W. A. Criswell

I have no idea why the footnotes are messing up but here you go, enjoy. At least look at the cool chart I made at the bottom. See ya. 

“I believe W.A. Criswell was the greatest American pastor of the 20th Century. He pastored in Dallas for more than 50 years, wrote more than 50 books and developed the most widely copied church model of the last century.[1] Those words are a loving a respectful tribute to Dr. Criswell by Pastor Rick Warren.[2] Warren went on to say, 

“Most people think of tradition when they think of Criswell, but actually his ministry was incredibly innovative. It only became known as traditional after everyone copied him! His ministry in Dallas spanned over five decades. It was no flash in the pan. It stood the test of time.


                        The great modern evangelist Billy Graham[3] was quoted as saying, ‘It is almost impossible to evaluate the life and ministry of W.A. Criswell. He has 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. He was anointed by the Holy Spirit in an unusual way. His counsel and love to me meant more than he ever knew. I have many memories of our times together. In recent years I did not see him often, but the memory of years past had a spiritual impact on me. Dr. W. A. Criswell will be greatly missed.[4]

                        There is no doubt that the late Dr. Criswell influenced a great number of men. From the ‘unheard of’ preacher in a rural town pulpit to the most well known and respected minister and clergy of our time most have been deeply impacted by Dr. Criswell’s speaking and writing ministry. His life spanned almost 100 years but it was no doubt the last 50 of it that changed the face of modern evangelicalism, particularly the Southern Baptist Convention, as he served as Pastor and Pastor Emeritus at the First Baptist Church of Dallas Texas.

                        Even the President of the institution to which I submit this paper, Liberty Theological Seminary, was greatly influenced by the ministry of Dr. W. A. Criswell. While Ergun Caner was still a professor at Criswell College in Dallas Texas he wrote,

            “In 1987, I drove two thousand miles round trip from Kentucky to Dallas, Texas with two friends. We were all twenty-year-old ministerial students, who had backed in the writings of Dr. W.A. Criswell and wanted to hear him preach on time in our lives. The drive was arduous, but finally on Wednesday morning, we arrived at the crossroads of Ervay and San Jacinto. Checking our ties and suits, we hesitantly entered the second floor office of Dr. Criswell, and gingerly asked if he could meet us for five minutes.

            Amazingly, not only was he there, but he met with us for a half hour, and posed for pictures. That evening, he even called us to the platform of the hallowed First Baptist Church in Dallas, and had us tell everyone our story. It is a moment emblazoned on our memories.

            Three years later, I was a Masters student at the Criswell College. Fifteen years later, I am a professor at the institution which bears his name.

            Criswell College has always reflected he man for whom we were names. As we heard of Dr. Criswell’s entrance into glory yesterday, thousands of people have reflected on the legacy and memories of the esteemed “pope” of the Southern Baptist Convention. Without exaggeration, Dr. Criswell has marked this century as one of Southern Baptist’s greatest pastors and theologians.[5]


                        The accolades could go on for some time. It is said that at the funeral services remembering the life of Dr. Criswell thousands of onlookers packed the First Baptist Church Sanctuary and filled rooms at the church and at the Criswell College where the funeral was broadcast through closed circuit television. “In a highly unusual move, several miles of Dallas’ North Central Expressway [arguably one of Dallas’ most busy and traveled highways] were closed after the funeral to allow the stately transport of Criswell’s body to Hillcrest Memorial Park, where he was laid to rest.[6] The service was attended by Southern Baptist Leaders such as O. S. Hawkins[7], Dr. Mac Brunson[8] and Paige Patterson[9].

The Person

            Who was the man so celebrated in his death as to bring one of the most influential cities in the South to a standstill on one January afternoon? While his death was something of a legend his life was no doubt blessed by God and directed by divine will.

            W. A. Criswell was born December 19th 1909 to Wallie Amos Criswell and Anna Currie Criswell. Although it is commonly thought his initials stand for Wallie Amos, his parents intended to give him initials only and it was long years afterward – prompted by the instance of government immigration officials – that W. A. officially took the name Wallie Amos.[10] Early in W.A.’s life his parents were farmers but after the dust bowl drove many American farmers to the cities the Criswell’s moved to Texline, TX where Wallie Amos took to the profession of barbering.

