LITERAL LEGEND: W. A. Criswell remembered
___By Toby Druin & Mark Wingfield
___Editor Emeritus & Managing Editor
___DALLAS--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 to Criswell from John 14 when he breathed his last, reported Paige Patterson, former president of Criswell College in Dallas, who now serves as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina.
|W. A. Criswell
___Funeral services are 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 challen
ged Christians to live more devoted lives.
|See a timeline of Criswell's life and ministry.
___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 preacher 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 Church of Dallas 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 Da
llas in 1984, Criswell closed the convention in prayer.
|CRISWELL preached more than 30 times at the SBC Pastors' Conference.
___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.
___Because of the influence of his church and his stature as a preacher, Criswell was known around the world. A staunch defender of Israel, he was honored by Prime Minister Menachem Begin for his support of the Jewish state in 1988, and in 1971 his tour group was given an audience by Pope Paul VI.
___But 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.
___In the pulpit, he wept, laughed, shouted and smiled. He waved his Bible in the air, sometimes ripping pages from it to make a point about those he said didn't believe all the Bible. He blasted "infidels" and "liberals" and warned sinners to turn from their path toward hell.
___He was colorful and charismatic in the pulpit, and he was beloved by many as a pastor and as a mentor in the faith.
___When Criswell assumed the pastorate of First Baptist Church 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.
___His earliest recollection of being called to the ministry was when he was about 6 years old, he said. He made a public profession of faith in Christ when he was 10 and two years later committed his life to the gospel ministry. He began preaching at 17.
___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. By 1993, Criswell had been named pastor emeritus before 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.
___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.
___Criswell was mourned by prominent figures throughout Baptist life.
___"It is alm
ost 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."
|CRISWELL signs a copy of one of his many books, dressed in his signature white suit.
___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 Church for 17 years.
___Hawkins lamented the loss of "a mentor and icon of the faith and ... a loving prayer partner."
___"It can be said of him what was said of good King Josiah, 'Before him was no king like him who turned to the Lord with all his heart and soul and might . . . nor after him did any arise like him,'" Hawkins said.
___Charles Wade, executive director of the BGCT, called Criswell "a larger-than-life figure who left his indelible brand on Texas and on three generations of Baptists."
___"His extraordinary gifts in the pulpit, his steadfast pastoral commitment to a great downtown city church, his leadership by example in church growth, his fervent dedication to missions and evangelism and his unswerving commitment to proclaiming the truth of the Bible will long be remembered," Wade said.
___James Semple, retired director of the BGCT State Missions Commission and member of First Baptist Church in Dallas, praised Criswell as "missionary in zeal and compassionate in heart."
___"He possessed a brilliant intellect, a pastor's heart, the fire of an evangelist and the preaching skills of an orator," Semple said.
___While Criswell moved with ease among the rich and famous, he never lost the ability to relate well to the most humble person, Semple noted.
___"He was equally at home in the halls of learning dressed in academic regalia or in a children's Sunday School party dressed as a cowboy. He was never aloof from his people, and each person was made to feel important in his presence. ... Any small favor he received was rewarded with a personal note of appreciation. We shall miss him, and we are not likely to see one like him again."
___Brunson, the current pastor at First Baptist of Dallas, called Criswell "one of God's great saints" in a statement released through Baptist Press. "He was a prayer partner and an enormous encouragement to me as a young pastor, parrticularly since I was following in the footsteps of a legend."
___With additional reporting by Steve DeVane, Ken Camp and Jerilynn Armstrong
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