Conservative leader, W.A. Criswell, dies
January 11 2002 by Druin & Mark Wingfield , Texas Baptist Standard

Conservative leader, W.A. Criswell, dies | Friday, Jan. 11, 2002

Friday, Jan. 11, 2002

Conservative leader, W.A. Criswell, dies

By Toby Druin & Mark Wingfield Texas Baptist Standard DALLAS, Texas - Wallie Amos Criswell, legendary pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas for more than 50 years, died Jan. 10 at the home of longtime friend Jack Pogue. He was 92. Pogue was reading John 14 to Criswell when he breathed his last, said Paige Patterson, former president of Criswell College in Dallas, who now serves as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Funeral services were scheduled for Jan. 16 at noon at First Baptist, where Criswell's stentorian voice called sinners to salvation, defended the Bible as God's inerrant word, blasted "modernism" and infidels, and challenged Christians to live more devoted lives.

Criswell had been in ill health for several years, ever since fighting off colon cancer in 1998.

The fiery preacher was arguably the best-known Baptist pastor in America in the latter half of the 20th century - second in recognition only to evangelist Billy Graham, whom Criswell enlisted as a long-distance member of the Dallas church years ago.

He was the author of 54 books, including Why I Preach that the Bible is Literally True, a volume considered to have helped launch the conservative movement that shook the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and '90s.

In his trademark white suit, Criswell was seen in televised church services broadcast nationally, and his voice was heard on numerous radio programs as well.

A little-known pastor from Oklahoma, Criswell in 1944 was called to succeed the legendary George W. Truett as pastor of the Dallas congregation. In a 1985 interview with the Dallas Morning News, Criswell recalled how he had a vivid dream in which the deceased Truett urged him to "go down and preach to my people."

Nevertheless, Criswell initially declined an invitation to preach a sermon at the Dallas church, saying he was "nothing of the stature of Dr. Truett." His wife did not share his reservations, he said, explaining that she accepted the church's invitation for him.

"There wasn't anything for me to do but come down here and preach," he said. A few weeks later, the church called him as pastor.

During his tenure at First Baptist, the church increased in stature, influence, membership and funding. In its heyday, First Baptist was the largest congregation in the SBC, boasting nearly 30,000 members on roll, five blocks of property in downtown Dallas and nearly 30 mission congregations.

Over the years, several U.S. presidents and would-be presidents made a point to visit the church when Criswell was preaching. When Gerald Ford visited the church in October 1976, he got a sermon on stewardship and an endorsement for his election, although Ford was running against Criswell's fellow Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter. When the Republican Party re-nominated Ronald Reagan for president in Dallas in l984, Criswell closed the convention in prayer.

In 1968, he was elected to the first of two one-year terms as president of the SBC, and he served on many boards of both the SBC and Baptist General Convention of Texas. He was a former trustee of the Baptist Standard, Baylor University, Baylor Medical Center, the SBC Annuity Board and Southern Baptist Sunday School Board.

Criswell was best known in the pulpit of his own church and on the platform of the SBC, state conventions and evangelism conferences as simply a preacher of the gospel and defender of the Bible as God's inerrant word.

When Criswell assumed the pastorate of First Baptist on Nov. 19, 1944, he was described in the Baptist Standard as "gifted, humble, deeply spiritual and has a passion for souls." At his first invitation, 58 people joined the church, 14 of them by profession of faith.

A native of Oklahoma, Criswell grew up on a farm near Texline. His father was a cowboy and then a barber. Criswell's mother moved to Amarillo during his last two years of high school, so he could get a better education. He graduated from Amarillo High School in 1927 and then earned a bachelor's degree at Baylor University and master's and doctor of philosophy degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

While attending Southern Seminary, he was pastor of two small churches and at one met and married his wife, Betty. They had one daughter, Mabel Ann. The Criswells later adopted their grandson, Chris, and raised him.

Criswell's ministry took a turn in 1990, when the church called Joel Gregory as pastor and heir apparent to Criswell. That rocky relationship lasted only 21 months, ending with Gregory abruptly resigning. In 1992, Criswell was named pastor emeritus as the church called O.S. Hawkins as pastor. Criswell has continued to maintain a presence in the church, to the extent his health has permitted, through the current pastorate of Mac Brunson, former pastor of Green Street Baptist Church in High Point and former president of the Baptist State Convention.

Interviewed on his 50th anniversary at the church in 1994, Criswell laughed at the mention of retirement and said his role of raising money for Criswell College was his idea of retirement. He earlier had said he desired to be called to heaven while preaching in the pulpit at First Baptist.

"Wouldn't that be a glorious place from which to ascend into heaven?" he asked.

The highlight of his ministry, he said, was his election as SBC president and the church's selection of him to succeed Truett.

If he had his ministerial career to live over again, he said, he would change his priorities from God first, then the church and family to God first, then the family and then the church.

Criswell was mourned by prominent figures throughout Baptist life.

"It is almost impossible to evaluate the life and ministry of W.A. Criswell," said Billy Graham. "He had a multiplicity of gifts. He had one of the most loving hearts I have ever known. His devotion to Scripture inspired thousands of young clergy from many denominations. His preaching was electric in its power."

Patterson, former SBC president and an architect of the conservative movement within the SBC, said Criswell was a magnificent preacher who helped bring about an emphasis on expository sermons.

"Dr. C. will be remembered as one of the most innovative and courageous pastors of our generation," he said.

Patterson said Criswell deserves much of the credit for the conservative shift in the SBC.

"The old adage is Dr. Criswell preached the crusade and others carried it out," Patterson said. "That's pretty accurate. He was definitely my inspiration and that of many others.

"Probably, I could not have done what I did if I'd been at any other church," said Patterson, who was associate pastor of First Baptist for 17 years.

Bill Leonard, now dean of Wake Forest University Divinity School in Winston-Salem, told Religion News Service (RNS) that some of Criswell's harsh rhetoric helped propel the conservatives to work to regain control of the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

"It was powerful and heavy," said Leonard. "He referred to moderates as skunks.... He referred to civil rights activists as infidels. He referred to people who believed in the separation of church and state as infidels."

Leonard said Criswell later spoke more supportively of integration but maintained his conservative biblical stances.

Joining Leonard on opposite sides of the battle with Criswell was Daniel Vestal, now coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, an Atlanta-based organization that grew as moderates left the Southern Baptist Convention.

"Now that he (Criswell) is in glory, I believe he appreciates the fact that the body of Christ is far greater then he had imagined," Vestal told RNS. "It includes a lot of folk that he didn't want to have much to do with while on earth and, knowing him as I did, I imagine he's smiling about it and enjoying it."

(EDITOR'S NOTE - BR Managing Editor Steve DeVane contributed to this story.)

Copyright (c) Biblical Recorder Inc.
1/11/2002 12:00:00 AM by Druin & Mark Wingfield , Texas Baptist Standard | with 0 comments
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