            Before moving to Texline W.A. did poorly in school even being held back one year, this was probably due to the 5-mile horse and buggy commute and often-severe weather conditions. In Texline he blossomed a student so much so that Anna Criswell signed young W.A. up for extra learning.[11]

            The Criswell’s ‘exercised puritanical discipline’ and were very religious. They believed dancing, playing cards and gambling were terrible sins. For the most part young W.A. hung around his parents and read. Both Wallie and Anna were very religious. Wallie lead worship for their small Baptist church in Texline, often accompanied by W.A. standing at his leg and Anna would sing religious songs as she worked around the house. ‘My mother sang all the time and she knew songs world without end,’ Criswell would say, ‘As I look back over it I just can’t imagine it – she sang religious hymns endlessly and from memory, and then all kinds of cowboy songs.[12]

            At age ten W.A. made a public profession of faith after pleading with his mother to get out of school and attend the town’s revival meetings. It does not appear that W.A. wanted to miss school for the sake of missing but really rather wanted to hear the preaching of God’s Word; the delivery of those messages was given by John Hicks, the pastor of the Baptist church in Dalhart, who had been staying with the Criswell’s during the revival. At the close of the sermon Pastor Hicks asked for the hymn ‘There is a fountain filled with blood’ to be sang at which time Anna turned to her youngest son and asked him if he would give his life to Jesus – to which he replied ‘Oh mother, yes.’ The small church celebrated the emotional conversation experience.

            In a previous conversation one evening with Pastor Hicks W.A. expressed to the pastor that he had felt God’s call to preach since the age of six but resisted, knowing he was not yet converted. W.A. Criswell’s first message was preached at the funeral service of a friend’s dog and was witnessed by two boys and girl. ‘With great eloquence he extolled the dogs virtues and verbally berated anyone so low as to poison a boy’s dog.[13]

            Due primarily to their experience with the harsh treatment of pastors and preachers on the frontier the Criswell’s were not in support of W.A.’s surrender to preach Anne in particular was against his calling and wanted him to be a doctor as her father was. Criswell would later remark about the struggle; ‘My people believed every word of the Bible was inspired, yet they disliked the idea of having a preacher son. Their feelings probably emanated form their own experiences with pastors in the Texline church.[14]

            Always a priority to Anna the education of her sons took her to Amarillo. She wanted her sons to graduate from an accredited high school so as to make admission into an accredited college much easier. Wallie Amos stayed in Texline and sent the money he made from the barbershop to her. Their the boys, Curie and W.A., focused on school while Anna did everything she could think of to raise the necessary living expenses such as subletting their home, baking pies and sewing.  Shortly before W.A. graduated high school his father and the rest of their family moved to Amarillo. The reunion was short lived. After graduation Anna researched many schools and eventually decided that Baylor was the University that W.A. would attend. By this time she had reluctantly embraced W.A.’s calling to preach and moved with him to Waco to support him while he studied. W.A. prayed earnestly that God would provide a church where he could pastor and support himself so his mother could return to Amarillo and be with the rest of the family.[15] [16]

            It was not long until a small country church, First Baptist Devil’s Bend, outside of Waco called W.A. to pastor. They agreed to pay the 18 year old preacher $20 a month if they could raise it and W.A. preached like a ‘house of fire.’ W.A. enjoyed much success at that small church and was later called to a Pecan Grove Baptist Church in Pulltight TX, closer to the Baylor campus. In Pulltight W.A.’s ministry began to receive much attention and he developed an exegetical preaching style. [17]

            Despite his professors suggesting he attend Yale Divinity as well as suggestions from his friends to go to Brown so that he could ‘widen his horizons’[18]  W.A. had decided he would attend Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for his graduate studies. He arrived in Louisville with no job and no money but he knew that God would provide. He was soon offered the pastorate of two churches and accepted both. He preached at Mount Washington Baptist Church three Sundays a month and Oakland Baptist Church on the other Sunday. At Washington Baptist he met the young lady that would soon become his wife. Her name was Betty Harris and she was the daughter or prominent Baptist in their church. Her cousin and she would often play pranks on their new pastor and then scold him for being a victim. He was prim and proper buried in his studies and she was flirtatious and adventurous. Three years after first meeting her he asked for her hand and she accepted. They were married on Valentines Day 1935. That same year W.A. graduated from Southern Seminary with a PhD.[19]

