A pistol-packing preacher stands trial for murder in this absorbing true-crime saga.
The Rev. J. Frank Norris, pastor of Fort Worth’s First Baptist Church, was one of the most famous clergymen of his day, a fire-breathing fundamentalist who—from his pulpit, newspaper and national radio show—railed against drink, Darwin, Catholicism and a slew of local sinners. (He titled one of his sermons: “Should a Prominent Fort Worth Banker Buy Expensive Silk Stockings for Another Man’s Wife?”) Given his combative brand of Christianity and perpetual eagerness for a fight, people weren’t surprised one day in July 1926 when news spread that wealthy lumberman Dexter Chipps had shown up in Norris’ office threatening to kill him, or that Norris had promptly shot Chipps dead. Norris insisted that the deceased had made a menacing “hip-pocket move” as if reaching for a concealed weapon (none was found), and that the preacher had been targeted by a conspiracy that included a shadowy cabal of Catholics and city leaders. (Norris had been feuding with them over his taxes and allegations about the mayor’s womanizing.) Norris’ enemies countered that he had killed out of a cold-blooded orneriness unbecoming a man of the cloth. The author’s rollicking but incisive narrative follows the case from its roots in years-old personal vendettas through its culmination in a media frenzy and courtroom drama that captivated America. In this vivid portrait, Norris is a larger-than-life figure but also a troubling one—a canny, charismatic man who allied himself with the Ku Klux Klan and shaped his followers’ paranoia and unfocused sense of grievance into a rabid personality cult. (Thousands of new members flocked to his church after the killing.) Stokes’ prose is a bit unpolished, but his exhaustively researched account is both a lively read and a window into the seething social and religious antagonisms of the Roaring ’20s.
A fascinating study of a Texas-sized minister and the fraught fundamentalist culture he bestrode.