Book and Movie Reviews

Apparent Danger: The Pastor of America’s First Megachurch and the Texas Murder Trial of the Decade in the 1920s by David Stokes

Apparent Danger: The Pastor of America's First Megachurch and the Texas Murder Trial of the Decade in the 1920s by David Stokes

Apparent Danger: The Pastor of America’s First Megachurch and the Texas Murder Trial of the Decade in the 1920s by David Stokes

Apparent Danger was released free on Kindle last week.  It’s the first book David Stokes published about J. Frank Norris. Stokes wrote another book about Norris called The Shooting Salvationist. It appears to be an expanded and re-written edition of Apparent Danger.  It includes a forward by journalist, Bob Schieffer. That’s the one you’ll get if you click the link to the left.

The story of J. Frank Norris has not been widely told. Fundamentalist preachers would mention his name from the pulpit, but it was up to the rest of us to discover that J. Frank Norris killed a man in cold blood.  Why?  The reasons were spotty although it always came back to a Catholic conspiracy and the fact that J. Frank Norris read a list of names that allegedly connected the city’s leaders to houses of prostitution.  Most of these attacks began after the powers that be came after Norris for back taxes.

Norris actually didn’t start making progress filling the auditorium of First Baptist Church until he turned to sensationalistic preaching.  He attacked gambling, prostitution and allowed his church to be used by the city for everything from concerts to a Will Roger’s appearance.  Because the city used his facilities, he thought he should be tax exempt.  Texas, it seems, was making up the rules as they went along.  Maybe the city shouldn’t have been using churches for public meetings in the first place?  Regardless, he refused to pay his taxes and reacted by revealing the dirty deeds of Fort Worth’s finest citizens.

H.C. Meachem was a department store mogul and mayor of Fort Worth.  J. Frank Norris wrote an article insinuating adultery on the part of Meachem and had his preacher boys distribute Norris’s paper, The Searchlight, inside Meachem’s store.  No fundamentalist would put up with that in his own church!  This is what resulted in Meachem telling his friend, D.E. Chips, that something needed to be done about Norris.

Chips, a businessman known for having a rough temper after drinking, had the bad judgement to use the word ‘kill’ a little too often.  He walks into Norris’s office, has words with him, turns as if to leave, then (according to witnesses) turns back around and storms into the anteroom.  Norris shoots him three times and explains, in court, that Chips could easily have overpowered him since he was bigger.  The gun was the only weapon of defense against this lumbering giant.

I will admit, that given the evidence in this book, a rational person could argue that J. Frank Norris was justified in shooting D.E. Chips and the ‘not guilty’ verdict was the proper one.  However, what makes this book worth reading has little to do with whether Norris is guilty or not, but the fact that Stokes is allowing us to witness the birth of the fundamentalist spin machine.

Norris wrapped himself in the mantle of a persecuted martyr. Blame the Pope!  Yes, Romanism in the form of the Knights of Columbus (Chips and Meachem where members).  Norris had the Ku Klux Klan backing him up and they pretty much spoke for the half the populace of Fort Worth.

The trial put Norris’s Catholic paranoia into hyperdrive!   They came for Martin Luther, John Knox, and now they’re coming for J. Frank Norris!  This insanity could have hurt his defense were it not for good ole’ fashioned prosecutorial exaggeration.  They argued that Norris intentionally shot Chips for publicity!  Well, after he was found ‘not guilty’, he became more popular than ever!  He even accompanied Herbert Hoover on a campaign against Catholic candidate, Al Smith.  This self fulfilling prophecy brought to you by prosecutorial hubris!

Norris eventually died at a youth camp in North Florida.  Stoke ends his book by talking about a skinny teenager named Jerry Falwell who enrolled in a college that was affiliated with Norris.  Falwell has been described as one inheriting the Norris baton.  However, there is another fundamentalist legend that puts Bob Gray (my late former pastor who died before he went on trial for child molestation in 2007) side by side with J. Frank Norris and possibly at his deathbed.  I think this would be interesting to explore, forgetting the fact that I also went to Trinity Youth Camp in Keystone Heights, Florida for years without hearing the name ‘J. Frank Norris’.

The history of American Fundamentalism seems peppered with cover ups and court cases dealing with arson, murder, abuse and child molestation.  Norris was the first who fought the law and won.  His victory gave other fundamentalists the validation to become power bullies in the pulpit and court room.

One of the best things about this book is the entrance of Marcet Haldeman-Julius.  Her husband, Haldeman-Julius, was responsible for a series of pamphlets called ‘Little Blue Books’.  They were to freethought what John R. Rice pamphlets were to fundamentalists.  I got to see a collection of Little Blue Books when I shot and edited the documentary, Queen Silver: Pioneer of Freethought (see below). Queen Silver, along with her mother, Grace Silver, were a mother/daughter duo known for Atheist lectures during the era of Billy Sunday and J. Frank Norris.

Marcet shows up to interview J. Frank Norris after he shot D.E. Chips.  Her book, The Shooting Salvationist (from which Stokes gets the name for second edition) offers a raw look by someone not impressed with the theatrics of J. Frank Norris.  She is a constant figure at the trial, interviewing witnesses and aghast that this man, responsible for choosing which books should not be in the Texas public school system, can also kill a man and, without the first hint of guilt or conscious,  preach a Sunday morning sermon to the nation.

It always seems to be ‘the infidels’ who  catch on to the crimes of the clergy before anyone else. Ultimately, we owe a great salute to freethinkers of the past, and those of the present, who chronicle the misdeeds of religious criminals with reason and clarity.

Two examples of the 'Little Blue Books' from the documentary, Queen Silver: Pioneer of Freethought

Two examples of the ‘Little Blue Books’ from the documentary, Queen Silver: Pioneer of Freethought

Haldeman-Julius/Blue Books mentioned at 47:50 mark of Queen Silver: Pioneer of Freethought.

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