            Shortly after his graduation he and his wife moved to Chickasha Oklahoma to accept the pastorate at the First Baptist Church. They did so after interviewing with First Baptist Church of Birmingham Alabama. The Birmingham church was more prominent and well known but they delayed in issuing a call to W.A. and fell victim to the agreement that the young pastor and his wife made with God to accept the first church that extended a call. Mrs. Criswell cried for one week after the decision believing Oklahoma to be a dessert place. The Lord blessed the ministry in Chickasha and soon the First Baptist Church of Muskogee, one of the largest in Oklahoma called him to be their pastor. In both Oklahoma churches Criswell’s preaching packed the sanctuaries and caused many people to talk about his charismatic style and superior education. He was like nothing they had seen before. He had developed into the essence of what his parents had told him when he was younger.[20] His father told him if he was to preach he should preach like the Texas Tornado J. Frank Norris[21] but his mother insisted that he should speak like the dignified and highly respected George W. Truett[22] – W. A. did both. [23]

            While God truly blessed all of his pastorates it is W.A. Criswell’s ministry in Dallas that is most remembered and celebrated. A hard decision for both the Criswell’s and the First Baptist Church of Dallas W.A. accepted the call in 1944.[24] George Truett had passed away leaving almost immeasurably huge shoes to fill. The church had scrutinized over the decision and considered dozens of applicants before coming to the decision to call W.A. Criswell. Dr. Criswell would spend 50 years in the pulpit at First Baptist Dallas. From there his preaching and writings would bring a firestorm of attention.


The Preacher

            Best known for his oratory ability and style W.A. Criswell was a preacher. While his predecessor, Dr. Truett, spoke with concise and perfect English Dr. Criswell was known as a ‘holy roller with a PhD.’ So much so that he apologized to the pastoral search committee of first Baptist Dallas.

            It was in Muskogee that he more fully developed the concept of preaching through the Bible. He found that it was easier to simple preach verse by verse than to labor over which text or topic he would preach next. Two years after his call to First Dallas he began a journey of preaching through the Bible verse by verse this would turn out to be a seventeen-year project. Because he would repeat this method again and again it is said that many of the members of First Baptist Dallas to this day can not tell you on which date they joined the Dallas congregation but rather which book.  

            Dr. Criswell preached a number of sermons that became somewhat famous. One such sermon preached December 31, 1961 titled ‘The Scarlet Thread Through The Bible’ is one such sermon. About this sermon he said ‘The greatest single preaching experience of my life was right here [FBCD] when I started preaching at 7:30pm and preached till past midnight on the subject of ‘The Scarlet Thread Through the Bible.’ It is said that he preached that entire 4 hour plus sermon without one note and that the Dallas sanctuary was more packed with listeners when he finished than when he started.[25]

            Criswell preached to First Baptist and Criswell preached to Dallas. Every year the First Baptist Church conducted a week of services leading up to the Easter celebration. These services still go onto this day.[26] One year these sermons were converted into a book when he preached them geared toward unbelievers and skeptics. These five sermons were practical and to the point touching on such issues as the reality of God, the deity of Christ, communism, materialism and sacrificial atonement. Although he dealt with such weighty topics he handled them in a way that anyone could understand. Of these sermons a UT Law graduate said ‘the intensity of the message, the intellect, the sheer personality of the preacher moved me. But what made the greatest impression was the gospel of Christ, presented so uniquely and yet in such a simple fashion.’[27]

            From Lawyers to teenagers the great orator had an appeal with all audiences. In Jackson Mississippi Dr. Criswell preached and three thousand students committed their life to Jesus Christ. A pilot flying over Dallas caught one of Dr. C’s messages by way of radio and fell under conviction as did a businessman driving from Houston to Dallas. One Wednesday evening they found it necessary to move the lecture W. A. was to give from a 700 seat lecture hall to the 2,000 seat main sanctuary to accommodate the predominately young crowds that wanted to hear him speak and they filled it up. Through the churches radio, television and live ministries the whole city and many who visited wanted to hear a word from God delivered by Dr. Criswell.

            With personal heroes such as Charles Haddon Spurgeon[28] Dr. Criswell spent up to five hours a day in study and preparation for his weekly sermons. His method was simple and yet extraordinary, he would locate the scripture, feel the burden of the message, research, plan the spoken message and then present it extemporaneously.[29]

            As previously mentioned several of Dr. Criswell’s sermons were converted to print and published for many young preachers and devoted Christ followers to digest. While he sold many books and no doubt touched many lives through those books he is best known for that dynamic, booming voice, and his apparently free but always controlled oratory ability.


The Author

            It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, if that is the case W.A. Criswell was a great warrior. He was the author of some 54 books including ‘The Holy Spirit in today’s World’ in which he gives answers to the ideas and doctrines arising from the Charismatic movement he found confusing.[30] In 1980 Criswell authored the ‘Criswell’s Guidebook for Pastors in which he offered advice for the everyday matters in association with the pastorate. The guidebook has become a staple reading for many young pastors today. He also co edited a study bible known as the Criswell Study Bible which is now known as the Believers Study Bible.

