Dr. Robert Sumner passed away in December 2016. The Biblical Evangelist newspaper is no longer being published and the ministry of Biblical Evangelism has ceased operation.

The remaining inventory of his books and gospel tracts was transferred to The Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles and may be ordered here.


Review of Apparent Danger - Part 1
Dr. Robert L. Sumner, Editor

A Major Book Review . . .

In Defense of J. Frank Norris

By the Editor

APPARENT DANGER by David Stokes; Bascom Hill Books, Minneapolis, MN; 46 Chapters, 391 Pages; $24.95

This is a strange book. While I requested a review copy and was assured I’d receive one, I never did. In fact, I finally bought my own copy at full price (nearly $30 when the fees were added). I call it a ‘strange book’ because if billed as “historical fiction” I might approve it, but since it is reputedly “factual history,” I have no choice but to criticize it. In fact, condemn it.

Actually, it is beginning to look like one of my callings in life is to defend dead men from slanderous attacks. I defended Harry A. Ironside from the attacks of John L. Bray, R. Stanley Payne and David MacPherson. I went to bat for Harry Rimmer and Richard H. Harvey following the misrepresentations of them by Greg Hartman and Heather Morgan in Focus on the Family. I responded to two vicious attacks on Cyrus I. Scofield, first by Joseph M. Canfield and then by David Lutzweiler.

Now we will step up to the plate on behalf of J. Frank Norris, who fatally shot Dexter Elliot Chipps when he came to the preacher’s office claiming he was going to kill him. Stokes spends most of the book laying the groundwork and by the time he reaches the juicy part of the trial itself – and the book is nearly over – you feel if he isn’t found guilty and sent to the electric chair (as the prosecution was seeking), it would be the greatest miscarriage of justice in the 20th century, even worse than “the walk” of O. J. Simpson. Norris did have a number of “warts,” but our defense is only for the Stokes book.

From the opening chapters it soon becomes very apparent that Parson Stokes was not and is not a fan of the late Parson Norris. The author says he grew up “independent Baptist” but now boasts he is “nondenominational.” Nonetheless, he is an indirect product of a Norris education and training, via the Baptist Bible College of Springfield, Missouri. Born and raised in Taylor (MI), my understanding is that he and his mother attended Temple Baptist in Detroit, where Norris pastored at the same time and in conjunction with his Fort Worth charge in the latter part of his ministry.

One friend assured me his mother was strongly opposed to Norris, and the family had roast preacher for dinner every Sunday. While I want to make clear that such is definitely only an unverified rumor, we mention it simply because if true it would certainly explain the bias in this book. And, boy, does this volume ever have bias!

That Stokes has a deep-seated predisposition against Norris was not only noticed by me, but numerous others. For example, a leading Southern Baptist official told me he found the book badly prejudiced (he said bias was “woven throughout the fabric of the book”) and commented, “I find it strange that today many of us SBC guys seem to have more appreciation for some of the older fundamentalists than some of the independent crowd of today seem to have!” Another unpublished reviewer said this bias disqualifies Stokes to “fairly” write about Norris. Indeed, it does.

Yes, it is strange, isn’t it? But, to be fair, Stokes says he is now “nondenominational,” no longer an independent Baptist.

Early in the book Stokes tries to make an Elmer Gantry connection with Norris. He says, “When Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis was researching and writing Elmer Gantry, his book about a disreputable preacher who was a master of manipulation, he made it a point to go out of his way to visit Fort Worth to catch a glimpse of the preacher in full glory. He had a file filled with newspaper clippings about Norris’ ‘fame for his flamboyant anti-vice crusades.’ It was all, of course, grist for the mill as Lewis developed his latest literary character.”

So Stokes early set up Norris as a ‘model Gantry,’ based on the ungodly, alcoholic Lewis’ research, even though he does not have any proof Lewis used any of it in his novel. In literary circles this is called “guilt by association.” (As to my comment here about Lewis’ personal character, see Cup of Fury by Upton Sinclair, a book that tells the sad stories of a number of noted literary men, including Lewis, whose lives were ruined by liquor.)

But is the Gantry charge fair?

Well, those in Sinclair Lewis’ day didn’t charge him with using Norris as a model, saying instead it was a blend of “several” evangelists of that time. And Rev. C. Everett Wagner, pastor of the West Side Methodist Episcopal Church in NYC, in his review of the book, called it “so exaggerated that it will fail in its purpose.” So if Norris was the model [he wasn’t], it was a highly exaggerated one. (More on this later.)

