was a new kind of clergyman well suited to the Jazz Age. He was at once conservative in his approach to Christian doctrine and culture, yet pioneering in his use of state-of-the-art methods to promote his message and himself. Norris was not to be limited to preaching serene sermons and being on call during times of need and bereavement. He was just as comfortable around boards of trade and in political back rooms as he was in the church pulpit or sanctuary.
Described as a "go-getting, up and coming, fire-eating parson," the Texan boasted regularly about the influence he wielded through his church, radio station, and newspaper. The periodical, in keeping with the rise of tabloid journalism in the 1920s, was largely a vehicle for unbridled self-promotion, as well as a weapon for Norris's celebrated and calculated fights. The circulation of the Searchlight would more than double over the next couple of years.
At forty-seven years of age, J. Frank Norris had a hunger for notoriety and a knack for getting close to important people. He had succeeded in developing a personal and working relationship with Bryan, which he sought to leverage in any way that might help him make a name for himself. Having been for a few years involved in battles against the teaching of evolution in Texas and with the Baptist denomination, Norris told Bryan that the Scopes trial represented "the greatest opportunity ever presented to educate the public, and will accomplish more than ten years campaigning."
J. Frank Norris stood just over six feet tall and was described at the time as "lean, clean shaven, and clear skinned with graying, rather closely cut hair." His forehead was said to be "narrow," and one observer curiously described his nose as "aggressive." But it was his eyes that got to people. They were, according to one interviewer, "the gray blue of an uncut lake." Another observer described them as "messianic," suggesting that he shifted them quickly in a manner that was "penetrating and veiled." He used them to look into others and to conceal part of himself. He moved about with "lithe ease," and he had the presence of someone with a reserve of nervous energy.
There was a sort of eleventh commandment in Fort Worth: "Thou Shalt Not Mess with J. Frank Norris." Known throughout his city, the state of Texas, and increasingly the nation itself as someone difficult to ignore or manage, he was the spiritual ancestor of all culturally crusading clergymen to come thereafter. He perfected sensationalism as an art form, controversy as part of his showmanship.
Norris was the biggest show in town in Fort Worth during the Jazz Age, drawing thousands to his church week after week. There those in the pews would hear him rail against bootleggers in his sermons, "busting fruit jars of illegal moonshine against the side of a galvanized tub." He was even known to fill a washtub with rattlesnakes — anything to make sure crowds would show up. And they came in ever-increasing numbers to witness the latest extravaganza by the clergyman known as the Texas Tornado and Texas Cyclone.
People around the country were hearing and reading about "the largest fundamentalist flock in America, the ten thousand strong congregation of Reverend J. Frank Norris' First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas." One popular periodical in the early 1920s called him "the shrewdest, strongest and most romantically adventurous figure in the movement." His personal tabloid's masthead depicted him shining a large searchlight on the Devil. His national influence had grown exponentially via what was described as his "publicity-rich sideline of revivifying big-city churches with high pressure revival sermons followed by intensive fund raising."
One writer, observing Norris at the time, said the preacher was "high-chinned, hard of face and eye, he seemed to me more like a foreman of a wildcatting crew than a minister of the Gospel."
When Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Sinclair Lewis was researching and writing Elmer Gantry, his book about a disreputable preacher who was a master of manipulation, he made it a point to visit Fort Worth and catch a glimpse of Norris in full glory. He had a file filled with newspaper clippings about Norris's "fame for his flamboyant anti-vice crusades."
J. Frank Norris was a "gaunt and haunted man" who was seen by some as "a hero, a populist prophet of God fighting against corruption." To many others, however, he was merely a hatemonger, not to mention "a blight on Fort Worth and its citizens." If not the most famous, he was certainly the most notorious clergyman in the country, having been in his early days in Fort Worth indicted for the crimes of arson (he was accused of torching his own church) and perjury. Juries found him not guilty, but the court of public opinion was not so sure.
From provocative sermon titles such as "Should a Prominent Fort Worth Banker Buy Expensive Silk Stockings for Another Man's Wife?" to spectacles such as letting a cowboy who was getting baptized bring his horse into the baptismal pool with him and having a monkey dressed in a suit and tie on the platform with him as he railed against evolution, Norris was quite the showman. Years later one historian would describe him as "one of the most controversial figures in the history of Christianity in America."
Many felt the Reverend Norris to be "ambitious, aggressive," and completely void of "scruples as to methods." His numerous critics were sure "he loved money, craved power, and was a glutton for notoriety." But his loyal followers believed him above reproach.
Norris was a dogmatic man, comfortable in his own extremism. One writer would later say: "An account of ultraconservative religion, and perhaps right-wing politics, in this country would be incomplete without a knowledge of his career."
