Friday, April 30, 2010

Blog Tour: Apparent Danger (Interview & Review)

Fiery and famous are two words used describe the Rev. J. Frank Norris – the pastor of First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, Texas.

In fact, because of Norris’ skills as an orator and organizer eventually led him to build what was considered America’s first mega church during the roaring twenties.

But that fame and fortune – Norris’ wanted to follow in the footsteps of famed orator Williams Jennings Bryant – came crashing down in July 1926 when the controversial pastor shot and killed a local businessman during an altercation in his church study.

The crime, massive media coverage and national trial fill the pages in Apparent Danger: The Pastor of America's First Megachurch and the Texas Murder Trial of the Decade in the 1920s by author David Stokes.

“[Norris’] abilities as an orator and organizer drew thousands into his orbit, but his intemperate and often violent tendencies ensured that he would never be accepted as a mainstream religious leader in America - a role he craved,” Stokes said. “The story of Rev. J. Frank Norris killing Fort Worth, Texas, businessman Dexter Elliot Chipps has interested me for a long time.”

At the time of the murder, Norris’ congregation numbered in the 10,000s. In addition to espousing his views from the pulpit, Norris also controlled several publishing outlets, as well as some of the first broadcasting sources.

Stokes first learned about Norris’s ministry and murder case in the early 1970s. Stokes eventually discovered that Norris served as his mother’s pastor for a time during her childhood.

After his initial exposure to the Norris story, Stokes began gathering information about the pastor, related to both is ministry and the crime.

“One day I noticed that I had gathered a substantial amount of poorly organized stuff,” Stokes said. “Eventually indexing more than 6,000 pages of newspaper articles, court records and notes from other published works, this story began to take shape in my mind - then on paper.”

In addition to newspaper and periodical reports, Stokes’ research relied on trial transcripts and court records. He also made several trips to Fort Worth – stopping at the Central Branch public library, located on West Third Street, approximately one block from where the central events of the story took place.

Stokes said he was amazed at how much he had to “leave on the cutting room floor” as he wove Norris’ story into a book.

“The late, great Jazz trumpet player, Miles Davis, used to say about his music: ‘I am always looking for notes to leave out.’” Stokes said. “Writing a book is, I think, a lot like that. I have written columns and articles for years—usually 1,500-3,000 words, so a 135,000 word project was quite different.”

Ultimately, Stokes said, he has several goals for his book.

First, he hopes readers find a “page-turner” in a book filled with a “preponderance” of detail.

Second, he said, he hopes people read Apparent Danger as a cautionary tale about the “cult of personality,” which follows people deemed “celebrities” throughout the United States.

“I do think Norris crossed a line into politics, one that I, as a pastor who is very engaged as a private citizen in speaking out on issues, must be vigilant to avoid,” Stokes said, adding that his wife, three daughters and soon to be seven grandchildren help keep him centered.

What’s Ahead for Stokes
Stokes said he is always delving into historical niches for possible stories to tell. He is currently working on a book based upon the early political career of Richard Nixon, “another flawed, but fascinating character.”

What I Thought Of The Book
I love history and am always intrigued by true crime stories. When the chance to review this book came about, I jumped at it, because it combines history, crime and is set in the local church.

The thought that a pastor shot someone - in his own office - totally blew me away. My friends in Texas joke that they do things "big" in Texas, so why wouldn't the first "mega" church be set in Texas.

At 365 pages, Stokes' book is filled with a variety of details, facts and other things related to Norris' career and trial. At times things got a bit "bogged" down in the depth of the details, but in general this was great book and it kept my interest.

My only complaint - I'm not thrilled with how Stokes documented his sources in the back of his book. Rather than providing footnotes - documenting which quote or fact came from which source, specifically, he chose to simply summarize the sources used in each chapter.

He said he chose to document his facts this way, for the sake of narrative flow. So, in that case, I understand his method. However, several times I found myself wanting to "double check" a quote or two by tracking down the original source. With Stokes' method of documentation, it will be difficult, if not impossible to confirm the sources.

But with that aside, the story is interesting, it keeps your attention and you'll be surprised at times at how faith and social action play out, not in present-day America, but in Fort Worth, Texas in the 1920s.

More about Stokes

A minister for more than 32 years, David Stokes has served as Senior Pastor of Fair Oaks Church in Fairfax, Va., since August 1998.  Prior to this, he led congregations in New York, Illinois, Ohio and Texas.

His interest in the story told in Apparent Danger: A Minister, A Mega-Church, and the Texas Murder Trial of the Decade in the 1920s goes back many years.  Since the early 1990s, he has been collecting material for a book about the J. Frank Norris murder trial of 1927.

His personal files now contain more than 6,000 pages of documents, newspaper and magazine articles, and trial transcripts related to the story.  David’s personal library of more than 6,000 volumes contains hundreds of books about the 1920s, as well.

Stokes is a talented communicator.  His weekly talks are broadcast around the world via the Internet at

Along with his early ministry education in theology and divinity, Stokes holds degrees in history and political science.

He has been married to his wife Karen for more than 33 years. The Stokes have three married daughters and six grandchildren, and divide their time between homes in Northern Virginia and Florida’s Treasure Coast.

You can read more about Stokes at:

Online Resources
Purchase at Amazon

Note: As a freelance journalist, I was provided a copy of this book by Kathy Carlton Willis Communications. This review was not influenced by a free book - just in case you (or the FTC) were worried about this detail.

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