Stokes went on, “Many felt Reverend Norris to be ‘ambitious, aggressive,’ and completely void of ‘scruples as to methods.’ His numerous critics were sure ‘he loved money, craved power, and was a glutton for notoriety.’ But his loyal followers believed him to be above reproach.” While that may have been true of both sides, it certainly shows a slanted bias by the author to not only quote it in the book, but in the opening, introductory chapter.

In fact, he goes so far as to charge Norris with being a cult personality; you know, like Joseph Smith (Mormon), Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science) and Charles Taze Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses). But as Dr. Homer Ritchie, Norris’ successor, notes, “All great movers and shakers of Christian history were ‘ambitious, aggressive, controversial, etc.’ For instance, Martin Luther, John Wesley, America’s Founding Fathers, the Apostles, and Dr. Martin Luther King could all be described this way!”

Early on Stokes puts down the entire Fundamentalist movement (he calls it “flawed”), seeking to tie them in closely with the infamous Ku Klux Klan. He says, “The close association, for example, between fundamentalists and the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s is a glaring example. Though largely written out of the history of fundamentalism by many who still cling to the mindset and nomenclature ...” A single word comment about this: malarkey!

One biographer of Norris calls this claim “an unmitigated misrepresentation of the facts.” We agree. In the first place, we deny the “close connection.” For most of fundamentalism, it simply was never there. In the second place, some of the greatest names in the history of the Christian church were associated with Fundamentalism in the 1920s, when the Stokes’ scenario took place. Alas, you would never know there was a single good guy in the entire movement, going only by this book.

Stokes desperately wants to tie Norris with KKK membership, and when that fails (as he finally admits) he insists “a lot of people were sure the preacher was,” as if that made it true. He finally settles with charging Fundamentalism as a whole with such an attitude.

While some may or may not have had connections in Norris’ day, the Klan was hardly a united cause for the Fundamentalist movement. We recall, as a boy, watching crosses set by the Klan burn on our city’s West Hill, easily visible from our back porch. But Stokes says most of Norris’ followers were “card-carrying members of the Ku Klux Klan,” something he would have no way of knowing (or proving).

Our friend, Dr. James Combs, who broke with Norris and was a leader in the resultant Baptist Bible Fellowship International, said when he attended First Baptist as a student in Norris’ school, he wasn’t aware of a single Klan member, but that was admittedly later. And Dr. Ritchie, Norris’ successor, wrote about this: “I do not know of any KKK members in Dr. Norris’ church when I was there. Stokes overplays the role of the KKK and uses it as ‘guilt by association’ to discredit Dr. Norris. I do not believe there ever were very many members of the KKK in Dr. Norris’ church. I never heard of it.”

Many fundamentalists, years later, joined the John Birch Society, but it would be wrong to associate the fundamentalist movement with it. And being a Bircher would have been more up Norris’ alley than the Klan.

Was Norris a KKK member? We don’t think so for a minute, although he obviously agreed with the movement’s anti-Catholicism. It bothers me much more that Norris was a Mason and encouraged young preachers to join that lodge (to make good “contacts” in their community), or so Dr. Dallas F. Billington of Akron, Ohio (the first of the three Billingtons to lead that church; the founder and builder to its super status), assured some of us preachers in the First Baptist basement during a Fellowship meeting at Fort Worth – while he was exorcising Dr. John R. Rice for publishing his book, Lodges Examined by the Bible. Billington certainly convinced me he was a Mason, and proud of it. Personally, we have always been against all secret societies, but especially those with vicious and blood-curdling oaths like the Masonic Lodge.

As background for our review we note the Stokes’ claim, “Everything appearing in quotes in this book comes from a newspaper, magazine, court record, archived collection of personal papers, or other published work.”

Alas, what is omitted is important, too, and what he “quotes/doesn’t quote” does not give a fair, unbiased picture of what happened when Norris fatally shot a man who was later found to be unarmed. Believe me, in my long years of reviewing books it is easy to spot a bias and, believe me again, this one definitely has a wicked bias against J. Frank.

While I was in no way ever close to him, I knew him. I heard him preach. I taught and preached at his youth camp at Glen Rose. I spoke at his group’s fellowship meetings numerous times. I knew and talked to his friends. And I knew and talked to his enemies. In that sense I think I am qualified to speak here.

In the back of the book, Stokes gives a listing of his chapters and offers sources, but you must take his word for it. No documentation of the quotes is given ... anywhere! Feel free to try to find his sources and look them up, if you can!