            No other book written by Dr. W. A. Criswell received such attention, as did the 1969 work entitled ‘Why I Preach the Bible is Literally True.’ The book, dedicated ‘to that man who stands anywhere in the earth with an open Bible and preaches to the people God’s infallible Word’[31] was instantly criticized and brought under scrutiny by many liberals in the Southern Baptist Convention at that time. “In this 160-page book, published by Broadman Press, Criswell detailed why he believed in such things as a literal fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, literal miracles, a literal creation account in Genesis, and a literal second coming of Christ to earth. Criswell argued that the findings of archaeology only confirmed the historicity of biblical events. He denounced the theory of evolution and stated that the Bible was not only a book of doctrine but that it was accurate in its scientific statements as well. Criswell demanded that reason be subordinated to revelation and faith. Theology students, wrote Criswell, should study the Greek and Hebrew languages because the very words of the Bible are inspired by God; and they should preach literally, grammatically, and historically and not spiritualize biblical texts.[32] Immediately the Association of Baptist Professors of Religion submitted a resolution at their annual meeting in Atlanta Georgia denouncing the advertising of the book by Broadman Publishers. Under the advisement of a wise church member Criswell let his friends fight this battle for him, and did they. The majority of the Southern Baptist Convention rallied behind Dr. Criswell and the publishing of his book. Many called for the names of those who signed the resolution and demanded the Baptist school boards look into what was being taught in the classrooms. The book articulated the growing concern against liberalism creeping into the Southern Baptist Convention particularly in connection to the inerrancy of Scriptures.

There is little doubt that God saw fit to use the presence, preaching and pen of Dr. W. A. Criswell to touch and change not only the lives of those living in Dallas Texas but the United States. He is credited for initiating the Conservative Movement[33], whereby the largest protestant denomination turned back toward conservative theology and practice after taking a liberal slant. He was the architect of one of the first and most well known Southern Baptist mega-churches in the US. And as I finish this paper I am relaxing after watching my wife graduate from the same school I myself graduated from last year and Dr. Criswell founded some 37 years ago. While Dr. Criswell has been gone for 6 years his work lives on in the work of men he trained and mentored who would become the current presidents of 5 major Southern Baptist theological schools and countless pastors, teachers, authors and missionaries.

W.A. Criswell’s Biographical Outline[34]




December 19, 1909


Eldorado, OK


Graduated High School, enrolled in Baylor University

Amarillo, TX


Graduated Baylor University

Majored in English

Waco, TX


Earned Masters of Theology degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Louisville, Ky

February 14, 1935

Married Bessie Marie Harris


May, 1937

Earned PhD from Southern Seminary

Louisville, Ky


Called as pastor of First Baptist Church of Chickasha, Oklahoma



Called as pastor of First Baptist Church of Muskogee, Oklahoma



Succeeded Dr. George W. Truett as pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas TX.



Began preaching through the Bible word for word (17 year project)

First Baptist Dallas, TX


Gained national attention for saying integrationist are “a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.



Declared FBC Dallas open to people of all races in a sermon



Elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention



Published ‘Why I preach the Bible is literally True.



Criswell Bible Institute founded

Dallas, TX


First Baptist Academy opened



Affirmed Roe vs. Wade[35]



Initiated the vision that would led to the formation of KCBI radio



Published the Criswell Study Bible



Nominated Adrian Rogers for SBC president and launched the conservative movement amongst the Southern Baptist

Houston, TX


FBCD recognized as the largest (26,000) and wealthiest SBC church in the world, owning 5 blocks of downtown Dallas.



Delivered the benediction over Reagan’s Republican nomination

Dallas, TX


FBCD gave a record $1.85 million offering.



Told FBCD he wished to call a co-pastor to prevent any ‘hiatus’ should he become incapacitated.



Speaking at the SBC Pastor’s Conference in the heat of battle between convention moderates and conservatives, he explained that moderates are the same as liberals: “A skunk by any other name still stinks.“

San Antonio, TX


Joel Gregory called as Criswell’s successor.



Gregory abruptly resigned as pastor of First Baptist, later explaining he had not been allowed full authority as pastor due to Criswell’s continuing influence.



Criswell’s 50 year anniversary as pastor of FBC Dallas.



Colon cancer sent the 88-year-old to bed for five months.


