By David Stokes, Steerforth Press, 2011
One of my church history professors described fundamentalism as “no fun, too much damn, and no mental.” Such a description surely highlights the attitude of the “fighting fundies,” but ignores the theology behind the movement. In fact, there are two sides to the fundamentalist ideal: attitude and theology. The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America by David Stokes brilliantly highlights the ugliness of the attitude, but its historical agenda doesn’t allow for a treatment of its theology.
Stokes, a pastor of a large non-denominational church in Virginia, supplies a riveting, well written account of one of the most colorful fundamentalists ever. By the middle of 1924, “J. Frank Norris had the largest Protestant church in America, a newspaper that went into more than fifty thousand homes, and a radio station and network that could potentially take his voice to millions.” This Fort Worth Texas pastor carried a big stick, but he definitely didn’t speak softly.
The headline of Norris’s story is that on a Saturday afternoon in July 1926, an unarmed, wealthy lumberman named D. E. Chipps visited the church office. Chipps warned Norris to back off from publically criticizing and humiliating Chipps’ friend and business partner, H. C. Meacham. Norris, who felt threatened by Chipps, reached into his desk drawer, pulled out a pistol, and shot Chipps dead. A large part of the book details the subsequent trial. Spoiler Alert: Norris is found not guilty, based on a self-defense argument.
While the shooting and the subsequent trial are the stars of this book, the supporting material—Norris’s megalomania and the cultural details—almost shine brighter. By all accounts, he was just plain mean. He called the city manager “the missing link.” He lamented great Roman Catholic conspiracies that would turn Forth Worth into a haven for bootleggers and Romanists.
One contemporary journalist described Norris’s influence this way, “The plain fact is that the people of Fort Worth are afraid of Frank Norris. From newspapermen to merchants and bankers he has them bluffed. They are afraid of him in precisely the same way in which one is afraid of an insane man or one who is violently drunk. There are no tactics they feel, to which he will not stoop, nothing too low or vile, true or untrue, that he will not say about his enemies.”
Despite these realities, the public still embraced Norris as a charismatic leader and dynamic public speaker. He was a driving force in fundamentalism, and his fame and communication skills helped grow his church to the extent noted above.
It’s important to remember that Norris shot Chipps only one year after the Scopes trial, the most definitive face-off between modernism and fundamentalism ever. Scopes had been a technical victory for the fundamentalists. In the court of public opinion, however, the fundamentalists lost. William Jennings Bryan publicly fought against evolution and for biblical literalism. Fundamentalists saw him as a prophet; modernists saw him as a quaint, out-of-touch politician. When Bryan died shortly after the Scopes trial, many believed Norris would be the new leader. In fact in Norris’s office, “[a] picture of William Jennings Bryan hung on the wall directly above him.”
The Ku Klux Klan and Prohibition also loom largely in the background. Although Norris was not an official member of the KKK, he frequently spoke at their meetings. The highest ranking Klansman in Fort Worth was an influential leader in Norris’s church. It’s also important to remember that Prohibition had been official law for six years when the shooting took place. One of the defense’s strongest points of strategy was to show how Norris’s victim was frequently under the influence of the evil whiskey. This was not only a slur on his character; it was a charge of blatant lawlessness.
The Shooting Salvationist is a valuable contribution to the history of the American religious culture of the early twenties by revealing the darker side of fundamentalism. It accurately shows how people like Norris embodied a belligerent parasitic attitude that attached itself to a reasoned theological reaction to an unorthodox version of Christianity, one which deprived man of his imago Dei and denied the absolute authority of Scripture. His story clearly reflects how the negative social/reactionary aspects of fundamentalism tend to overshadow its positive theological elements, including confirmation of non-Darwinian humanity (man is the image of God) and affirmation of Scripture (inerrancy).
For Christians today, the book offers a valuable warning as we consider our approach to impacting contemporary culture. The outcome of Norris’s view—culture as a force to fight against rather than a mission field with which to interact—speaks for itself.
Copyright © 2012 Corban University School of Ministry. Originally published in Corban’s e-journal, Dedicated. As long as you include this copyright credit line (and hyperlinks), you may reprint this article in its entirety.