The Shooting Salvationist (A Review)

There is a mythology in Baptist fundamentalism that when the movement started out in the early 1900s it was a pure movement with good, godly men who only possessed the best of intentions. We are told by defenders of the “old paths” that it is only in the last few decades that fundamentalism started to inexplicably go horribly wrong. Fundamentalism was so much better off when represented by men like…J. Frank Norris.

In the book The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America, author David R. Stokes gives some insight into the life and legacy of a fundamentalist preacher with a Β name which is still breathed in reverent tones in the halls of fundamentalism. Β But as Stokes records, the legacy of J. Frank Norris was, in short, a holy mess.

J. Frank Norris was the son of an alcoholic father and spent his childhood poor and abused. After surviving being shot three times while attacking a man who was fighting with his father, Norris had a conversion experience and decided to enter the ministry. He went to seminary and within a few years he found himself the pastor of the prestigious First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a meteoric rise that was fueled in no small part by his own personality and love for controversy. As Stokes writes, “to his die-hard followers he was a warrior, prophet, hero, their prophetic voice crying in the wilderness.”

In true fundamentalist fashion, Norris was certainly never one to back down from a fight and if there wasn’t a fight available, he would inevitably start one himself. He was constantly involved in political wrangling, butting heads with local city officials and wielding political influence via the local KKK chapter. In fact, the local Grand Wizard of the KKK was a member of the First Baptist Church. Norris even started a radio station and his own newsletter and routinely preached on local politics in his Sunday messages.

It was after one such episode of accusing the local mayor and city employees of being part of a Catholic conspiracy to ruin the nation that a lumberman named D.E. Chipps who supported the mayor entered the offices of the First Baptist Church to threaten to harm Norris if he didn’t stop spreading accusations. Norris shot him and left him to die on the office floor. What followed next was a trial that captured the attention of the nation as a supposed minister of the Gospel stood accused of gunning down an unarmed man. That trial is meticulously documented for in the last 160 pages of this book and it’s well worth reading for the fascinating human drama it unfolds.

It is impossible to know for sure exactly what happened in the offices of the First Baptist Church that day when Norris decided to pull his gun and fire. But there’s a larger point that leaps from the pages of this book for any student of Baptist fundamentalism and that is that the confrontation which preceded the murder should never have happened. Norris was not confronted for preaching the Gospel, he was threatened for preaching politics and launching personal attacks. He was not suffering for Jesus but rather for John Franklyn Norris.

For those of us who have grown up in fundamentalism some of the themes of this story will be all too clear. The conflation of Jesus with personalities and politics.Β The spinning of scandals from the pulpit. The lionization of a pastor who is surrounded by controversy. Β The fiercely loyal single female secretary who when asked by a reporter why a minister would shoot a man could only repeat “We have faith in the Living God!” and refused to say more. Even the sermons on booze, Southern Baptists, and global Catholic conspiracies will remain eerily familiar.

The best summary of the entire affair was perhaps given by Mr. Toomer editor of the Fort Worth Press who David Stokes quotes as saying:

“[Norris] would be of infinitely greater service to his people if he would forget his continual personal bickering and approach more nearly ‘the mind which is in Christ Jesus’ the example which I am sure it would be any man’s greatest desire to emulate.”

Amen and Amen.

85 thoughts on “The Shooting Salvationist (A Review)”

    1. Sounds like a book well worth reading for fundies and ex-fundies. I don’t recall hearing much about J. Frank Norris much in my circles, but I did notice recently that one of the associate pastors at my old fundy church *Liked* the J. Frank Norris Page on Facebook. It makes me wonder what these people really know and don’t know about this guy.

  1. From Wikipedia: “Norris published a religious newspaper, The Searchlight, the front page of which had a picture of Norris grasping a Bible in one hand and a searchlight in the other while Satan cowered in the opposite lower corner.”

    Definitely a humble MoG, then…

    1. Fundamentalism yes, only the last 100 years or so. Baptists??? No, they’ve been in existence since Adam and Eve. Here’s a quick timeline. God created the world, Adam and Eve fell, God then preached for an hour and seventeen minutes, had an invitation where Just As I Am was sung with every verse being sung twice. God then led Adam and Eve to repeat the Sinner’s Prayerβ„’ and immediately baptized them. It’s all in the Trail of Blood.

      1. With every head bowed and every eye closed….I wonder if Adam and Eve raised their hand when God asked if they knew where they would spend eternity if he struck them dead right that minute?

        1. Nope. Didn’t forget. It’s in the Trail of Blood as well. I just provided the short timeline, but yes, you are right. Eve took the clothing that God made for her, added a slit in her full length skirt and rolled the waist band over and over until she had a mini-skirt. She also tore the sleeves off of her lace and chiffon blouse and left the top 3 buttons unbuttoned too. Fortunately, after her salvation, she was redeemed from that sinful lifestyle and followed in the Baptist traditions that God showed her by sewing various and assorted garments that covered all parts of her several times over and made the Victorian era look like tramps.

