SOME MISREPRESENTATIONS AND
DR. J. FRANK NORRIS IN DAVID STOKES' BOOK, “APPARENT DANGER” –
WHICH PROVE THAT STOKES DOESN’T LIKE DR. NORRIS!
BY DR. HOMER RITCHIE.
I was the immediate successor to Dr. J. Frank Norris at the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, Texas. The author of the book, “Apparent Danger,” Rev. David Stokes, never met Dr. Norris or personally observed his ministry. All he knows is hearsay and second-hand evaluations. These can be very biased and prejudicial, depending on one’s predispositions. Many people feel I have a more reliable and factual perspective of Dr. Norris’ life and ministry than any living person. This is true for two reasons: (1) I attended Dr. Norris’ seminary and heard him teach many classes, and I attended his church and heard him preach powerful sermons. I was fortunate to work on his church staff for over two years. He conducted a weekly staff meeting and I had the unique opportunity of observing him first-hand and evaluating him as a person, pastor and soul-winner; and (2) I wrote a book about him entitled “The Life and Legend of J. Frank Norris,” and did a massive amount of library research, as well as interviews with people who personally knew him. Contrary to what his critics and enemies wrote or stated, Dr. Norris was a kind, generous, compassionate and Spirit-filled man. I have seen him weep over the lost and downtrodden. He led his church to feed thousands of poor, hungry people. I witnessed on many occasions when he would give needy people his last dollar. On the other hand, he courageously and aggressively exposed social evils, religious racketeers, charlatans, liberal professors in Southern Baptist schools, denominational leaders, and deceivers who taught heresies. At times his methods were objectionable to some people who did not agree with his strong Biblical views. That’s nothing new. Christ’s critics and enemies tried on several occasions to kill Him and finally succeeded at Calvary. The same was true of Stephen, Paul, the Apostles, the true prophets of Israel, the martyrs, and faithful men and women of God in the Bible.
David Stokes characterized Norris as a killer/murderer. Webster’s Dictionary equates “killer” and “murderer” as synonyms. Norris was not a killer/murderer, and an unbiased Texas jury acquitted him of this charge. Several witnesses (hotel and church employees, etc.) testified to events leading up to the killing of D. E. Chipps and concerning the actual event testified that Norris killed a drunken, cursing and threatening would-be killer. It was self-defense.
I raise the unanswered question: Why is David Stokes now publishing a book calling Dr. Norris a killer? Norris killed Chipps in self-defense in July 1926 – eighty-four years ago. David Stokes betrayed his upbringing and joined the critics of Norris in an abortive attempt to discredit and scandalize the “greatest preacher of the twentieth century.” Norris’ record is written in Heaven and no one can distort, vilify or alter it.
The religious, political and cultural changes in America in the last fifty years have made it easier to vilify and misinterpret “religious fundamentalists,” portraying them as fanatics. Did David Stokes sense an opportunity to make money off of a book that besmears the image of a great patriot and defender of Biblical truth? You, the reader, will have to make that decision.
Stokes does not prove, and cannot prove, that Dr. Norris was guilty of murder. Norris was not guilty of first-degree murder (premeditated, with malice ahead of time). Norris was not even guilty of manslaughter (homicide without malice ahead of time). In fact, Dr. Norris was not guilty of anything at all! He simply acted in self-defense, sincerely believing that his life was in danger from Chipps. That is what the jury said. That is what the judge said. That is what the witnesses said.
Stokes does not prove, and cannot prove, that Dr. Norris was guilty. Instead he proves something else: that he, David Stokes, doesn’t like Dr. Norris. He proves that he doesn’t like Dr. Norris, and that is all he proves! He tries to get the readers of his book to dislike Dr. Norris too. That seems to be his only real argument against Dr. Norris. But not liking him doesn’t prove that he was guilty of murder! That just isn’t fair!
First, Stokes doesn’t like Dr. Norris as a person. He says in the preface (viii) that Dr. Norris’ church was a “cult of personality.” Nobody likes a “cult,” since it reminds us of Jim Jones, and so Dr. Norris and his church must have been bad. At least that’s what David Stokes wants us to believe.
Stokes tries to associate Dr. Norris with the Ku Klux Klan and says that there were KKK members in Dr. Norris’ church (pages 12, 53, 102). There may have been a few Klan members in the church in the 1920’s, but there weren’t any when I was there. And Dr. Norris himself was never a member of the Klan. But Stokes just uses the words “Ku Klux Klan” on the same page as the name “J. Frank Norris” to get the readers of the book to dislike Dr. Norris. This proves that Stokes really doesn’t like Dr. Norris. But that doesn’t prove that Norris was guilty of murder!