At the midpoint of the Roaring Twenties, the fundamentalist movement, part dogma, part culture, part reaction to culture — and in large measure driven by several key and dynamic personalities — was at its high-water mark as a social phenomenon. Though certainly no fan, in fact a persistent critic of the movement, H.L. Mencken, the caustic journalistic sage of Baltimore, observed its clear influence, writing at the time: "Heave an egg out of a Pullman window, and you will hit a fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today."
The decade known as the Roaring Twenties was a time of prosperity and optimism in America; it was also described as an era of "cultural integration (some said degeneration) produced by the Model T Ford, A&P Grocery Stores, Twentieth Century Fox, and WXYZ's weekly Lone Ranger." And the prevalent cultural zeitgeist made a lot of people uncomfortable. They longed for quieter, simpler times. As a reaction to a swift-paced race toward modernity, many retreated into movements promising the kind of postwar "normalcy" Warren Harding had talked about during the presidential campaign of 1920.
The decade of the 1920s was known for "a mélange of new fads and mores, uncontrolled consumption, and political conservatism." It will be forever associated in historical writing with "flappers, prohibition, bathtub gin, rum running, radio, movies, all manner of crazes (flagpole sitting remains inexplicable), petting, and fundamentalists."
Fundamentalism was a religious and political phenomenon fueled by fierce passion to protect long-held dogmas from erosion. But it was also very much a social reaction to seismic cultural change. Two issues best represented the hopes and fears of fundamentalists: They were hopeful about the success of Prohibition and quite fearful about the teaching of evolution. These were the hot-button social issues of the day.
The Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, prohibiting the manufacturing, sale, and transportation of intoxicating beverages, having been ratified by thirty-six states in 1919, became the functional law of the land in January 1920. This sweeping legal and social mandate was the culmination of decades of temperance movement efforts. It would also create tension and become the backdrop for many of the great political and cultural challenges of the era (the law would be repealed in 1933). Fundamentalists were unapologetic and aggressive in their support of Prohibition.
The issue of evolution was also destined to be the topic of a great national debate in the 1920s. As communities, denominations, colleges, and the population in general wrestled with the implications and applications of what Darwin had articulated decades before, fundamentalists fought on the side of the anti-evolution forces. J. Frank Norris was one of their four-star generals.
Excerpted from The Shooting Salvationist by David R. Stokes. Copyright © 2011 David R. Stokes. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Author's Note ix
Cast of Characters xi
Foreword Bob Schieffer xiii
1 "The Outstanding Fundamentalist of This Country" 5
2 "Charisma and the Capacity to Connect" 13
3 "The Awful Curse That Wrecked His Father's Life" 19
4 "This Fellow Carries a Broad Axe and Not a Pearl Handle Knife" 23
5 "A Deliberate Shift to Sensationalized Sermons" 30
6 "What to Do with Norris" 39
7 "The Southwest Was Ready for the Klan" 146
8 "John the Baptist Was in to Politics" 52
9 "The Largest Protestant Church in America, a Weekly Paper and a Radio Network" 59
10 "Is the City Manager a Czar?" 66
11 "A Deep Laid Conspiracy" 71
12 "The Grand Champions of the Fort Worth Club" 79
13 "The Time Was Ripe for a Full Airing" 82
14 "When the Lid Is Taken Off" 86
15 "Mr. Meacham's Record Is Well Known" 94
16 "If You Do, I'll Kill You" 102
17 "Hello Chief, Let's Go" 109
18 "Extra, Extra, Read All About It!" 113
19 "God Works His Will in Unusual Ways" 117
20 "If You Can Keep Your Head When All About You Are Losing Theirs" 122
21 "All the Symptoms of a Paranoiac" 126
22 "The Shooting Salvationist" 135
23 "The Inevitable Tragedy That Was Forced upon the Pastor" 147
24 "The First Law of All Is the Law of Self-Preservation" 151
25 "No Ordinary Preacher of Brotherly Love" 156
26 "With Malice Aforethought" 163
27 "This War Between Heaven and Hell" 167
28 "The Rulers of the Darkness of This World" 172
29 "A Matchup Between Polar Opposites" 176
30 "Trying to Influence the Course of Justice" 180
31 "Moses Versus Wild Bill" 189
32 "There Is No Opposition to a Graveyard" 196
33 "A Plea Against Hate and Factionalism" 201
34 "A Civil Action" 207
35 "Perhaps I Should Withdraw That Remark" 214
36 "Apparent Danger" 218
37 "There Is Hate Written All Over the State's Case" 225
38 "I Have Killed Me a Man" 229
39 "I'll Come Back" 238
40 "It's a Frame Up!" 248
41 "I Will Kill You!" 253
42 "A Worn, Thumbed Man" 270
43 "Every Wit Is Whetted to Needle Sharpness" 282
44 "The Defense Calls Dr. J. Frank Norris" 287
45 "As a Man Soweth, So Shall He Reap" 301
46 "I Hold in My Hand a Verdict" 316
A Note on Sources 331