Book Review: The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America by David R. Stokes

J. Frank Norris was a man who everyone had an opinion about. You either loved him or hated him, and if you were ever the subject of one of his sermons, you hated him with a passion. Certainly nobody in Fort Worth was neutral about the controversial pastor of First Baptist Fort Worth. Norris lived for the controversy, it seems, and for the attention (and increased attendance) that controversy brought him.

Then, on July 17, 1926, Norris fired three shots into Dexter Chipps, killing the lumber salesman and creating a bigger controversy than he’d been part of before.

David Stokes has certainly done the research on this story. Stokes goes into detail examining events leading up to the shooting, showing the forces in Fort Worth who wanted Norris to go away and those who were willing to defend him no matter what. We get a picture of two men, really; J. Frank Norris, fundamentalist firebrand and heir apparent of William Jennings Bryan, and Fort Worth Mayor H. C. Meacham, who Norris attacked almost as soon as he took office. It could even be argued that the men were two sides of the same coin; both were opportunists who were loathe to waste a chance to harm the other, and both could be quite single-minded in their pursuit of the other. Shortly before Chipps’ murder, in fact, Meacham had fired several of his own employees simply because they were active members of Norris’ church.

It would be easy to write a book slanted to make Norris look evil, to point out the inconsistencies in testimony in the trial and insist that Norris should have been found guilty. It would also be easy to write a book from the opposite perspective, and paint Norris as a persecuted minister who made political enemies with his mixture of fundamentalist theology and populist politics. Stokes does neither of these. While I couldn’t help but feel that Norris really didn’t have to fire a shot (much less the three he fired), there is a balance in the book that I really found refreshing. Nobody is solely to blame, but everyone has a part to play in what happened. Stokes does an outstanding job of showing how multiple situations in Fort Worth, and both Meacham’s and Norris’ own personalities, lead to a tragedy.

I honestly hadn’t read much about J. Frank Norris, in spite of my own church background and theological convictions. I knew he was highly influential, and I knew he had shot someone, but beyond that I really didn’t know much. This book has really shown me something about this fascinating individual, and I’ll probably do some more reading about him. I’d love to read different points of view concerning the murder and the trial, especially. Stokes has done an outstanding job of bringing this tragic event to modern attention; it could even be said to be a cautionary tale for some of our own modern-day “megapastors” (which Norris certainly was, in his day), an example of what can happen when a desire for controversy and political clout goes too far, and makes enemies with too much power.

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