Several years ago a teenager struggling with the call to ministry came to Dallas and boldly made an appointment to see W. A. Criswell. The great pastor listened with empathy and interest as the young man recounted the difficulties he was facing. When their conference was ended, Criswell knelt beside the young preacher with his arm around his shoulder and invoked the presence of Christ on his life's work. When he returned home, the young man told his pastor what he had done.
"What?" he exclaimed, "you really prayed with Dr. Criswell? Man, you have seen the Pope!"
Wallie Amos Criswell was born in 1909 in the dust-bowl town of Eldorado, Oklahoma, to a cowboy-barber and his beautiful wife. Born in obscurity and raised in poverty, this wind-swept lad of the plains would become in time the most famous Baptist pastor in the world. When he died earlier this year at age 92, he was extolled as a passionate preacher, a powerful evangelist, and a redoubtable defender of the faith. He was all of that and more.
Holy Roller with a Ph.D.
Criswell began his pastoral labors during his student days at Baylor University. He served small congregations in such places of renown as Devil's Bend and Pulltight, Texas. Even then he was known for his pulpit exuberance. On a clear night, it was said, you could hear Criswell preaching five miles away. After graduation from Baylor, Criswell moved to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he studied the Greek New Testament under the great A. T. Robertson. On Valentine's Day in 1935 he married Betty Mae Harris, the pianist at the church he served part time.
Following two pastoral charges in his native Oklahoma, Criswell was the surprise choice to succeed the venerable George W. Truett as pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas in 1944. Criswell honored the memory of Truett, but the contrast was unmistakable. Truett was a legendary figure in the religious world—the Harry Emerson Fosdick of Southern Baptists. Refined and dignified in the pulpit, Truett exuded the confidence of aristocracy.
Criswell, on the other hand, was a holy roller with a Ph.D. He would shout, spit, weep, plead, and pound. He preached with the bombast of Billy Sunday and the urgency of Savanarola.
In his inaugural sermon, Criswell promised the congregation that its greatest days were yet to come. We'll have a Sunday school with 5,000 in attendance every Sunday, he said. We'll give more money to missions than ever before. Criswell delivered on his promise. During his tenure at First Baptist, the church grew from 5,000 members and an annual budget of $150,000 in 1944 to 26,000 members and a budget of more than $11,000,000.
But statistics alone do not tell the complete story. Criswell reached out to the down and dirty, as well as the high and mighty, of Dallas. He organized missions and led the church to pioneer social ministries. He was an organizational genius, and his way of leading a church became a model for many others. "Most people think of tradition when they think of Criswell, but actually his ministry was incredibly innovative," says Rick Warren, whose call to pastoral ministry was confirmed in an encounter with Criswell. "It only became traditional after everyone copied him."
One important Criswell innovation was developing the church as a center for family activities. First Baptist Dallas built one of the first church-sponsored family life centers in the country, a remarkable facility with a gym, skating rink, bowling lanes, track, and basketball court. Under Criswell, the church also developed an outreach and educational ministry to the deaf. And, at a time when many conservative Christians refused to go to the movies, Criswell rented a downtown Dallas theater for his famous all-night preaching marathons.
In 1946, Criswell announced to the congregation his plan to preach through the entire Bible, book by book. During his long walk through the Bible (which took 18 years), members of his church would mark pivotal events in their family life by reference to their pastor's exegetical sojourns. Baby Jane was born in Chronicles, Ruth got married in Mark, Billy Bob was baptized in Daniel, and Deacon Smith died in Deuteronomy.
Like Truett before him, Criswell became a renowned world Baptist leader. He traveled around the world with his friend Duke McCall, preaching the gospel on every continent. In 1964, he and Cameron Townsend, the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators, survived a plane crash while visiting mission stations in the jungles of Peru. Criswell also had a spiritual impact on Billy Graham in the early years of his ministry. Graham has been a member of First Baptist Dallas since 1953.
Defender of the Faith
Criswell's role in the conservative resurgence in the SBC awaits a definitive study. But there is no doubt that he has been a major force in the redirection of America's largest Protestant denomination. Criswell's defense of biblical inerrancy, Why I Preach That the Bible Is Literally True, was published during his first term as president of the SBC in 1968. It created a firestorm of controversy. A Baptist professor at the University of Richmond opposed Criswell's second-term election as SBC president. Criswell was overwhelmingly reelected, 7,483 to 450, but this contest was a portent of future Baptist battles in which Criswell would play a significant role.