Second, Stokes doesn’t like the old-time fundamental Baptist religion. He says it had a lot in common with the Ku Klux Klan (page 51). Saying that may get some of the readers of the book to dislike Dr. Norris and his church. But it doesn’t prove Dr. Norris was guilty of murder.
David Stokes grew up in the Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, where Dr. Norris had been the pastor before Stokes was born. But somewhere along the line, Stokes turned against the old-time Baptist religion. Now he is the pastor of Fair Oaks Church near Washington, DC, the gathering place of politicians. His church is progressive. Even the word “Baptist” is no longer in its name.
But as for me, I’m proud to be an old-time Baptist. David Stokes has changed, but I haven’t changed. I am proud to be a Baptist just like Dr. Norris, and just like all the good preachers we used to have in our country not so very long ago. Stokes has turned against the old-time religion of his youth, but I haven’t! “Give me that old-time religion! It’s good enough for me!” Yes, Stokes doesn’t like Dr. Norris, and he doesn’t like his old-fashioned religion. But that doesn’t make J. Frank Norris guilty of murder!
Third, Stokes doesn’t like any of the witnesses that showed Dr. Norris was innocent. Dr. Norris himself explained that D. E. Chipps had made a move toward his hip pocket, as if going for a gun, but Stokes thinks that was a “calculated invention” on the part of Norris (page 159). How can Stokes know this 84 years later? Was he there? How does he know that Chipps didn’t make that move, and that Norris invented it afterward? Of course he can’t know and he doesn’t know, but he says it anyway – because Stokes doesn’t like Dr. Norris!
Stokes mentions Mrs. Frances (Fannie) Greer, but he doesn’t like her either. He says that Fannie had spent time in a sanitarium (page 325) as though there was something mentally wrong with her. In those days people went to a sanitarium for a rest. I knew Fannie Greer and there was nothing wrong with her. She was just as sane as Stokes or anybody else.
Stokes does not fully explain what Fannie said in the trial and afterwards, because her testimony would clear Dr. Norris! But I can tell you what Mrs. Greer said to me in 1991. Here it is – word for word,
“Sixty five years ago, on Saturday 17, 1926, I was working as a telephone operator in the Westbrook Hotel in downtown Fort Worth where D. E. Chipps lived. He was a wealthy lumberman and close friend to Roman Catholic mayor H. C. Meacham and other city officials whom Norris attacked and exposed. Mr. Chipps was a heavy drinker, rude, gruff and used foul language.
Chipps asked me to call Dr. Norris for him. I broke a rule and listened in on their conversation. Chipps spoke gruffly and angrily to Norris and said, ‘I am going to kill you if you don’t take back what you have said about my friends.’ Norris replied that what he said was true and he would not change his accusations. After hanging up, Chipps said to the room clerk, ‘I am going over to the church and kill Frank Norris _____ that __ __ _______ preacher.’” (Homer Ritchie, “The Life and Legend of J. Frank Norris,” published by Homer G. Ritchie, 7314 Durado Drive, Fort Worth, Texas 76179, 1991, pp. 163-164; phone (817)236-8536).
Mrs. Greer said under oath that she heard D. E. Chipps say to Dr. Norris, “I am going to kill you.” When the jury heard that, they knew that Dr. Norris had acted only in self-defense. He thought that Chipps had come to kill him. That is why the jury declared Dr. Norris not guilty of murder.
Stokes doesn’t like any of the other witnesses who showed that Dr. Norris was innocent of murder. He doesn’t like L. J. Nutt, who was there himself, and witnessed the shooting. Nutt explained that Norris was innocent, but Stokes doesn’t like him.
Stokes doesn’t like Fred Holland, who testified that Chipps had threatened Dr. Norris, and that he, Holland, had told Dr. Norris about the threat. That is why Stokes said that Holland only “supposedly” told Dr. Norris about this (page 298). Let’s face it, Stokes doesn’t like anybody who testified that Dr. Norris was innocent. That doesn’t seem fair to me. As far as I’m concerned, Stokes can like or dislike anyone he wants. But that doesn’t make Dr. Norris guilty of murder!
Fourth, Stokes doesn’t even like the prosecuting attorney, Bill McLean, who had argued that Dr. Norris was guilty. Stokes says that McLean admitted defeat in the face of the witnesses, saying, “The legendary lawyer seemed to give up at the end, virtually conceding the case” (page 357). In other words, Stokes said that McLean recognized that the evidence showed Dr. Norris was innocent, and so he did a bad job of attacking Dr. Norris. Stokes doesn’t consider the possibility that even the prosecutor saw that Norris was innocent, because Stokes simply doesn’t like Norris.
