W. A. Criswell

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Wallie Amos "W. A." Criswell
Born (1909-12-19)December 19, 1909
Eldorado, Jackson County, Oklahoma, USA
Died January 10, 2002(2002-01-10) (aged 92)
Dallas, Texas
Residence Dallas, Texas
Alma mater Baylor University
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Occupation Southern Baptist pastor;
President of Southern Baptist Convention, 1968-1970
Founder, Criswell College
Editor Criswell Study Bible
Author of 54 books
Years active 1926-c. 2000
Spouse(s) Bessie Marie Harris Criswell, "Betty" (d. 2006)
Children Mabel Ann Criswell (d. 2002)
Parent(s) Wallie Amos and Anna Currie Criswell

Wallie Amos Criswell (December 19, 1909 – January 10, 2002), was an American pastor, author, and a two-term elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1968 to 1970.[1] Supporters have described him as one of the 20th century's greatest expository preachers[2] and the patriarch of the "Conservative Resurgence" within the SBC.

Early life

Criswell was born in Eldorado in Jackson County in southwestern Oklahoma[3] to Wallie Amos and Anna Currie Criswell. It was not uncommon at the time for boys to be named with initials, and he was simply called "W. A.". In later years when a full name was required for his passport Criswell supplied his father's first and middle names. Criswell grew up in Texline in Dallam County, the most northwesterly community in the Texas Panhandle, where his cowboy-barber father moved the family in 1915.[4]

At age ten, young W. A. professed faith in Christ at a revival meeting led by the evangelist Reverend John Hicks. Two years later Criswell publicly committed his life to the gospel ministry. Criswell was licensed to preach at the age of seventeen and soon thereafter held part-time pastorates at Devil's Bend and Pulltight, Texas.[3] While attending Baylor University in Waco, Texas, from 1928 to 1931 he ministered in Marlow, White Mound, and Pecan Grove, the latter in Fort Bend County, Texas. During his graduate and post-graduate years, including a Ph.D. at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Criswell was the pastor of Baptist churches in Mount Washington in Bullitt County near Louisville and Oakland in Warren County near Bowling Green, Kentucky. After completing his degrees, Criswell in 1937 accepted the pastorate of the First Baptist Church of Chickasha in Grady County in central Oklahoma. In 1941, he moved to First Baptist Church of Muskogee in eastern Oklahoma. In 1935, Criswell married the former Bessie Marie "Betty" Harris (1913-2006), the pianist of the Mount Washington church and an education graduate of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.[5] Their daughter, Mabel Ann, spelled Mabel Anne on her tomb, was born in Chickasha in 1939. Divorced with two sons, Mabel Ann possessed an exceptional operatic voice and recorded three albums of sacred music in the late 1960s and early 1970s, two with the Ralph Carmichael orchestra. She died in 2002, some six months after her father's passing.[5]

First Baptist Church of Dallas

File:WAC FBC.jpg
For over fifty years Criswell was the pastor of the downtown First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, known for its conservative evangelical teachings.

In 1944 Criswell was called to replace George Washington Truett as the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. He would spend the remainder of his life at First Baptist, preaching more than four thousand sermons from its pulpit. During his tenure membership grew from 7,800 to 26,000, with weekly Sunday School attendance in excess of 5,000. The church expanded to multiple buildings covering five blocks in downtown Dallas, eventually becoming the largest Southern Baptist church in the world. The popular evangelist Billy Graham joined the church in 1953, became a close friend of the Criswell family, and remained a member of the Dallas congregation for 55 years.

Criswell was an early pioneer of the modern megachurch phenomenon and introduced a number of innovations at First Baptist Dallas that became a model for growing churches all over the country. By the early 1950s he had hired professionally-trained educational directors for each age group of the church, organized a sophisticated multi-level Sunday School program, added a full-time business manager to the staff, and broadened the church into a youth and family life center featuring a bowling alley, skating rink, and gymnasium with a track and basketball court. He greatly expanded the church's long-standing Silent Friends ministry, creating for the deaf their own Sunday School, Training Union, Vacation Bible School, and summer camp ministries. His vigorous outreach efforts to the community included sponsoring thirty-seven inner city missions, a crisis pregnancy center, the Good Shepherd and Dallas Life Foundation ministries for the homeless and disadvantaged, Spanish-language chapels, and extensive television and radio ministries. Church services were locally televised as early as January 1951 and eventually were carried on stations nationwide.[6]

Statue of Criswell at Criswell College.