January 10, 2002

Died as his friend of 30 years read to him from the Bible

Dallas, TX

         [1] Rick Warren, “W.A. Criswell’s Legacy to Extend for Generations” (Pastors.com, January, 23, 2002). http://www.pastors.com/RWMT/default.asp?id=36&artid=1474&expand=1 (May 8, 2008).


[2] Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of America’s largest and best-known churches. In addition, Rick is author of the New York Times bestseller The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose Driven Church, which was named one of the 100 Christian books that changed the 20th Century. He is also founder of Pastors.com, a global Internet community for ministers. Short biography taken from Pastors.com.


[3] “Mr. Graham has preached the Gospel to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history—nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories—through various meetings, including Mission World and Global Mission. Hundreds of millions more have been reached through television, video, film, and webcasts.” – The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association


[4] Billy Graham, “Baptist Leaders remember life, legacy of Criswell,” Southern Baptist Texan, February 2002, 8.


[5] Ergun Caner, “Criswell trained with pathos, logos, ethos.Southern Baptist Texan, February 2002, 15.


[6] Mark Wingfield, “Criswell hailed as legendary defender of the faith.The Baptist Standard, January 21, 2001


[7] O. S. Hawkins is President and Chief Executive Officer of GuideStone Fincanical Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention and one time Pastor of First Baptist Dallas.


[8] Dr. Mac Brunson s the current Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church Jacksonville Florida and formerly the pastor of First Baptist Dallas.


[9] Patterson is the current President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, longtime friend of Dr. Criswell and has served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The Criswell College.


[10] Billy Kieth, W.A.Criswell (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1973), 18.


[11] Ibid., 17-25


[12] Ibid., 20


            [13] Ibid., 22


            [14] Ibid., 23


            [15] Ibid., 26-29


            [16] Timothy Pope, “The Baptist Pope” (Christianity Today, March 11, 2002). http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/march11/3.54.html  (Thursday, May 8, 2008).


            17 Billy Kieth, W.A.Criswell (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1973), 29-34


            [18] “Portraits, W A Criswell (1909 – 2002)” (The Baptist Page). http://www.siteone.com/religion/baptist/baptistpage/Portraits/criswell.html (Thursday, May 8, 2008).


            [19] Billy Kieth, W.A.Criswell (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1973), 46-52


            [20] Ibid., Chapter 5


            [21] J. Frank Norris was a firebrand fundamentalist preacher and popular Baptist leader. He was one of the most controversial and flamboyant figures in the history of fundamentalism. Norris was popularly known as the “Texas Tornado” and the “Texas Cyclone.


            [22] George Washington Truett was one of the most important and influential Southern Baptist pastors of his time. He was Criswell’s predecessor, pasturing First Baptist Dallas from 1897 – 1944


            [23] Common story told about Dr. Criswell on the campus of Criswell College by many professors.


            [24] “The Baptist Pope” (Christianity Today, March 11, 2002). http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/march11/3.54.html  (Thursday, May 8, 2008).


            [25] Billy Kieth, W.A.Criswell (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1973), 78-79


            [26] Sam Hodges, ‘KCBI to broadcast First Baptist Dallas noon Lenten services’ The Dallas Morning News, April 01, 2007, http://religionblog.dallasnews.com/archives/2007/04/kcbi-to-broadcast-first-baptis.html, May 10, 2008


            [27] Billy Kieth, W.A.Criswell (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1973), 85


            [28] Charles Haddon Spurgeon was one of the greatest English Baptist. 1834- 1892, Of Spurgeon Criswell said, ‘He was the most remarkable preacher who ever lived.’

            [29] Ibid., 77-96


            [30] W. A. Criswell, ‘The Holy Spirit in Today’s Word  (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), Preface


            [31] W. A. Criswell, Why I Preach That the Bible is Literally True (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969)


            [32] Jerry L. Faught II, “‘The Ralph Elliot Controversy…’ Baptist History and Heritage (June 22, 1999)


            [33] For more information on the Conservative Movement visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SBC_Conservative_Resurgence/Fundamentalist_Takeover

[34] Adopted and modified from the January 14, 2002 Baptist Standard article ‘A brief timeline of W.A. Criswell’s life and ministry’ some information filled in from various other sources.


[35] Religious News Service quoted Criswell as saying, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from the mother that it became an individual person, and it always has, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” Criswell later changed his position on abortion, becoming a staunch opponent of the procedure.


6 thoughts on “W. A. Criswell

  1. Good work Josh. I enjoyed it.
    Kathy, I was recruited to play football at Bayor but went to Arkansas (old Southwest Conference abut a hundred years ago). Sorry.

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