  2. Now, I’ll have to get the book.
    I wish I had the talent to do a book on all the Fundie demigods, a book akin to Bulfinch’s Mythology. God may have used even these men to present the Gospel in it’s most fractured fundie fashion to illuminate the mind of some to the true Gospel of Christ. Yet, given my own personal testimony I fear that the IFB will be held to account for a large portion of those in Matthew 7:21-22.

    1. http://jfranknorris.org/

      funny, no mention of him gunning down an unarmed man on this shrine site.

      From Chapter 9 of The Life and Legend of J. Frank Norris
      “With emotional outburst, Norris would pledge his loyalty to Bible truths, the American flag, and liberty, which he vowed Romanism contradicted. He asserted that his views were those of his Puritan forebearers, and that no foreign directed power should control the American way of life.” http://www.jfranknorris.net/books/Chapter_Nine2.pdf

      1. Thanks, but in reality I’m barely a passing blogger. I’m a great idea man, but I rarely see things through. (just ask the missus about her flooring that still isn’t in after 2 decades…)

        I have become a master procrastinator, a sloth, an adept quitter, and the portly poster person for potbellied pachyderms pigging-out on southern fried Pollo and potato salad. πŸ˜• c’est le vie, c’est la guerre…. πŸ™„ πŸ˜€

    1. Uhhm, exactly, they tell you only what they want you to know, half truths or straight up lies and they isolate their sheep from the world so they wont find out the whole story or truths. I vaugly recall this guy in fundy circles and never heard he was a murderer either. To be sure to protect their reputation, you will be told as a last resort, “peaple will spread lies to discredit the manogawd, don’t believe what you hear (outside of these 4 walls)”

      The first time I read of sex scandals of Jack Hyles on the net a few years ago, I didn’t believe it. But it does make you wonder why he had a bullet proof sheild on his pulpit.

      1. “bullet proof shield on his pulpit”

        Ha! Their egos know no bounds!

        My former fundy pastor in Lancaster has a paid body guard who follows him around on Wednesdays and Sundays. We were also told that a lot of the off duty cops are sure to “carry” at church, in case of any trouble.

        Let me relate a story from a friend, who was both a deacon at this cult and a sheriff’s deputy:

        The pastor justified his need for security by stating there had been threats made. When asked by some of the deputies to allow them to investigate and to provide the written proof he allegedly had, the pastor declined to do so.

        He did not need to give no stinkin’ proof – but he did require paid protection. πŸ™„

        1. Hyles had his body guards too, I knew one personally. Looking back, no wonder they needed extra protection. While thinking about it….why does a man “of great faith” need to rely on man for protection? HAC students who are sent to walk the streets of Chicago and Gary Indiana are not afforded extra protection. What a hypocrite, God is good enough to protect us little ones but not ‘oh great one’?

        2. Can they not see that they are going directly against Jesus’ words? Mk. 10:42-45 – Jesus called them together and said, β€œYou know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

        3. PW, for the last time, stop being rational, and for God’s sake stop using the Bible! Fundies are immune to both.

  3. “For those of us who have grown up in Fundamentalism” I heard people like Norris and Roloff quoted a lot and I thought they must have been pillars of the faith. I never knew what else they were and what their reputations were. Of course, as a true fundamentalist, I never did my research on them either.

    1. I hear ya, Escapee. I remember hearing about Roloff and how great he was at reforming rebellious teens and addicts. Now the stuff I hear about him maks him seem like a monster.

        1. I hear ya, like any good fundy who trusts their leaders, but not since I opened my eyes and stopped believing them. Now I treat them all as suspects.

  4. Darrell,
    You do realize that by publishing, what some will see as, an anti-,anti-catholic piece that you will be accused of being pro Catholic don’t you?

    “Conspiritum Theorem Aboundum, Ah-men” πŸ˜‰

    1. “anti-, anti-Catholic” is a double negative which equals a positive. Anyone can clearly see that when one gets too negative they actually are pro said topic. Which explains a whole myriad of issues.

  5. When I first heard about this book, I figured it had to be someone like Jeff Sharlet writing about fundies as a cult. I found it incredibly courageous that it’s written by a pastor of what I think is a what seems to be a conservative non-denom.

  6. Did he cut 2 Timothy 2 out of his Bible? Verses 24-25 say, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” – even Catholics.

    1. He would have had a King James. The translation in there is a little more foggy than the one you posted. “..In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth.” He could have twisted that to mean if they will repent, THEN deal kindly with them… or the more realistic explanation. That being that he only read the part that involves having one wife in Titus and decided the others just weren’t that important.

    2. Funny, wife.

      The Catholic Apologetics stuff I intake contrasts Catholic Apologetics methodology with the more aggressive evangelical/fundamentalist styles, with caution against being quarrelsome. I’m often reminded of the passage you give.

      “We just don’t do it that way.”

      Francis Scheafer didn’t care for mean-spirited apologetics, and I’m surprised the more vocal protestant apologists haven’t adopted FS’s approach.

