J. Frank Norris was a fundamentalist preacher who believed in the literal interpretation of scripture, but he was a little lax on the whole “turn the other cheek” injunction. On July 17, 1926 a man named D.E. Chipps stormed into Norris’s office at the massive First Baptist Church of Fort Worth and threatened to kill the preacher. Norris—one of the most powerful religious figures in America at the time—pulled out a gun and shot him dead.
The killing scandalized Texas and riveted the country as the preacher was put on trial for murder, but the killing of D.E. Chipps was not Norris’s first experience with bloodshed, nor was it his first time to tangle with the law. In some ways, his whole life had led him to that courtroom.
Born in 1877, John Franklyn Norris had grown up in an atmosphere of violence and intense religious faith. The two first merged when he was thirteen years old. His father, a hopeless drunk named Warner Norris, accused a man named John Shaw of being a horse thief and cattle rustler. Enraged, Shaw rode out to the Norris home and shot Warner in front of his family. When Frank attacked the gunman with a knife, Shaw shot him three times. The wounds could have been fatal, but Norris eventually rebounded—aided by the prayers of his pious, longsuffering mother—and he committed his life to the ministry.
From the start, he was a success. After graduating at the top of his class from Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky in 1905, he took the pastor’s job at McKinney Avenue Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. The church had 13 people when he took over. By the time he left, two years later, it had a thousand members. That was just the beginning, though. When he moved to Forth Worth and took over the First Baptist Church, Norris turned the church into the largest Protestant congregation in America.
J. Frank Norris was a megachurch preacher before the term had even been coined.
One thing was for sure, he knew how to get attention. In 1912, he started raising hell about “Hell’s Half Acre,” Fort Worth’s saloon and prostitution center, and he publically accused Mayor Bill Davis of misappropriating funds. When Norris held an outdoor tent revival preaching against the lax enforcement of laws, Davis had the fire department tear the tent down.
Then someone set fire to Norris’s church. Only minimal damage was done, and rumors flew around Fort Worth that Norris had set the fire himself. Less than a month later, his church was burned to the ground on the same night that another fire broke out at Norris’s home. Suspicious, the mayor hired a New York detective agency to investigate the pastor. Norris then produced threatening letters he said he received before the fire. He was indicted for perjury, the theory being that he wrote the letters himself. Shortly afterwards, the city attorney incited Norris for arson for the burning of his church and home. Norris attempted to resign from the church, but the church refused to accept his resignation. On April 25th, Norris was found not guilty of perjury. On January 24, 1914—almost two years after the house and church burnings—he was found not guilty of arson.
By the end of the ordeal, Norris was more popular than ever.
In the 1920s, he burst onto the national scene when he began to crusade against the teaching of evolution in public schools. At the same time, he was the leading crusader against liberalism and modernism in the Southern Baptist Church. He felt that the church had ceded too much ground to scientists and philosophers. The bible, he preached, was the one and only authority.
He labeled the Catholic Church a false authority. Preaching a series of sermons called “Rum and Romanism” he proclaimed Catholicism anti-American and warned against the “conspiracy […] to elect a Catholic president to overthrow the Constitution and control this government.”
Norris’s virulent anti-Catholicism intensified when he got into a quarrel with the city’s new mayor, H.C. Meacham over property taxes and a parcel of land owned by a local Catholic school. Norris charged that the mayor, who was Catholic, was helping the church with public funds and, in the process, lining his own pockets. He protested outside a store owned by the mayor. The mayor responded by firing five store employees who attended Norris’s church.
It was a serious misstep for Meacham. Norris made the mayor’s action public, raging that the Baptists were being religiously persecuted. He also revealed a sex scandal in the mayor’s past, charging that he had had to spend $22,500 “to settle” with a young woman in the community.
The mayor faced a ferocious backlash from the public, and he turned to his friend, local lumber king Dexter Eliot Chipps, to vent his frustration. Furious, D.E. Chipps—a man who could put away the booze and who was known for his quick temper—went to see Norris.
What happened next was widely debated. Norris and Chipps had words. Threats were exchanged. Chipps turned to leave. Then he turned and went back in the room. Did he return to attack Norris or just to issue some more insults? Either way, Norris pulled a .38 out of his desk and shot Chipps three times.
The resulting trial was a national sensation. Norris wasn’t simply a preacher, he was a religious kingpin, a man with a radio show, his own newspaper, and the biggest church in America. Imagine Joel Olsteen gunning someone down in his office. Eventually, though, Norris was acquitted of murder on the grounds that he had shot Chipps in self-defense.
After the killing, Norris continued to prosper. In 1935, he took on the pastorate of a second congregation, Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, while keeping his pastorate of First Baptist Church of Forth Worth, bringing his combined church membership to over 26,000 people. He was a national figure, on good terms with heads of state, and when he visited England in the forties he did so bearing a letter of introduction to Winston Churchill from Secretary of State Cordell Hull (“Dr. J. Frank Norris is one of the great pulpit speakers of this country”). He remained controversial, though. He helped purge modernizing elements in the Southern Baptist church, and he founded a separatist fundamentalist organization called the World Bible Fellowship, which—through various offshoots—would train people like John Birch and Jerry Falwell.
Norris died in 1952, but considering his status as the first megachurch preacher and a founding father of the Christian fundamentalist movement, his legacy has been murky. Today, he remains a largely unknown figure, even among most Christians. He never made the transition into being an elder statesman in the way that someone like Billy Graham did, nor did he leave behind any sermon or book that has become a standard piece of American inspirational literature.
In the end, the controversies surrounding his church burnings, bigoted statements, and the killing of D.E. Chipps have made him a figure many fundamentalists would rather leave in the past. Norris remains a fascinating character, though—and a distinctly American one at that—a man with a bible in one hand and a gun in the other.
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Jake Hinkson is the author of several novels, including the newly-released The Big Ugly.