W.A. Criswell, 92; Leader of Literal-Bible Movement
The Rev. W.A. Criswell, whose decades-long impassioned defense of a literal interpretation of the Bible led to the Southern Baptists’ return to their conservative roots, died Thursday. He was 92 and had been in failing health for more than a year battling cancer.
The pastor for 50 years at the influential First Baptist Church of Dallas, Wallie Amos Criswell is credited with launching a conservative reformation among evangelical Christians in the late 20th century. He did so by preaching that the Bible is the exact, unerring word of God and historically accurate.
“He was a redneck preacher with a scholar’s head,” said Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “That’s a rough combination” for theological opponents to battle.
The charismatic preacher with advanced degrees in theology and philosophy served twice as president (1968-69) of the Southern Baptist Convention, which represents 15.6 million congregants. He wrote 54 books (including “Why I Preach the Bible Is Literally True”) and founded 400-student Criswell College, four Christian radio stations and a 700-bed homeless shelter.
“His devotion to Scripture inspired thousands of young clergy from many denominations,” said the Rev. Billy Graham in a written statement.
Graham, a member of the First Baptist Church, considered Criswell his pastor. “His preaching was electric in its power,” he said.
Taking the pulpit, his voice could go from a whisper to a bellow during the length of a sentence.
He often told friends that “on a clear day, you can hear me five miles away.” He always spoke without notes but with a Bible in one hand.
One New Year’s Eve, Criswell preached for 4 1/2 hours on “The Scarlet Thread Through the Bible,” showing congregants that the sacrifice of Jesus can be seen in very biblical verse. The service spilled over into the new year.
His sermons from 1957 to 1977 can be found on the Internet at www.awcriswell.com.
His delivery, with his white suits and hair, was so distinctive that many congregants--and local comedians--could do spot-on impersonations, which the pastor enjoyed.
He gave one of his most influential messages in 1985 when the annual Southern Baptist Convention came to his adopted hometown of Dallas. About 35,000 faithful heard Criswell’s sermon “Whether We Live or Whether We Die,” which helped solidify conservative control over the organization.
“It was a very famous sermon,” Patterson said. “Dallas was very, very pivotal.” The moderates made every conceivable effort “to regain control. But they came up empty.”
Thanks to Criswell’s influence, over the last decade professors at the six Southern Baptist seminaries have taught only the literal interpretation of the Bible, resulting in thousands of pastors now trained in conservative theology.
The Southern Baptists also flexed their conservative muscle during the last decade by supporting a boycott of Disney, criticizing some of its films and its practice of offering benefits to same-sex partners of employees. The Baptists also called for women to submit graciously to their husbands, and held conventions in the heart of other religious communities, such as Salt Lake City, the Mormon capital.
The push back toward conservatism earned Criswell enemies among moderates and liberals.
“If confrontation and revolution came without hurt, that would be great,” Patterson said. “But unfortunately, life doesn’t happen that way.”
Patterson said Criswell was seen by many as a tremendous threat to liberal theology.
“There were people who realized, from their viewpoint, what a dangerous man he was ... almost swashbuckling,” he said. But opponents found it “hard to keep on hating him” because he was so personally endearing.
Graham said, “He had one of the most loving hearts I have ever known.”
Born in 1909, Criswell was raised in Texline, Texas, where his father was a barber. After a revival service at age 10, he gave his first sermon to neighborhood children during a funeral service for his pet dog.
He received his undergraduate degree from Baylor University and his master’s in theology and doctorate in philosophy at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
After pastoral stops in Kentucky and Chickasaw and Muskogee, Okla., Criswell, at 34, was the surprise pick to take over the pulpit at the First Baptist Church of Dallas in 1944. For the next 50 years, he presided over the downtown congregation, which grew from 6,000 to a peak of 28,000. Criswell has served as the church’s pastor emeritus since 1994.
He also popularized the nearly extinct, verse-by-verse preaching of the Bible, once taking 17 years of Sunday sermons to get through the entire Bible.
“He almost single-handedly reintroduced that style of preaching,” said Ron Harris, executive president of Criswell Communications, which runs four radio stations.
Criswell is survived by his wife, Betty; daughter, Mabel Ann; and grandsons Cris Criswell and Paul Daniel Jackson. Services will be Wednesday at the First Baptist Church of Dallas.