New Criswell biography offers praise for spiritual leadership, but is candid about flaws

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Criswell: His Life and Times, by O.S. Hawkins and published by B&H Publishing

Few people were more influential in Dallas in the last half of the 20th Century than the Rev. Dr. W.A. Criswell. As pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas from 1944 until 1994, he was among pioneers of the megachurch concept, served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and was a leader in the conservative shift of Southern Baptists, both theologically and politically.  

Criswell is the subject of a new biography, “Criswell: His Life and Times,” by Dr. O.S. Hawkins, a longtime friend and admirer as well as one of Criswell’s successors to the First Baptist pulpit (1993-1997). The book is published by B&H Publishing of Brentwood, Tenn. Hawkins writes in the book’s preface that one of Criswell’s greatest contributions was making fundamental theology respectable. “He took it from the brush arbor back woods to the forefront of intellectual debate and theological thought,” Hawkins writes. “He did this in a myriad of ways. He read the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew with fluency. He showed the world that one could interpret the Bible literally and could, at the same time, be extremely knowledgeable and well-read in the fields of literature, languages, science, history, humanities, and other areas of liberal arts.” 

If you ordered a Southern Baptist preacher from Central Casting in Hollywood, W.A. Criswell is what you would get. Always immaculately dressed, he had a full head of hair parted toward the middle that grayed in a distinguished and avuncular way over the years. He favored finely cut suits with vests, and from Memorial Day until Labor Day, he always wore white suits with matching vests. He was a Bible thumper and pulpit pounder in his sermons. He had a voice that could rise for the right emphasis but lower for just the right effect and emotion. When he would shout, “The Bible said it, and I believe it,” his congregants would nod knowingly and perhaps respond with a hearty “Amen.” Little doubt can exist of Criswell’s intellectual firepower. Criswell’s successor in the First Baptist pulpit, Joel Gregory, said that, in Criswell, “The right wing of American Christianity had a genuine Ph.D. who could quote Shakespeare and Browning by the mile from memory as well as he could the Apostle Paul.” 

Growing up in near poverty, Criswell was in many respects the product of a doting and controlling mother, Anna Criswell. She would move with him from Texline, Texas, to Amarillo so he could have a better high school education. She later would move with him to Waco for his first year at Baylor University. She dictated virtually every phase of his life. From an early age, Criswell would tell any who asked that he was going to be a preacher. Hawkins writes that Criswell’s mother was the dominant figure in his life until 1935, when he married the one who would take his mother’s place, Betty Marie Harris Criswell.

Yet Hawkins also writes that his book is “no hagiography,” and addresses some of Criswell’s flaws. Both admirers and critics of Criswell, and there were plenty of both, nationally as well as in Dallas, will find the book of interest. Perhaps the most damaging event in Criswell’s life was his broadside attack on integration. In February 1956, Criswell stood in the pulpit of First Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., to address the South Carolina Baptist evangelism conference. The next day, Criswell addressed the South Carolina Legislature. Criswell denounced as “foolishness” and “idiocy” attempts by the U.S. Supreme Court to force integration in the South. He argued that whites had a right to worship without being integrated in order to protect their long-established and distinctive spirituality. In May of 1954, the Supreme Court had issued its landmark ruling, by a unanimous vote, in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. 

Criswell’s two speeches in South Carolina were intemperate and utterly racist. According to news reports, he used the term “chigger” as a substitute racial epithet. His comments haunted him the rest of his life. But it was 12 years, in 1968 when he was elected president of the SBC, before he publicly acknowledged he had “changed” since the racial attacks.  The next-to-last chapter in Hawkins’ book is titled “Three Great Regrets.”  Hawkins notes in the chapter that Criswell took over a church in 1944 “steeped in the spirit of Southern culture, deeply embedded with the ugly stain of white supremacy, and composed of many deacons who had been active members of the Ku Klux Klan.” Criswell later acknowledged the speeches as a “colossal blunder.”

The Criswell speeches merited a chapter in Jim Schutze’s book “The Accommodation: The Politics of Race in an American City.” Schutze, a highly respected Dallas reporter and a keen observer of local politics, first published the book in 1986. The book was republished by Deep Vellum in Dallas in 2023 and has been widely discussed in book clubs, civic groups, and religious organizations. “The Accommodation” is a reporter’s perspective on Dallas’ long and uncomfortable dealings with race. Schutze noted that even many Southern Baptist leaders, including the Rev. Billy Graham, openly disagreed with Criswell. Whether he wanted to be or not, Criswell and First Baptist Church Dallas were long viewed as leaders in the resistance to civil rights. 