As a case in point, he quotes “one journalist” as saying, “The plain fact is that the people of Fort Worth are afraid of Frank Norris. From newspaper men to merchants and bankers he has them bluffed. They are afraid of him in precisely the same way in which one is afraid of an insane man or one who is violently drunk.” Stokes went on, “The reporter added: ‘There are no tactics they feel, to which he will not stoop, nothing too low or vile, true or untrue, that he will not say about his enemies.’”

My first thought in reading that was, “I’ll bet this ‘journalist’ was a writer in the nickel blue book series.” When I checked the back of the book, sure enough one of the sources for the chapter was “HJM (Haldeman-Julius Monthly (Little Blue Books)).” The Blue Books (starting as People’s Pocket Series) may have invented muckraking – scurrilous, salacious, calumnious, defamatory journalism. We would think a disclaimer would be appropriate when quoting such a source. Although Stokes did have a mild one, “often contained material not always found in popular periodicals,” the reader quickly and easily forgets it.

Yet Stokes lists it as one of his primary sources for the trial itself (he gave eight, all newspapers or magazines). Most honest and fair-minded people would want to know whether they were reading words from a Blue Book or The New York Times of the day, when it was trustworthy. We also found it strange that he did not often quote from the transcripts of the trial itself, certainly more reliable than sensational newspapers/magazines!

Alas, you will see HJM as a major source, listed in many of the chapters. Emanuel Julius, the top dog in the corporation, was a Russian Jew, a member of the Socialist Party, and, even Stokes admits, “an adamant atheist throughout his life.” His wife, Marcet Haldeman, co-editor and “at the pinnacle of her success as a writer” Stokes claims, was sent to Fort Worth to cover the killing and write the story. She titled her report: “J. Frank Norris – Shooting Salvationist.”

So let’s start there, with the author’s bias.

TREMENDOUSLY SLANTED

Where should I begin?

Stokes’ bias is seen in his frequent quoting of the above Marcet Haldeman and her Blue Book. [Incidentally, in the 1940s we purchased what we assume was her account of the trial (we don’t even recall if an author was named; it was just the Blue Book story) and we were so repulsed by the sensationalism and the bias that we pitched it (we now regret not saving it for this review). We certainly never expected a Fundamentalist (or an “ex”) to be using such writing as an authority!]

Yet Stokes refers to her as “one of the most famous journalists of the era.” Note that he safely does not say “reliable,” although that seems implicit in the thought.

Here is a sample of Marcet’s bias, as she judged Norris’ persona in her interview with him: “… I found his self-righteous attitude quite incomprehensible,” then added – and this was before the trial had even started – the shooting of Chipps was “one of the most cold-blooded and unnecessary killings in many a day.” Talking about pronouncing guilt and passing sentence before the evidence had even been presented! That is journalism? Remember, Stokes says she was “one of the most famous journalists of the era.”

But it should be no surprise that he quotes her. The ‘unbiased’ Stokes also depicts Norris as “an unscrupulous minister.” His words.

Is Stokes biased? He described the purpose of a midweek service after the shooting as a time for Norris to inspire his 2,000-plus followers present at the prayer meeting to go out and “sell J. Frank Norris to the masses.”

Is Norris going to preach on Roman Catholicism? Then Stokes describes it, “That evening, another very large crowd gathered at the vacant lot in the 2000 block of Hemphill Street in Fort Worth to hear Norris’ diatribe against the Roman Catholic church.” Diatribe? Does Stokes approve of the teaching of Roman Catholicism? Has he never preached against some of its unscriptural teaching? We have written and published books and articles against its doctrines, but we are not willing to call them diatribes.

Does Norris have 72 new members join First Baptist on a Sunday? Stokes, instead of rejoicing, sees it as “more recruits for his personal army.”

Does Norris publish a paper? Stokes calls it “a tabloid.” That is, indeed, one of the descriptions for a paper with that size and format, but since one of the lesser definitions of tabloid is insulting, we do not call The Biblical Evangelist a tabloid. We could. But we don’t want that connotation for it. Stokes obviously wanted it for Norris’ paper, The Searchlight.

Does Norris accept the call to First Baptist in Fort Worth? Stokes, reading his mind nearly a century later, offers his explanation of it. Was it a spiritual decision? Of course not! According to Stokes, “… eventually he realized that the pastorate of such a church provided structure and security for his family and he accepted the call.”

