NiteTalk: Murder in the Church with David R. Stokes

Shooting Salvationist Cropped

They called him "The Fighting Parson" and "The Texas Cyclone." He preached fire and brimstone and End of Days. He didn't cotton to liquor or gambling, and he didn't trust power, unless it was his own. He was Reverend J. Frank Norris. David R. Stokes resurrects The Shooting Salvationist this Wednesday at Books and Books.

Who was J. Frank Norris? J. Frank Norris was the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, the largest Protestant church in America in the 1920s. Still referred to today by some as "the Godfather of Fundamentalism," Norris preached against vice and corruption -- and talked a lot about various "conspiracies" -- from his pulpit.  He built his ministerial career around crusading, conflict, controversy, and sensationalism.

Picture Billy Sunday (or Billy Graham), [mixed with] an ample dose of William Randolph Hearst, a large measure of P.T. Barnum, and maybe more than a little hint of Al Capone. 

Did he have other pulpits besides the megachurch? Yes, Norris was editor of what was then one of the largest religious publications (The Baptist Standard), and he eventually published his own tabloid weekly called The Searchlight, which at one point was regularly read by well over 100,000 people. Norris was also among the very first clergymen in America to understand the potential of radio, and he developed a primitive network where his sermons and exploits were broadcast to vast numbers of listeners. In a very real sense, he was ancestor to "televangelists" to come.

That rabble-rousing must've earned him some enemies, no? Most certainly. The "liquor interests" (as he regularly characterized them) were always antagonized by Norris, [especially] during the early 1920s when Prohibition was the law of the land and Norris saw himself as tasked with exposing offenders. Once, after a prominent "enemy" was killed in an automobile accident, Norris went to the scene and found a broken bottle of booze that contained blood and tissue from the man's brain. Norris took the bottle into the pulpit and preached a graphic message about the evils of drinking. Most notably though was his feud with the "movers and shakers" who hung out at the prestigious Fort Worth Club, including Amon Carter, owner and publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, then the largest daily published in the South.

Which some believe led to murder, correct? That's right. A member of the Fort Worth Club paid a visit on Norris telling the preacher to stop slandering his friends from his pulpit, in his tabloid, and on the radio. Norris refused. They argued. Four gunshots later the man lay dying on the church office floor.

That wasn't the first time Norris was implicated in a crime or involved with gun play, was it? No it wasn't. Back in 1912 Norris's church burned and he was indicted three times, twice for arson, and once for perjury. And when Norris was thirteen he was shot out in the Texas hill country by a man who was attacking his father.  Young Norris nearly died from his wounds, and this turned out to be a formative time for the man he would become.

David R. Stokes resurrects The Shooting Salvationist (Steelforth $27) on Wednesday August 10. 8pm at Books and Books 265 Aragon Avenue Coral Gables. For more information call (305) 442-4408 or log on here.

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