Criswell's accomplishments include helping to engineer the conservative resurgence of the Southern Baptist convention, a transition which began in the late 1970s. He was awarded eight honorary doctorates in addition to his earned postgraduate degree. He published fifty-four books, including an annotated Criswell Study Bible (in later editions the Believers Study Bible and Holy Bible, Baptist Study Edition, Thomas Nelson Publishers), and founded both the Criswell College with its radio station KCBI, and First Baptist Academy.

On Thanksgiving Sunday evening 1990 First Baptist unanimously called Joel C. Gregory as pastor, following the unanimous recommendation of the pastor search committee and the deacons. Gregory served as Pastor while Criswell took the title "Senior Pastor." September 30, 1992 Gregory resigned on Wednesday night indicating that the intended succession of Criwell had not taken place. Gregory subsequently wrote Too Great a Temptation (Summit Group, 1994) as an explanation of his resignation. He subsequently became Professor of Preaching at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University.

In 1993 First Baptist called O. S. Hawkins as pastor and Criswell entered semi-retirement as pastor emeritus. He continued to preach at conferences, First Baptist's annual pre-Easter series, Sunday school and college lectures, and occasional Sunday morning messages for the remainder of the decade.


Criswell died quietly at the home of longtime friend Jack Pogue on January 10, 2002, at the age of 92.[1]

His death made national headlines, and as a farewell honor the city of Dallas closed off the U.S.-75 North Central Expressway for the celebrated pastor's funeral cortege.

Well-known pastor and author Rick Warren recounts his call to full-time ministry as a 19-year-old student at California Baptist College, when in November 1973 he and a friend skipped classes and drove 350 miles to hear Criswell preach at the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco.[7] Warren stood in line to shake hands with Criswell afterwards.[7]

Warren went on to found the Saddleback Church in California, one of the most recognized and influential churches in the country, with weekly attendance in excess of 20,000. In his book, The Purpose Driven Church, Warren referred to Criswell as the "greatest American pastor of the twentieth century."

Audio recordings of Criswell's preaching began in December 1953, and over 4000 of his expository sermons are available free of charge in audio, video, and searchable transcript form at the W. A. Criswell Sermon Library website, the largest such collection by a single pastor in the world. It is sponsored and maintained by the non-profit W. A. Criswell Foundation which also supports the Criswell College.

Southern Baptist Convention presidency

Dr. Criswell served two times as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest non-Roman Catholic denomination in the United States, with some 16 million members.[citation needed] During the twenty years that followed he was perhaps the most popular preacher at evangelism and pastors' conferences in America, and also preached extensively in mission fields worldwide.


Criswell's theology is best described as conservative and evangelical. He believed in Biblical inerrancy, the eternal security of the believer, and Jesus Christ as the authority of spiritual truth and the sole path to salvation of sinful mankind.

Criswell's theology and ethics reflected the era in which he lived. Unlike his predecessor, George W. Truett at First Baptist Church of Dallas, Criswell preached dispensational premillennialism from the pulpit.[8] Truett had reflected a postmillennial approach to eschatological questions, whereas Criswell drew upon the theology of C.I. Scofield. A comparison of the beliefs of Truett and Criswell illustrates how American conservative Christianity changed sociologically during the 20th century. Postmillennialism, popular around the start of the 20th century, expressed an optimistic expectation for the social transformation of this world by Christ in the present day through the missionary work of his Church; but the two World Wars dealt this view a near-fatal blow. Premillennialism offered a more pragmatic view of the limited scope of possible social reform, looking ahead to the rapture in which Christians are removed from the world before the end-time judgments of the tribulation and Armageddon, after which Christ himself returns to transform the world and establish his kingdom.