In 1985, Criswell preached a stirring sermon, "Whether We Live or Die," to the Pastors Conference of the SBC in Dallas. He excoriated theological liberalism and called on his fellow Baptists to stay faithful to the Scriptures. He concluded that message by quoting from William Blake:
Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
Criswell doubtless saw the conservative movement in the SBC as the providential work of God. At the same time, he recognized the harsh turns the controversy sometimes took, and he spoke with remorse about ruptured relationships along the way. Near the end of his life, Criswell told his lifelong friend Herschel Hobbs (a former CTI board member and former president of the SBC), "I wish that the people who believed the most about the Bible had the most loving spirit about what they believed, me included. The war of words must have grieved our loving Father, for it certainly broke my heart."
An Unpredictable Servant
On a visit to his church in Dallas several years ago, I learned about some of Criswell's personal eccentricities. He always drank sweet milk with ice and ordered me a glass of it for lunch. He had a special pair of shoes that he only wore in the pulpit—shoes that never walked the streets of Dallas. He worked out religiously at the YMCA near his church. He told me that he might forget to read his Bible and pray, but he never forgot to go to the Y.
I will never forget participating in a powerful service of the Lord's Supper that Criswell led at First Baptist Dallas. Here was a Southern Baptist church with kneelers—one of Criswell's innovations. Criswell carefully explained the meaning of the Lord's Supper and then invited the congregation to kneel and prayerfully receive the bread and cup. The liturgy was in keeping with the Baptist tradition in every way, and there was a powerful sense of Christ's presence in that service and a hush of reverence unusual in Protestant celebrations of the Eucharist.
That night the church held an evangelistic service. After Criswell's thunder in the sermon came his tender appeal for sinners to respond and believe:
In a moment we stand and sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, a family, you, a couple, you, or just one, somebody, you—coming to confess faith in Jesus. Coming to be baptized. Coming to place your life in the fellowship of our dear church. You, come and say, "Here I am, pastor. I have made the decision for God. I'm on the way." May angels attend you as you come. While we stand and while we sing.
Those who only knew him from afar often missed this tender, pastoral side of Criswell. He was despised as well as loved. Many SBC moderates will never forget (or forgive) his scathing denunciation of liberals as "skunks." But throughout his life, Criswell showed a remarkable capacity to grow, to learn, and to change. An avowed segregationist in the 1950s, Criswell preached a sermon in 1968 on "The Church of the Opened Door."
"I have come to the profound conclusion," he said, "that to separate the body of Christ on the basis of skin pigmentation is unthinkable, unchristian, and unacceptable to God."
After meeting with Pope Paul VI in 1971, Criswell was attacked by some of his conservative comrades for being "involved in apostasy." He replied, "I'm not a Catholic. … and I couldn't be, but I thank God for what they have done to name the name of Christ in the world. I would be more comfortable praying with a Catholic priest who believes in the Virgin Birth, the blood Atonement, and the deity of Christ than with a liberal Protestant who doesn't." On these and other matters, Criswell showed remarkable openness and flexibility at a time when such commodities were in short supply among evangelicals.
Criswell called his autobiography Standing on the Promises. Near the end of this memoir, he offered the following prayer, which sums up his life and spirituality as well as anything I know:
Thank you, Father, for allowing me a lifetime in your Word. Thank you for standing beside my desk all these decades, informing, correcting, inspiring, and directing me.
For my blunders along the way, I ask your forgiveness. The errors, Lord, were mine. Sometimes I got in a hurry . …Yet other times, I was tired, lonely, or afraid. Still, Lord, you never fail me.
W. A. Criswell died as he lived, still standing on the promises. Up in heaven, on a clear night, I bet you can still hear him preaching five miles away.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and an executive editor of Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also appearing on our site today:
Criswell's 15 MinutesBehind Timothy George's remembrance of W.A. Criswell.
Previous Christianity Today articles on W.A. Criswell:
SBC Leader W.A. Criswell Dies at 92Dallas pastor considered the father of modern conservatism in the Southern Baptist Convention. (Jan. 15, 2002)
CT Classic: Preaching Through the BibleHow W.A. Criswell grew his church through 18 years of exploring the scriptures cover-to-cover. (Dec. 9, 1966)
The official site of the First Baptist Church of Dallas has a great deal of information on the church.
The Criswell Foundation Web site has extensive information on the life and work of Dr. W.A. Criswell including a short bio and video documentaries. The site also offers a searchable database of Criswell's sermons (available in text, video and audio formats). They are searchable by Book/Chapter/Verse, Topic, Word, and Category.
Standing on the Promises: The Autobiography of W. A. Criswell is available at Amazon.com.
Related stories from Baptist Press include:
President Bush lauds Criswell as important spiritual leader (Jan. 11, 2002)
Chapman: W.A. Criswell was 'giant in the land' (Jan 10, 2002)
Trust the Bible & preach it, W.A. Criswell helped us grasp (Jan 10, 2002)
Baptist leaders remember life, legacy of Criswell (Jan 10, 2002)
'Old-time religion' good enough for W.A. Criswell (March 3, 1997)
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