The Shooting Salvationist by David R. Stokes
David R. Stokes and
History and Thriller in One.
THE REVEREND DOCTOR J. FRANK NORRIS was many things in the 1920′s: a pastor who led the nation’s first megachurch, a provocative publisher, and a pioneer broadcaster. With the flair of a great showman, he railed against vice and conspiracies he saw everywhere to a congregation of more than 10,000 at First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
His church served as a venue for a steady stream of politicians and performers, from William Howard Taft to Will Rogers, but Norris himself was by far the biggest attraction. Following the death of William Jennings Bryan, he was poised to become the leading fundamentalist figure in America. This changed, though, in a moment of violence one sweltering Saturday in July when he shot and killed an unarmed man in his church office.
Saturated with vivid detail, The Shooting Salvationist skillfully explores the events leading up to one of the most intriguing — yet largely forgotten — crime stories in America’s history. Set against the backdrop of the post-World-War-I oil boom, when oilmen lit cigars with $1,000 bills in hotel lobbies, and while Prohibition was the law of the land, it leads to a courtroom drama pitting some of the most powerful lawyers of the era against each other with the life of a wildly popular, and equally loathed, religious leader hanging in the balance.
“For all the colorful characters who became part of Fort Worth’s history, surely none surpassed J. Frank Norris, the fiery fundamentalist preacher at Fort Worth’s First Baptist Church in pure outlandishness. . . . In this book David Stokes tell the J. Frank Norris story. If I hadn’t grown up in Fort Worth, I would have thought someone made all this up but no one did. It really happened.” –from the Foreword by Bob Schieffer
Review by H. F. Gibbard: I loved this vintage true-crime account of a Texas Baptist preacher in the 1920s who shot and killed an unarmed man in the preacher’s own study. The story is well-written; it drew me in with nary a dull moment and I could hardly wait to get back to the book when I had to put it down. David R. Stokes has carefully mined the newspaper accounts and other original sources available about the murder and its aftermath. He also did a great job of background research on the shooter (J. Frank Norris)’s childhood and rise to fame.
J. Frank Norris was the kind of intense and driven individual who becomes a leader in whatever field he pursues. In his case, the path to religion was marked out by the guidance of a devout mother and the bad example of an alcoholic father. His early life was characterized by violence, as his father whipped him for destroying his stash of booze. Norris’s sheer guts were revealed in an incident that happened when he was only thirteen: he defended his father against a gunman and the boy was shot three times. The dark Gothic of Norris’s life continued as he entered the ministry and built an enormous church in Fort Worth, Texas. The church soon burned to the ground, and Norris was suspected (but never convicted) of arson.
Like other powerful preachers and politicians, Norris had inner demons that haunted him even as he built his megachurch empire. His moral crusades drew enemies to him who circled him like vultures, including some of Fort Worth’s most powerful politicians. This only reinforced the narcissistic and paranoid aspects of his personality. When a local lumberman threatened him, Norris did not wait for the man to draw first; he shot him three times, claiming self-defense. Norris was put on trial for murder, in a case that captured national media attention. Stokes does a great job of delivering a blow-by-blow account of the trial.