Not satisfied to let it go at that, he added, “And the money was pretty good. In fact, Norris soon began to draw what was reportedly one of the largest salaries in the nation for a pastor.” Reportedly? This is a book dealing with history?

Compare that put-down of the commercially minded Norris with what my late assistant E. Wayne Wall wrote in his doctoral thesis for the University of South Africa about where Norris first went after graduating from Southern Seminary: “Norris … turned down several fashionable and desirable pulpits to accept the pastorate of the historic McKinney Avenue Baptist Church …” At his first service, he was greeted by a ‘crowd’ of 13 people! After one look, he put his prepared sermon back in his pocket and talked extemporaneously.

Stokes, who knows all and can read people’s minds back a century, explained about Norris’ acceptance of the call, “It was not so much the church itself … It was where the church was that interested him.” By the way, Dr. Wall noted, “… within three years he had built a new building and amassed an attendance of over 1,000.” From 13 to over 1,000 in three years is not half bad, would you say?

If Norris is out of town Stokes says, “… the preacher sent voluminous dispatches back home to the office of the Searchlight in Fort Worth, including colorful and likely exaggerated descriptions of his experiences and exploits …” “Likely exaggerated”? Is this not only mind reading, but bias?

Was Norris found “not guilty” in court in earlier cases, then Stokes hastens to add, “Juries found him not guilty, but the court of public opinion was not so sure.” Dr. Wall, after explaining the Chipps verdict, wrote: “… his enemies had a field day with the tragedy, forever after picturing him as a hateful, gun-totin’, evil man who gunned down an innocent, unarmed man.” Obviously, some are still doing it!

Talking about the size of his radio audience (Norris had his own radio station and network), Stokes said of him, “If he didn’t have a real number, he would just as soon make one up, anyway.” Is that not biased reporting?

Is Norris talking about Catholicism? Then Stokes says, “The preacher yelled …” That description is obviously biased; he wasn’t there. Hey, ‘yelled’ goes good with ‘diatribe.’

Stokes makes much of Norris’ anti-Roman Catholic position early (later on, you’d get the idea he did a 180º and suddenly endorsed Romanism); in fact, Stokes seems to want his readers to believe that all criticism of Catholicism is wrong, but the same opposition is true today by many Fundamentalists. [See my Kennedy for President booklet the late John R. Rice featured, published and promoted. Our press (BEP) also published a strong anti-Catholic teaching book by Samuel Fisk, Letters to Teresa.] While some Roman Catholics are saved in spite of what their church teaches, we consider it a false religion, loaded with untruths, biblically speaking.

In his book, Stokes mentions Norris had an audience with Pope Pius XII at the Vatican, something not unusual for evangelicals to include on Holy Land tours. But in an interview about the book he enlarged on that point, saying, “… he became an ally of the Roman Catholic Church to the extent that in September of 1947, he had an audience with Pope Pius XII in Rome, and got a papal blessing. I think it’s fascinating considering his past. It’s a terrible irony!” The ‘audience’ happened; the ‘became an ally’ did not! In fact, a note of humor about the ‘papal blessing’: when the pope ‘blessed’ him, Norris said, “God bless you, too,” and when he arrived home joked about giving the pope a ‘Norris blessing.’

We, personally, think Norris’ ‘conversion’ regarding Catholicism was due to his hatred of Communism and he discovered a collaborator in the battle. He never, ever endorsed Catholic teaching on biblical matters or promoted Romanism in any way.

When Stokes talks about the Roman Catholic manager of Meacham’s store firing several members of Norris’ church, he writes: “… these weren’t your garden variety Baptists, these were died-in-the-wool, fundamentalist, J. Frank Norris-idolizing Baptists … Baptists on steroids.” Try to tell me that is not biased reporting!

One example of his bias comes closer to blasphemy. Talking about the service where Norris publicly interviewed his six members who had just been fired by the Meacham emporium for refusing to quit First Baptist Church, Stokes says Norris “… offered a long and pious prayer before beginning his attack on the mayor of Fort Worth, O. E. Carr; and now, L. B. Haughey.” We could accept “long,” but to call someone’s prayer “pious” falls into the forbidden judgmental realm of brass, unmitigated hypocrisy.

