IT’S PRETTY MUCH THE NORM these days—preachers going “political,” speaking up for candidates who reflect common values and opinions. But the lines separating pulpit and politics, not to mention church and state, were not always as blurred as they are in our time. The harsh partisan tone, combined with the practice of take-no-prisoners-politics on the part of some Christian ministers in our day is something that can be traced back to one controversial pulpit-pounding powerbroker—J. Frank Norris.
At the mid-point of the 1920s, people flocked to Norris’s First Baptist Church in downtown Fort Worth, Texas—America’s original “megachurch.” He would do just about anything to draw a large crowd. Thousands came to witness his latest extravaganza.
He was a folk-hero to many.
To many others, J. Frank Norris was a dangerous man.
By the summer of 1926, he presided over a religious empire, one that included America’s largest Protestant church, a tabloid newspaper that reached nearly 100,000 readers every Friday, and his own radio network that saturated cities and towns across the American Southwest. Norris had already survived multiple criminal indictments. He boasted that he could handle anything that came his way. He had fanatically loyal followers (including members of the Ku Klux Klan) and great lawyers. But would they be enough when he found himself charged with first-degree murder and face to face with “Sparky”—the nickname for the Texas electric chair?