    1. I’m surprised Central Seminary is even writing about the GARBC. I grew up in the church where Central has its home, Fourth Baptist, and it is DEFinitely fundy. I would expect them to not even acknowledge other kinds of Baptists. πŸ™„

      1. that is explained by the author of the article. Kevin Bauder is the (now former) president of Central – They called Sam Horn (formerly of Northland) as their new president and Kevin has now stepped down from the president role and focus on being a “research professor” Kevin’s background is in the GARBC

        1. Obviously I do not keep up with the goings-on at the seminary or even at the church. ‘Cept I do know that the pastor when I was there, Doug McLachlan, went (back) to Northland after his 2nd stint as Pastor…yep, it went: Pastor of Fourth Baptist, Professor at Northland, Pastor of Fourth Baptist, Professor at Northland. πŸ™„ My, those 2 institutions have a cozy relationship…in the non-network. πŸ˜‰

        2. I should amend the above to say: I do not keep up with ALL the goings-on at that church, as…my parents still attend there, πŸ™ so I will occasionally hear–whether I care to or not πŸ™„ –about their great new(er) pastor, their musicales (there’s something about that word that I just hate 😈 ) and how well-done they were, their women’s group that my mother is a part of, blah blah blah. Should I feel guilty for being anything BUT interested in this stuff? 😈

          I had to go to their website to remember “musicale” (guess I really do hate that term, lol), and I saw that their “tagline” is “A first-century church in a twenty-first century church.” Nothing could be further from the truth. They’re certainly old-fashioned, but they’re certainly not a *first-century church.* πŸ‘Ώ Oh and I like how it says “in,” not…”for.” πŸ™

    2. “The fact is that the same liabilities seem to crop up in all of the previously-mentioned forms of organization. This fact has led some Baptists to insist that no permanent structures should be established for ongoing cooperation between churches and believers.”

      Gee, it couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with the theology or culture in baptist churches, right? It must be that evil organizational structure!

  7. My parents used to listen to a sermon on tape from the funeral of Jack Hyles. One of the preachers screamed “We worship the God of Jack Hyles, J.Frank Norris, John R Rice” and Robert something etc. with lots of “Haymens”. It would always get my dad riled up and excited. After the shpeel on the tape, they busted into song “Fer a long time I traveled”. And that’s how my dad decided our family song for deputation. I never knew who J. Frank Norris was til today.

  8. I thought it was ironic that in BJ Jr.’s memoir, he mentioned that BJ Sr. wouldn’t work with Norris because Norris “turned on every man he worked with.” And yet somehow they still regarded their differences as personal and him as a great man of God.

  9. Someone needs to expand the wikipedia for this fine fellow.

    In it there is an interesting tidbit that he was also aquitted for perjury and arson in the burning of his own church, that old trick,as Rev Lovejoy on the Simpsons said while poring the gasoline in his own church, “I never thought I’d have to do this again.” (Pouring gasoline in the sanctuary in the episode where everyone in Springfield joins a cult.)

    Burn the church down so you can preach against burning churches, eh? Oh wait, he was aquitted, so he must not have done it.

    Also Texas has a castle doctrine that basically says you can shoot anyone on your property, must apply to Pastoral offices too.

    1. Texas does not have a castle law, it has a “stand your ground law”, and it wasn’t enacted until 2007. That being said, in the old days people in Texas just shot each other, and let the jury sort out self defense or not.

        1. Yes, the Halloween shooting you’re thinking of was in Louisiana, not Texas.

          Anyhow, in Texas you aren’t legally allowed to shoot anybody you want on your own property, but Texas juries have often interpreted the doctrine of “self defense” with extreme liberality. Stories of Texans who got away with murder are legion.

          One of my Dallas neighbors was acquitted after he shot dead a homeless man who was scavenging some trash the neighbor had put out by the curb. The man didn’t try to enter my neighbor’s house or anything; he was just rummaging in the pile of trash by the street.
          What bothered me most was that in the trial, the defense attorney argued that the neighborhood was such a hell-hole that the only sensible thing to do is to shoot first and ask questions later. My neighborhood. What with people like me living in it, and all. 😯

  10. It doesn’t surprise me that fundamentalists don’t know about J. Frank Norris. Just like everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes in the real world, in the fundamental world, all preachers will be forgotten either 15 minutes after they’re dead or 15 minutes after they’re caught in a scandal.

  11. At the Fundy U I attended, I do remember one time that this got mentioned. The teacher was talking about him in glowing terms, and one of those annoying think-for-themselves students ( πŸ˜‰ ) raised his hand and asked about the shooting incident (it was the first time I had heard of it). The teacher got a little uncomfortable, suggested that maybe the guy he shot was threatening him and so it was probably self defense, then quickly moved on. The student raised his hand again, but the teacher pointedly ignored him. I was trying not to laugh at how obvious his attempts at a cover-up were.

  12. I read this book when it first came out under the name “Apparent Danger” (which was Norris’ legal defense). Great book-Stokes does a great job of telling the whole story, without being overly biased one way or the other…a must read!

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