While this is not bias, we found it strange, when writing about one of the ministers putting down Norris from afar, Stokes said: “In Wilmore, Kansas, a group called the Fundamentalist Association of the World gathered in convention. Speaking to the group, Dr. G. W. Ridoul (Ashbury College), said, ‘a fanatical, denouncing, fire-eating abusive fundamentalist can never advance the cause of truth.’ He added, ‘I think it is not too much for fundamentalists to demand that any man whose hands have blood on them had best be retired from the platform and pulpit.’ Hearing this from a man who was a vice president of an important fundamentalist group, J. Frank had to wonder if this was the beginning of a larger abandonment of him and his cause by the faithful he so very much wanted to lead.”

We have never heard of this organization – nor has Google, other than in Stokes’ book. Perhaps he meant the World Christian Fundamentals Association, an interdenominational organization founded in 1919 by the noted fundamentalist, Dr. William Bell Riley of the First Baptist Church in Minneapolis. But we cannot imagine someone associated with Riley putting down his friend Norris, or someone with a fundamentalist group denouncing another for fighting sin. It is a deep, dark mystery that only Stokes can explain!

WEIRDLY MIRACULOUS

By this we mean what we noted in the Canfield and Lutzweiler books on C. I. Scofield: both authors were able to read the latter’s mind well over a century after the fact! Stokes perceptibly has the same uncanny gift, an ability to tell what Norris was thinking nearly a century previously. It is, beyond any doubt, quite an aptitude and a skill apparently only those writing hatchet jobs are able to achieve.

In fact, one of the notes we made as we read this book was, “In the early chapters Stokes shows an uncanny ability to read Norris’ mind (always to his detriment).”

By way of example, talking about Norris’ ministry, Stokes says, “However, as he moved well into his second decade in Fort Worth it was clear that Norris had charted his course. If he had any desire when he was younger to ‘play by the rules that seemed to be set for public figures, he would now play against those who made the rules.’ He became, for all practical purposes, a purely ‘populist’ preacher with strong tendencies toward demagoguery, and this would be true of him for the rest of his life.”

Here is another ‘miracle.’ Talking about a bombshell Norris’ attorneys were about to introduce in court about Chipps’ background that not even the latter’s wife knew, apparently, Stokes wrote: “But the preacher also had another card up his sleeve. He had hoped and planned to save it for the criminal trial as part of an argument about the dead man’s bad character.” Isn’t it amazing how Stokes knew what Norris “hoped” and “planned” to do with this information? Surely it was a miracle!

When Norris had breakfast in Austin with his attorney, Stokes tells us it was “accented by generous amounts of coffee.” Then Norris went for a walk and, “As he walked at his usual brisk pace, the warm air refreshed him. The feeling of spring in the air betrayed the actual calendar. He heard the sound of clicking lawn mowers and noticed and smelled flowers blooming in the yards as he passed.” How would Stokes know all that? (Really, he wouldn’t; he couldn’t! Yet this is a history book, not a novel.)

When Norris saw a judge in the back of the courtroom who presided over a previous Norris case, Stokes writes, “What was Judge Swayne he doing in the courtroom? Norris wondered. Curiosity?” (exact quote, error in original). Talk about mind reading decades after the fact!

Stokes was even able to tell what the news folks were thinking over eight decades ago: “The reporters wrote down every word, wondering how much of the sound bite was a set piece from one of the preacher’s sermons.”

Again, even though, during the trial, the city of Austin saw the inauguration of the new Texas governor, Dan “the Man” Moody – youngest governor ever, only 33 – and succeeding the infamous Miriam “Ma” Ferguson – Stokes confidently tells his readers, the assembled reporters had “little talk” about it.

Here’s another miracle of insight: Stokes reveals, “J. Frank Norris kept his eye on city hall and the newspapers, waiting for something to emerge that could be represented by him as fishy enough to use in a new attack.”

When discussing a closed door (private) meeting by city leaders about how to silence Norris, he says about Mayor Meacham, “The mayor was using one of Norris’s pet words, ‘menace,’ deliberately.” How would he know? Even if he knew he used the word, how would he know it was “deliberately”? That talk is acceptable for a historical novel, perhaps, but not a book of history.

Stokes could not only read the preacher’s mind 84 years ago, but the trial judge’s mind as well. When it opened, Stokes tells us that when His Honor asked how he pleaded, “Norris, still glaring at the prosecutor, pivoted while nearly shouting in his firm pulpit voice, ‘I am not guilty!’” And Stokes, still using his talent to look into minds over eight decades back, tells us, “The judge, deciding to ignore the preacher’s inappropriately arrogant body language – at least for now – instructed Norris to be seated …”

(To read the remainder of the review, click on "Book reviews" in the left column and choose Part 2)