Criswell's preaching also reflected his culture as societal attitudes evolved on the issue of racial integration. While he never spoke in support of segregation from the pulpit, Criswell was at first privately critical of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education and of federal intervention against de jure southern segregation.[9] In 1956 he made an address denouncing forced integration to a South Carolina evangelism conference, and a day later to the South Carolina legislature.[9] Taken aback by negative reactions and distorted accounts of his remarks in the press, Criswell did not publicly address the issue again for over a decade, claiming he was "a pastor, not a politician." However, upon his 1968 election as president of the Southern Baptist Convention and the SBC's endorsement of racial equality and desegregation, Criswell announced to the press, "Every Southern Baptist in the land should support the spirit of that statement. We Southern Baptists have definitely turned away from racism, from segregation, from anything and everything that speaks of a separation of people in the body of Christ." Criswell's first sermon after his election as SBC president in 1968 was titled "The Church of the Open Door," emphasizing that his church already had many non-white members and was open to all regardless of race. He asserted publicly, "I don't think that segregation could have been or was at any time intelligently, seriously supported by the Bible.[10]


Criswell sometimes got involved in political campaigns. In 1960, he published an article attacking the appropriateness of Roman Catholics to serve as president, titled "Religious Freedom, the Church, the State, and Senator Kennedy." The address, the text of which is available from the Kennedy Library archives,[11] represented the widespread concern preceding the presidential election to which Senator Kennedy responded in a speech on religious freedom and the separation of church and state.[12] In 1976, Criswell urged from the pulpit the election of the Republican U.S. President Gerald R. Ford, Jr., an Episcopalian, rather than the Southern Baptist Democratic nominee, former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.[13] Carter nevertheless won the electoral votes of Texas, the last Democrat to have done so. In the 1980s, he supported Republican presidential nominees Ronald W. Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush.

Questioned in 1973 about the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade Criswell replied, "I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed." This was a common attitude among evangelicals until the mid-1970s when rising awareness of the facts surrounding abortion made it a highly charged political issue.[14]

Criswell later changed his position on abortion and became a staunch opponent of the procedure.[15]


"To lift Him up, to preach His name, and to invite souls to love Him and to follow Him is the highest, heavenliest privilege of human life."[citation needed]

"The word we preach from our pulpits ought to be like the Word of God itself--like a fire and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces."[citation needed]

"After seventy years of expository preaching, I have yet to touch the hem of His garment."[citation needed]

"When our trials come, when we feel pain and suffering, when our tears flow again, it is our joy and comfort to lift our faces heavenward and to go on, standing on the promises of God."[citation needed]

To moderates at the 1991 SBC convention: "Go shovel gravel. Sell popcorn. Work in a dime store. Don't contaminate the word of God."[16]

"The NAACP has got those East Texans on the run so much that they dare not pronounce the word 'chigger' anymore. It has to be Cheegro! Idiocy... foolishness! Let them integrate! Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up! Let them stay where they are... but leave us alone!" speech to the South Carolina Legislature, 1956[17]

"Never in my life did I believe in separating people on the basis of skin pigmentation. Racism was, is, and always will be an abomination in the eyes of God, and should be in the eyes of God's people. And where we who call the name of Christ have knowingly or unknowingly contributed to racism in any form, we have sinned and need to beg God's forgiveness." [18]