Fifth, Stokes doesn’t like the judge. He dislikes the judge’s remarks to the jury, saying that “the judge seemed to pick up right where McLean had left off” (page 358). In other words, the judge himself thought Dr. Norris was innocent. Stokes doesn’t like this, but he never explains why the judge made the statements that he did. Stokes doesn’t consider that the judge was rightly convinced of Dr. Norris’ innocence, and that the judge had spoken properly, because Stokes simply doesn’t like Norris.
Sixth, Stokes doesn’t like the jury. He suggested that the jury might have been biased from the beginning, that no one could get on the jury who didn’t believe in “apparent danger” (pages 250 and 251), glossing over the fact that both the prosecution and the defense examined the jurors, and both had equal say in who was on that jury.
The jury found Dr. Norris “not guilty.” Were they wrong? If so, why were they wrong? Stokes notes that the jury deliberated for only one hour and fourteen minutes (page 359). Presumably the jury was wrong about this and should have taken a lot more time. Stokes seems to suggest that they were wrong to reach a verdict so quickly. Maybe Stokes thinks they were wrong because they were old-time Texans with a pro-gun mentality. But he never says why they were wrong. Stokes doesn’t like the jury because he doesn’t like Dr. Norris, and they let him go.
In fact, the jury was right! Dr. Norris was innocent, as the witnesses had testified. The reason the jury took only a short time before giving their verdict was simple: the evidence was overwhelming and the facts were clear. Dr. Norris was innocent of murder, and there was no doubt about it. That is why the jury acquitted Dr. Norris after deliberating for only a little over an hour. It was so obvious that Dr. Norris was innocent that they didn’t need any more time to decide. The jury was right, and being sensible people, they didn’t need much time to reach their verdict. But Stokes doesn’t like the jury and their verdict, because he doesn’t like Dr. Norris, and that seems to be enough for him.
Stokes never explains why the judge and the jury were wrong! I guess they were old-time Texans, just like Dr. Norris was, and that is enough for Stokes to dislike. It is very clear, throughout the book, that Stokes doesn’t like old-time Texans.
Seventh and finally, David Stokes doesn’t like the American system of justice, and in particular he doesn’t like the way justice was done in Texas. In our American constitutional system of law, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. Dr. Norris was innocent going into the trial. There he was found not guilty. He was innocent going out of the trial, and he was innocent for the rest of his life. Our law says that a man is innocent until proven guilty. But Stokes wants to convict Norris as guilty after he was acquitted as innocent!
Stokes is not satisfied with the American way. He doesn’t like Dr. Norris and he doesn’t like Dr. Norris’ religion. So he wants to reverse the jury’s verdict and convict Norris anyway. But not liking a man and not liking his religion doesn’t make him guilty of murder!
The witnesses testified that Dr. Norris was innocent. The judge and the jury agreed that Dr. Norris was innocent. But David Stokes doesn’t consider the fact that these people might have understood things correctly and judged rightly. Instead he simply ignores the witnesses, the judge, and the jury, as though they all went wrong. They were old-time Texans, and somehow that might make them wrong. Stokes never explains why the witnesses, the judge, and the jury were all wrong. He doesn’t prove that Dr. Norris was guilty, because he can’t. Instead, his book “Apparent Danger” merely shows his distaste for Dr. Norris as well as for the trial and Texan society itself. Stokes treats Dr. Norris as guilty simply because he doesn’t like him, doesn’t like the old-time Baptist religion, and doesn’t like the old West, Texas in particular! But that doesn’t make Dr. Norris guilty of murder, because he wasn’t guilty!
David Stokes definitely doesn’t like Dr. J. Frank Norris, and he doesn’t like the old Baptist religion. Perhaps this has come out of his personal experience in his family and in his own life. Whatever his personal reasons, Stokes is wrong to smear Dr. Norris as guilty of murder just because he doesn’t like him, and just because he has turned against the old-time Baptist religion. Stokes has made a serious and sinful accusation against Dr. Norris, and Stokes will have to answer for it when he appears before God.
As for me, I stand up for Dr. Norris and I will keep on standing up for him! David Stokes never knew him, but I did know him well, as a preacher and as a friend. As long as I am alive, this earth will never lack a man who stands up and says what is right and true. I will always love, respect, and defend Dr. J. Frank Norris. Stokes doesn’t like Dr. Norris, but I do, and I always will!