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Texas Baptists prepare to memorialize Criswell

DALLAS (BP)–Texas Baptists are mourning the loss of the Lone Star state’s most prolific Southern Baptist preacher, W.A. Criswell. Criswell died Jan. 10 at the age of 92. He was pastor emeritus of the historic First Baptist Church of Dallas.

“The family of First Baptist Church of Dallas is deeply saddened by the home-going of one of God’s great saints,” said Mac Brunson, pastor of the downtown Dallas congregation. “Dr. W.A. Criswell served our congregation for 50 years as pastor and was serving as pastor emeritus at his death. He will be greatly missed as a minister, preacher, but most especially as shepherd of the flock.”

Criswell’s memorial service is set for Jan. 16 at noon inside the First Baptist Church Dallas sanctuary.

“While we are sad, yet we rejoice over the fact that he is with the Lord that he loved and that he served so faithfully all of these years,” Brunson said. “He was a prayer partner and an enormous encouragement to me as a young pastor, particularly since I was following in the footsteps of a legend.”

Richard Wells, president of Criswell’s namesake college, noted that Criswell’s commitment to the Word of God impacted the entire Southern Baptist Convention.

“In 1970, out of his deep concern over liberalism seeping into the pulpits of America, Dr. Criswell founded The Criswell College in Dallas to train a new generation of expository preachers who would stand confidently on the inerrancy and authority of the Bible as the Word of God,” Wells said.

Wells said Criswell would be best remembered as the greatest preacher of his generation. “What Spurgeon was to the 19th century, W.A. Criswell was to the 20th. An expositor and orator without peer, he had a scholar’s mind, a pastor’s heart and a missionary’s zeal. He was devoted to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he longed to see preachers prepared to preach the Bible for the salvation of the lost and growth in grace of the saved.”

The Criswell College president said Criswell leaves a legacy for a new generation of Christian leaders that is captured in the closing line of his weekly “Pastor’s Pen” column in which Criswell stated, “I’ll see you Sunday with a Bible in my hand, and a message from God in my heart.”

Wells noted that Criswell led First Baptist Dallas to seek new and innovative ways to reach multitudes for Christ through Bible study. “Under his leadership, the church established more than 15 missions throughout the city of Dallas, in addition to a vast ministry to the homeless, crisis pregnancy and counseling ministries and a host of other efforts to win men and women to the Savior.”

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Kenneth Hemphill said the Texas seminary will continue to pursue funding for a Criswell Chair of Expository Preaching.

“We are still in the process of funding that chair, but I think it is important that his legacy be perpetuated in a seminary the size and scope of Southwestern,” Hemphill said. “There were enormous links between First Baptist Church of Dallas and Southwestern going all the way back to the George W. Truett years.”

Truett, a former pastor of First Baptist Dallas, was chairman of trustees at Southwestern for many years.

Hemphill served as interim pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas for 18 months after O.S. Hawkins left to become president of the Annuity Board of the SBC.

Hemphill said that the loss of such a prominent figure in Southern Baptist life as W.A. Criswell will be felt for years to come.

Criswell was a stabilizing force in Southern Baptist life during the turbulent times from 1960-80, Hemphill said, as the Southern Baptist Convention experienced an intense debate over the inerrancy of Scripture.

“His radio and television ministries have been a voice for conservative theology and the inerrancy of the Scriptures,” Hemphill said.

Hemphill also said that Criswell was a pioneer in the church growth movement. Criswell became the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas in August 1944 and under his leadership the church membership increased to as many as 26,000.

“He has been a visionary in terms of church growth,” Hemphill said. “The Lord used him to grow one of the great mega-churches before mega-churches were commonplace.”

Hemphill said that Southwestern has been greatly influenced by Criswell’s expository style of preaching and his devotion to preaching “text by text, verse by verse.”

Ed Young Sr. said he learned much from the example of Criswell since becoming pastor of Houston’s Second Baptist Church in 1978.

“He had a mega-church back in those days and some of us began to see that that could happen,” Young said. “He used so many creative things in his ministry that are common now — youth ministry, building a school, a radio station, even a cottage for couples.”

With the Houston church now reaching 33,000 members, Young said, “We would have never conceived of such things had it not been for W.A. Criswell pastoring a church in a great city that began to reach people for Christ.”

Young added that Criswell was known as a “thorough-going conservative theologian,” and yet he was “very liberal socially in the sense of social ministry to the poor and needy through missions.” Such an approach may be typical today, Young said, “but it was a strange combination 30 years ago.”

Young also recalled Criswell’s humor from the pulpit and his ability to recite poetry at length. “It got to be such a hallmark of his style. He was a living legend, one of the great pulpiteers in the kingdom of God. Everybody called him pastor.” While Young described Criswell’s style in the pulpit as “bombastic, dogmatic, firm and unwavering,” he added, “Personally, he was a lamb — gentle, kind, sweet, self-effacing. He always had time for anybody.

“In my young, young years there’d be a conference at First Baptist of Dallas and I’d just be honored to go up and shake his hand. You knew you’d made it when he looked at you and said, ‘Lad.'”

Young noted that Criswell often asked others for wisdom and advice. “It was everybody. He would pick your mind and pick your heart.”

In other ways, Criswell demonstrated a certain innocence, Young said. “He was, in so many ways, naive. But he gathered good people around him on his staff and relied on his team.” Young also praised Criswell’s disciplined life, setting aside the time frame of 4 to 6 p.m. to return calls to those who sought his counsel. “I think that was part of his longevity. He didn’t let the job of being pastor run him. He was in charge of his schedule.”

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