It is the 20th of August 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Oh, man. I don’t know what to do with this guy. Seriously, one of the more shocking stories in the history of the American church.
What if I told you the story of a Klan member, arsonist, who shot and killed a guy but then he became a born-again Christian and a popular minister. That could be a nice redemption story.
But what if this wasn’t a story of “once I was lost, but now am found” but rather the popular Christian pastor was true, at the same time, a friend of the klan, twice charged with arson (two of his churches burned down and he collected the insurance and built bigger churches own the site), who famously shot and killed an unarmed Catholic man at his church? Yeah, wild.
This is the story of J. Frank Norris died on the 20th of August in 1952. I’ll give you the very brief sketch and then perhaps we can think about how we might think about a man such as him.
Born in 1877 in Alabama
Moved to Texas (north of Waco) in his teenage years he had a conversion experience and within a few years was the pastor of an independent Baptist church.
Attended Baylor and then Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
In 1909 he became the pastor at First Baptist Church in Fort Worth where he served until he died on this day in 1952.
In 1935 he was also the pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Detroit Michigan. He flew between Forth Worth and Detroit on Sundays (in 1935!)
His connections to the KKK are worth noting. There have been many iterations of the KKK and in the 1920s the always anti-black and anti-Jewish group went particularly hard after immigrants and Catholics.
The story of Norris shooting and killing an unarmed man had its roots in his Anti-catholicism. The mayor of Fort Worth was a Catholic and Norris would frequently condemn him publicly in his pulpit, newspaper, and radio station. When D.E. Chipps, a local Catholic, went to see Norris about chilling with the vitriol, Norris shot him three times and Chipps died.
Norris was acquitted by a friendly jury on account of the “apparent danger” standard whereby if one put their hand near their hip where there might be a gun you can shoot them. Apparently, even if they are across the room and leaving.
Weeks after his acquittal he came to church brandishing that gun from the pulpit and bragging about his exploits.
That’s the thing: the more outrageous he was, the more popular he became. The 1920s saw the first wave of celebrity and mass communication. “Trials of the Century” abounded throughout the decade and Norris’ murder trial was amongst the largest.
I couldn’t but help draw parallels between Norris and Mark Driscoll. Driscoll, of course, has not shot and killed anyone nor burned his own church down for the insurance money. But I find a parallel with pastors who delight in cruelty, seem unfit for ministry according to the New Testament, grow their churches in spite of it all, and still have apologists trying to defend them.
I have read a few works on Norris and what surprises me the most is the refrain I hear about him, Driscoll, and others. “All that said, Norris was also an outstanding, indeed mesmerizing preacher, who probably won scores of people to Christ.”
We can disagree on some points of theology- but it seems to me that the argument of “but he brought so many people to Jesus!” Is weak. Do you know who brings people to Jesus? Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
And if I might- one of the nice things about Jesus is that he redeems all things. Even scoundrels like J. Frank Norris met his maker on the 20th of August in 1952.
The last word for today comes from John 16:
12 “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now. 13 However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth. He won’t speak on his own, but will say whatever he hears and will proclaim to you what is to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and proclaim it to you. 15 Everything that the Father has is mine. That’s why I said that the Spirit takes what is mine and will proclaim it to you. 16 Soon you won’t be able to see me; soon after that, you will see me.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 20th of August 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by Christoper Gillespie who prefers his tough-guy Norris’ not to serve as a Texas pastor but as a Texas Ranger .
The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who prefers his Norris to be the pet of the old curmudgeon at the school for wizard kids.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.