God’s Rascal: J. Frank Norris and the Beginnings of Southern Fundamentalism, by Barry Hankins. Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky, 1996.
Few pulpiteers of the modem era have created more furor during their lives or after their deaths than the vocal and acerbic J. Frank Norris. A number of popular biographical accounts and evaluative dissertations about Norris have appeared since his death in 1952. But until Barry Hankins, Associate Director of Church-State Studies and Assistant Professor of History at Baylor University, wrote this recent account of Norris under the appropriate title God’s Rascal, no real effort had been made to present to the public a “historically detached” biography of this remarkable man. Neither does Hankins succeed altogether in adequately distancing himself from his subject, but he obviously makes the effort, and for that should be commended.
The result is a biography in which the author attempts to portray Norris as a victim of his early years of abuse from his alcoholic father. Hankins is also faithful to give Norris due recognition for those positions Norris took which were commendable, such as his concern for the poor and the homeless and his rejection of the anti-Semitism in such fabricated documents as the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Furthermore, Hankins offers no judgments of his own regarding the actual guilt or innocence of the man in Norris’ gunning down of D. E. Chipps or the strange cases of the destruction of Norris’ home and of First Baptist Church of Fort Worth by fire. He probably has some suspicions; but if so, they are at least skillfully harbored. More amazing for those essentially unfavorable to Norris, Hankins limits judgments about Norris’ motives to those which even his friends would often admit.
What is present in this biography is a clear portrayal of the life and ministry of one of the most colorful Texans of his, or any other, era. Norris appears as egotistical and humble, brutal and compassionate, thoughtful and flippant, surly and loving, selfish and magnanimous, wrong and right. This biography not only places Norris in the context of the social, political, and religious currents of his day but also evenhandedly evaluates Norris’ considerable contributions to each of these while avoiding the temptations of promoters and detractors to either overestimate or underestimate the extent of these contributions.
Documentation is extensive though not cumbersome. Usually I prefer footnotes to endnotes, but in this volume the endnotes seem preferable. The index is adequate, and the volume is really rather thorough, considering its succinct 176 pages of discussion. The disappointing aspect of Hankins’ analysis is that he cannot seem to assess Norris without reference to the controversy of the past two decades in Southern Baptist life. He knows and acknowledges that current conservative leadership has never added Norris to its pantheon of heroes or even attempted to defend him at any point, but Hankins suggests that this is because no movement could acknowledge a rabble-rouser like Norris as its father. The implication is clear—contemporary conservatives are essentially Norrisites who have acquired table manners but not much integrity, since they fail to acknowledge their debt to Norris.
This is fascinating when one pauses to consider that Hankins disproves his own thesis. Hankins depicts Norris as weak on the racial issue, boasting that his seminary taught neither Greek nor Hebrew, vacillating in many of his own views, given to violence, unreliable with his friends, and personal in the attacks in which he also misrepresented the views of his opponents. This is just to name a few points of difference between Norris and contemporary conservatives. In fact, the only evidence of any connection between Norris and the conservative movement of the last twenty years offered by Hankins is the very first endnote in which he mentions a conversation with Homer Ritchie, successor to and admirer of Norris, who confided “privately” to Hankins that “some of the leaders” of the Southern Baptist Convention had expressed admiration for Norris. About all that needs to be said about this sort of “evidence” is that Hankins apparently has appropriated some of the least commendable methodology of Norris himself.
Should this volume be on the list of the one hundred books you intend to read this year? If you are interested in Texas Baptist history, it needs to be in the top five. If Baptist history in general is your forte, Hankins’ biography of Norris will be in the top twenty-five. If general church history is your desire, the book still makes the top hundred. If you are interested in recent Baptist history and the beliefs of conservatives, moderates, or liberals in the present dialogue, this book might not make the list at all. In spite of this caveat, the book is the best available assessment of Norris’ life, work, and thought. Read the book and learn from Norris how not to do ministry.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Originally published in Faith and Mission, 15:2 (Spring 1998): 113-115.