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Book Review: Apparent Danger: The Pastor of America’s First Megachurch and the Texas Murder Trial by David Stokes

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"He needed killing." was, as the legend goes, a legal and effective defense in the Deep South for shooting a man.

The "hip pocket move" and the doctrine of "apparent danger," taken together, were the comparable defense in the Wild West Days of Fort Worth, Texas.  Fort Worth, in the roaring twenties, was still considered in many ways to be enjoying the "wild west" ways of days gone by.  It was certainly true of their legal system. To that synergistic mix, add Fort Worth's eleventh commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Mess With J. Frank Norris" and it's easy to see how a local pastor with the national celebrity similar to that enjoyed in later years by Michael Jackson or O.J. Simpson could be found guilty in the court of public opinion and acquitted by a jury of his peers.

An old adage in the newspaper business was "Never let the truth interfere with a good story."  David Stokes, author of Apparent Danger: The Pastor of America's First Megachurch and the Texas Murder Trial of the Decade in the 1920s did not heed that advice, nor did he need to.  Another served his needs even better: "The truth is stranger than fiction."  With over 6,000 pages of notes and 20 years of research, Stokes needed only to assemble the facts and connect the dots.  He did an admirable job and readers will be turning pages from one chapter to the next, often with an irresistible cliff-hanger to lead them on. Stokes also takes advantage of previously written articles, quotes, and notes from private conversations so that little speculation is left as to who said what and when they said it.

Written in a style that seems like fiction and in the voice of an all-knowing narrator, Stokes charms us with the story-telling skills of a Southern Baptist minister. The author's vocation as both a minister and a radio personality begs the comparison with his subject, "It takes one to know one." and he addresses that convincingly by injecting his own opinions about his subject.  He sees Norris as an opportunistic showman who used the pulpit as his vehicle, just the opposite of how Norris's fans viewed him.  

Suppose a stranger, a big and tall man,  stepped into your office with no appointment, threatened you with your life and then walks out as quickly as he entered.  You're settling back into your routine at your desk, when the same man bursts back in, moves quickly towards your desk, and makes a "hip pocket move."  You produce a revolver and shoot him three times.  Is there a better legal recourse than self defense?  

Fort Worth's power elite, the "top dogs of the city" met daily at the opulent Fort Worth Club.  In July 1926, Mayor H.C. Meacham chaired a "closed door off the record" meeting with more than 30 of the club's most influential members. The subject? What could or should they do about the city's J. Frank Norris problem. They felt the out-of-control preacher was doing great harm to their city. Norris would later refer to this as a deep laid conspiracy.  One of the attendees was a big and tall man named D.E. Chipps, who, with Norris, had a mutual appointment with destiny.

A dapper Norris in the Jazz AgeThe first half of Apparent Danger details the history and rise to power of J. Frank Norris and how he not only became the pastor of Fort Worth's First Baptist Church, but how he used newspaper and radio to become nationally known as "the pastor of America's first megachurch."  Norris was an eloquent and persuasive speaker and used his talent to grow the church from several hundred to almost 8,000 loyal fanatics in just a few years.  One source referred to Norris's flock as "Baptists on steroids."  With contacts such as William Jennings Bryan, FDR,  and leading pastors in major cities like New York, J. Frank was building a foundation for himself to become the national leader of the fundamentalist movement at a time when evolution and prohibition dominated the social and political news.  And then, D.E. Chipps walked into Norris office and the remainder of the book deals with the Texas murder trial of the decade.

F. Lee Bailey is credited with saying something like, "After the first trial, the matter of guilt or innocence is no longer important."  For Norris, the first trial was in the media and public opinion.  Meacham hired a team of crack defense lawyers to help with the prosecution.  That's right, help for the district attorney. Can you imagine Bailey, Cochran, et al, helping prosecute O.J. Simpson? Norris's flock, both local and national, pitched in and hired him a dream team of former prosecutors to help with the defense. It gets curiouser and curiouser! Which leads us to the title of the book, the doctrine of "Apparent Danger": "You can believe your life is in danger by reason of actions of an adversary and kill him, only to discover afterward you were laboring under a misapprehension; yet the homicide you have committed is justified in the eyes of the law."

