Nov 6 2014 12:00pm

Fire, Brimstone, and a Loaded .38: The Rise and Fall of J. Frank Norris

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.

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Jody Darden
3. jldarden
Religion and crime can make intersting bedfellows...
4. nigel
You just couldn't make up a story like Norris's - people just wouldn't believe it.

Sharon Kaminski
5. casaflamingos
This I think would be a "can't put it down" read.
6. Brianne
What a facinating read this would be. I could imagine myself unable to put it down.
7. Shannon Baas
I would like this.
george ashmore
10. gtashmore
I love historical fiction--will enjoy reading this.
Carolyn Dileo
11. cbdileo
I want this so badly! Thanks for the opportunity!
12. Beatrice P
Sounds like an interesting crime story
lynette thompson
What a great giveaway, sounds like such a good book. Good luck everyone
Russell Moore
16. russrpm
Always looking for a good read. This looks like one.
18. Dawn K
sounds pretty good
Mike zinn
23. Zinn
What a fascinating story. I'm looking forward to reading the book.
Heather Martin
29. CrystalMirror
Shedding light on the foundations of fundalmentialism in America is important. It's interesting to see someone doing it.
Now I know what "duper's delight" means! Can't wait to read the book.
Janice Santillo
31. themommazie
Sounds like a real interesting read. I would love to win!
Anna Mills
32. Anna Mills
This could be the best one you have ever offered! And, perfect for today.
susan beamon
33. susanbeamon
You really can't make this kind of thing up.
Barbara Bibel
34. bbibel
Typical Texas-religious hypocrisy and guns!
36. Denise S
This sounds very interesting.
Michael Carter
40. rubydog
This sounds great!
Yes, please enter me in the sweepstakes.
Thanks --
Andra Dalton
42. andra77
Book blurb sounds very intriguing!!! Can't wait to read!!! Thanks for the opportunity to win & good luck to all who enter!!!:)
Lori Provenzano
44. Mountainesque
It's unsettling that this highfalutin hypocrisy can be so entertaining. This would certainly make a captivating read.
charles j hauser jr
45. admiral
so many great stories in the past that have been totally forgotten but would make great mysteries
Cindy Hipolito
46. mysuccess
Love the storyline of this book. Would love to read it! Thanks for the giveaway.
sue weatherbee
47. dane711
Love these kind of stories, so crazy it has to be true!
Cheryl English
48. RoyalCheryl
What an Amazing read. Thanks for the chance. Now please pick me.
49. rosalba
Sounds very timely
50. Angel W
I love a good book!
Chi Shannon
55. anastasiafall
This sounds intriguing :) I'd love to check it out :)
Chuck Aeschbacher Jr
56. MarkBlemish
cool, was making me think of that preacher turned actor Marjoe Gortner but um, they'er different.
Christine Herrera
57. Hotscorpiogirl17
I would definitely read this straight through on my next day off work.
58. Missie Freeman
I'm always looking for a good book!
59. pegkeohane
missing person, religion, politics, crime?...yes, I could go for this good read
Diane Mason
60. dmason48
This sounds interesting to read true stories.
Rosemary Krejsa
63. grandpa5
The story sounds great. Truth can be stranger than fiction. Case in point.
elizabeth findlay
64. eafindlay
Have never read this type of mystery, but would love to win the book and give it a chance.
Madelyn Quest
65. Madelyn
Preaching the Gospel while breaching the Gospel. Fascinating story about the duality of man.
Carol Gowett
68. clynsg
I had never heard of Frank Norris, and since I live in Oklahoma, I find that interesting.
Jeffrey Tretin
69. jtretin
Thank you for the giveaway. Sounds great.
74. Frank Byrns
The Clancy Brown character in Carnivale had a lot of Frank Norris elements to him, I think....
Sally Winkleblech
76. sallyw
What an interesting person. I would love to win and read his story.
Valeen Nielson
79. Valeen
Ooh, this sounds like a great read! I hope I win this!
Wayne Lecoy
82. hotrodguy
I am entering your giveaway.
It would be great to win a paperback copy of
The Big Ugly by Jake Hinkson.
This sounds like an interesting book.
Thank you for having this giveaway!!!!!!!!!!
85. Tim H. Moss
Good deal, count me in!
Amy Lilly
86. amyelilly
Interesting story. I've never heard of this Norris character. Thanks for the history lesson and the chance to win!
87. Zoe Lee
I would love to read this.
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