Selected works

  • Acts, an Exposition. Zondervan 0-310-22880-8
  • Acts: In One Volume. Zondervan 0-310-43840-3
  • Baptism, Filling and Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Zondervan 0-310-22751-8
  • Basic Bible Sermons on the Cross. Thomas Nelson 0-8407-1102-6
  • The Christ of the Cross. Crescendo 0-89038-020-1
  • The Compassionate Christ. Crescendo 0-89038-025-2
  • Confessions of a Happy Christian. Pelican 0-88289-400-5
  • Criswell's Guidebook For Pastors. Broadman & Holman 0-8054-2360-5
  • The Criswell Study Bible. Thomas Nelson 0-84070-452-6
  • Did Man Just Happen. Moody 0-8024-2212-8
  • Expository Sermons on Revelations. Zondervan 0-310-22840-9
  • Expository Sermons on the Book of Daniel. Zondervan 0-310-22800-X
  • Great Doctrines of the Bible. Vol. 1: Bibliology. Zondervan 0-310-43930-2
  • Great Doctrines of the Bible: Vol. 2: Christology. 0-310-43860-8
  • Great Doctrines of the Bible: Vol. 3: Ecclesiology. Zondervan 0-310-43900-0
  • Great Doctrines of the Bible: Vol. 4: Pneumatology. Zodervan
  • Great Doctrines of the Bible: Vol, 5: Soteriology. Zondervan
  • Great Doctrines of the Bible: Vol. 6: Christian Life and Stewardship. Zondervan 0-310-43950-7
  • Great Doctrines of the Bible: vol. 7: Prayer/Angelology. Zondervan 0-310-43960-4
  • Great Doctrines of the Bible: Vol. 8: Eschatology. Zondervan 0-310-43830-6
  • Holy Bible: Baptist Study Edition. Thomas Nelson 0-7852-5838-8
  • Isaiah: An Exposition. Zondervan 0-310-22870-0
  • The Social Conscience of W. A. Criswell. Crescendo 0-89038-039-2
  • Standing on the Promises: The Autobiography of W. A. Criswell. W Pub Group 0-8499-9038-6
  • Welcome Back, Jesus!. Broadman 0-8054-1939-X
  • Why I Preach That the Bible Is Literally True. Broadman & Holman 0-8054-1260-3
  • With a Bible in My Hand. Broadman & Holman 0-8054-1520-3


  1. 1.0 1.1 "W. A. Criswell, a Baptist Leader, Dies at 92". New York Times. January 12, 2002. Retrieved 2014-08-27. The Rev. W. A. Criswell, a leader of the conservative movement now in control of the Southern Baptists and former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, one of the denomination's first megachurches, died on Thursday in Dallas. He was 92. ...<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Texas Baptists prepare to memorialize Criswell". Baptist Press Website. 2002-01-10. Retrieved 2011-02-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 A Tribute to W. A. Criswell, Southern Baptist Convention (accessed May 26, 2010).
  4. Criswell, W. A. Why I Preach That the Bible Is Literally True. Nashville: B&H, 1969.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Obituary of Betty Harris Criswell". Baptist Press News. Retrieved April 6, 2012. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. McBeth, Leon The First Baptist Church of Dallas: Centennial History (1868-1968), Zondervan, 1968, pp 240-347.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 "Interview with a Missions Leader". Woman's Missionary Union Website. Archived from the original on 2007-12-14. Retrieved 2007-12-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. W. A. Criswell. "THE RISING OF ISRAEL". people coming to hear me preach said, "Why, that man is a pre-millennialist. Why, that man is a dispensationalist." I never had a pre-millennial teacher in my life. I never had a dispensational teacher in my life, nor had I ever read any pre-millennial literature. But they said as I was preaching through the Bible, they said, "Why that man is premillennialist, he is a premillennialist. He is preaching about the Jews. He is preaching about the land belonging to the Jews. And he is preaching about their return to the Holy Land. And he is talking about their conversion there in the land. He is preaching that." I never made it up. I was just preaching through the Bible. That is all I was doing.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 Freeman, Curtis (2007). ""Never Had I Been So Blind": W. A. Criswell's "Change" on Racial Segregation" (PDF). Journal of Southern Religion. 10: 1–12. Retrieved October 9, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Criswell, W. A. (1990). Standing on the Promises: The Autobiography of W. A. Criswell. Dallas, Texas: Word Publishing. pp. 202–204, 216–217. ISBN 0-8499-0843-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKCAMP1960-1019-007.aspx
  12. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16920600
  13. Ford campaign ad
  14. "How the Evangelical Church Awoke to the Abortion Issue: The Convergent Labors of Harold O. J. Brown, Francis Schaeffer, and C. Everett Koop".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "SBC presidents urge Clinton: 'repent' of abortion ban veto" (PDF).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Grimm, Fred (6/9/1991). "Fundamentalist Baptist celebrate Purge of Moderates". Herald-Journal. Retrieved 6/9/1991. Check date values in: |accessdate=, |date= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Dallas 1963, by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L Davis, 2013, page 12
  18. Criswell, W. A. (1990). Standing on the Promises. Word Publishing. p. 203. ISBN 0-8499-0843-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links