Norris and his idol, William Jennings BryanIt could be argued that reading Apparent Danger is like reading the Holy Bible itself.  You know the main story and the outcome, but the stories along the journey from Genesis to Revelations are irresistible!  So, too, here are the back stories, connections with famous people, and their stories.  The names read like a Jazz Age who's who, from Byron Nelson and Bobby Jones to John Birch, Claire Chennault, Will Rogers, William Randolph Hearst, President Truman, and even Pope Pius XII.  The Missouri Bible College has roots to Norris' career.  On the day Norris died in 1952, one of the new students that started that same day was Jerry Falwell.  You would expect a book like this  to include a section with photos, but you can see several at the book's website.  With well documented information, Stokes entertains, informs, and challenges us with unforgettable truths about man and God and law.

More than 80 years ago, this story captured the attention of the nation. It dominated the news.  Anyone who paid attention to radio or newspapers knew the name J. Frank Norris.  Some thought him a showman hero while others called him a charlatan and a nuisance. No one was neutral.  Why do I recommend this book?  Jimmy Swaggart is still on the air and you need to know on which side of this moral issue you belong.

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About FCEtier

  • Chipps? Chip? Is there a connection there. According to the latest conspiracy theory regarding this case…

  • As a former student and graduate of Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Ft Worth I have known about Dr J.Frank Norris and First Baptist Church of Ft Worth for a long time. That said, in chapter 1 of my book Megachurches and America’s Cities (1983) I gave an overview of “Megachurches of the Past.” Also in Chapter 1 of my next book, The World’s 20 Largest Churches (1984)a list of early megachurches was given. In both books First Baptist Church of Ft Worth was included among the churches. However, it is inaccurate to state that the church was America’s first megachurch – even among non-Catholic churches. Not only were there Catholic churches with more than 10,000 attendance there were more than a dozen non-Catholic U.S. megachurches before First Baptist Church of Ft Worth – both black and white. While it is true that the history of the congregation and its pastor are due more mention that they have received it would not be historically true to identify the church as our nation’s “first megachurch.”

  • Dr. Vaughan:

    First, I want you to know that I am an admirer of your body of work, especially on the subject of large congregations. So I venture a few answers to your thoughts about J. Frank Norris and the use of the description ?America?s First Megachurch? with the deepest respect for your point of view.

    Furthermore, my oldest daughter married a ?Vaughan? and 2 of my soon to be 7 grandchildren bear that surname. So we may be distantly related ☺.

    I have used, in the title of my book ?APPARENT DANGER?The Pastor of America?s First Megachurch and the Texas Murder Trial of the Decade in the 1920s,? the label ?megachurch? correctly, according to my understanding of the term.

    I distinctions between some of the examples you cite and what I see with Norris? church in the 1920s. First, I think there is a difference between a large congregation and the idea of a megachurch. There were, as you have shown with your excellent research on the subject, many large churches in America before Norris? First Baptist (Fort Worth, Texas) rose to prominence?from Plymouth Congregational in the days of Henry Ward Beecher, to Russell Conwell?s congregation in Philadelphia, to several African-American congregations too often overlooked.

    However, Norris? church was the first, in my opinion, to determine via his vision to be a ?megachurch? (and, admittedly, that term dates back maybe to the 1950s) on purpose. In other words, there had been large gatherings of congregants throughout our nation?s history, but I am using ?megachurch? in a broader sense?one that includes numbers, but also design and vision.

    It was Norris? stated purpose to build ?the largest Sunday School in the world.? Beecher, et al, had large followings, but a constant search for methods to draw such crowds was not part and parcel of their ministries.

    Because the idea of a megachurch is, in itself, a ?modern-ism? unique to the last half of the 20th century and our current day, I think the case can be confidently made that Norris was the first such pastor to have as his specific ambition to build what we would now know as a megachurch.

    And as you well know, megachurches are generally envisioned, and to a large part dominated by a key charismatic leader.

    Beyond this, Norris was the first ?megachurch? pastor to tap into the power of the media as do so many of his ancestors today. From radio, to his tabloid, to his wide travels?it is clear that he wanted his church to have an influence beyond its local confines. This is another mark distinguishing the modern megachurch from the various large churches that came before.

    Of course, I use and understand ?megachurch? as a uniquely ?Protestant/Evangelical? concept, so this would preclude Catholic congregations.

    I could, of course, have added the word ?modern? to the title, as in: ??The Pastor of America?s First MODERN Megachurch???but I think that would be a redundancy, seeing as the nomenclature is itself fairly recent. — DRS