A statue of W.A. Criswell in the library of Criswell College in Dallas. Photo by Tony Pederson

Criswell also acknowledged regret over his handling of the transition to Joel Gregory’s hiring as pastor of First Baptist. Criswell had a vivid dream while in London that his successor would be Hawkins. Yet, a segment of First Baptist Church had determined that Criswell would not be allowed to appoint his successor and that a search committee would be used. After a tortured and expensive search of 27 months, Gregory was named pastor in November 1990. 

The chaos would only continue in Gregory’s short tenure as pastor, which ended after 22 months in September 1992. The chaos is detailed in a Texas Monthly article written by Skip Hollandsworth, “The Private Hell of Joel Gregory,” published in 1994. Hollandsworth wrote of the sudden and mysterious resignation read by Gregory on a Wednesday night as well as a book by Gregory in which he wrote that Criswell and his wife, Betty, had campaigned to ruin his pastorate. A short time after his resignation, Gregory and his wife would separate, and rumors of infidelity were rampant in Southern Baptist circles. Gregory told Hollandsworth that rumors of womanizing were used to destroy his reputation.

The third regret involves Criswell’s family life. Writes Hawkins: “While W.A. and Betty were a power couple of unmatched proportions in public, behind the doors of the parsonage on Swiss Avenue was one of the most dysfunctional families imaginable. It was not uncommon for days to turn into weeks without a word spoken between the couple.” One can only speculate how Criswell’s domineering mother might have affected his relationship with his wife and his view of women. Hawkins writes that Criswell never had a date until he was in doctoral studies at Southern Seminary and realized he would have to have a wife to succeed in ministry. 

Betty Criswell could be a charming and effective pastor’s wife; she could also be difficult and even vindictive. Criswell could never acknowledge his difficult family life until his later years. Dating from an incident early in their marriage when Criswell had received an invitation to pastor a larger church but Betty refused to go, Criswell apparently felt that the threat of divorce was always possible. Criswell knew that a divorce would probably end his career as a pastor. He later told a friend, “All my life I have lived with that gun to my head.”  

The dysfunction extended to the couple’s only child, a daughter, Mabel Ann, born in 1939. Mabel Ann would sometimes go long periods of time without communicating with her mother. Hawkins writes that at times Betty even forbade W.A. and Mabel Ann to talk, but that they often met secretly at a restaurant for lunch on Saturdays. Mabel Ann died of cancer in 2002, within six months of her father’s death. Hawkins writes that Mabel Ann may well have had some type of mental illness that was never properly diagnosed. Betty Criswell died in 2006.

Hawkins’ book takes Criswell’s career chronologically through the five decades of his pastorate with the chapters broken into decades. Whatever his flaws, he was immensely successful as a preacher, conducting thousands of baptisms and making First Baptist Church Dallas the largest Southern Baptist congregation in the United States. Many members were not Dallas residents, including the Rev. Billy Graham, whose ministries were based in North Carolina. Perhaps the popularity of Criswell’s preaching style waned in the 1980s, but there were no doubt other factors as well because First Baptist Church membership began to decline. 

In an interview in Dallas, Hawkins said he wrote the book, “because of my deep respect for him in light of the fact that he was flawed, like we all are, in many ways. I wanted to bring balance to older generations who may have only heard about him. I wanted to introduce him, warts and all, to the new generation of Christian leaders.”

The book is very readable and contains numerous anecdotes and personal observations that enliven the narrative. Hawkins knew Criswell very well and on a personal as well as professional level. The book is written by a man of deep faith and conviction with admiration for another of like mind. Hawkins is the retired CEO of GuideStone Financial Resources and chancellor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. He is the author of more than 50 books, including “Joshua Code” and the entire Code series of devotionals published by HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson. “Criswell: His Life and Times” is the sequel to Hawkins’ previous book, “In the Name of God: The Colliding Lives, Legends, and Legacies of J. Frank Norris and George W. Truett.”

Tony Pederson is senior national fellow of the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics.