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W.A. Criswell’s widow, Betty, dies at 93

Revised Aug. 4 at 9 a.m.

DALLAS (BP)–Bessie “Betty” Marie Criswell, widow of legendary preacher and former Southern Baptist Convention President W.A. Criswell, died Aug. 2`at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas at the age of 93.

The cause of death was a respiratory illness, according to the Dallas Morning News, which described Betty Criswell as “a local legend herself, staunchly supporting her husband and teaching a Sunday school class that KCBI-FM (90.9) aired for nearly 30 years.”

The website of First Baptist Church in Dallas stated:

“Mrs. W.A. (Betty) Criswell –- ‘Mrs. C’ as she was affectionately called — taught the Bible for over 70 years, most of those here at First Baptist Church of Dallas. She devoted herself to Dr. Criswell’s gospel ministry during his life, and after his death continued to preserve his legacy through First Baptist Church and The Criswell College.

“Mrs. C was a blessing and a beacon to all who knew her, as well as the many thousands who listened from her radio audience. We mourn her loss as a church family and staff and celebrate her homegoing to see her Savior face to face, Whom she has so wonderfully served.”

Betty Criswell came to Dallas in 1944 when her husband became First Baptist’s pastor. W.A. Criswell, a key figure in the SBC’s conservative resurgence and its emphasis on biblical inerrancy, was named pastor emeritus in 1994; he died in 2002 at the age of 92. The Criswells were married 67 years.

O.S. Hawkins, who led the Dallas church from 1993 until 1997 when he became president of the SBC’s GuideStone Financial Resources, said Betty Criswell was “a formidable force for decades alongside her husband at First Baptist Church. During our years of pastoring there she was always kind and supportive of all the Hawkins’ family. Her death now closes the long and blessed Criswell chapter in the volume that tells the story of the ministry of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.”

Mac Brunson, pastor of the church from 1999 until accepting the pastorate of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., earlier this year, was not available for comment Aug. 3.

Evangelist Billy Graham, a longtime member of First Baptist in Dallas, issued a written statement: “We join in rejoicing that Betty Criswell has joined her beloved husband in heaven at the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom she has served for so long. Her tremendous ministry will be greatly missed at First Baptist Church of Dallas.”

Betty Criswell, who led her 9:30 a.m. Sunday School class in studies throughout the books of the Old and New Testament, last taught on July 9, the Dallas Morning News reported. She “was a force in the church in her own right, not least by building a Sunday school class attended by 200 to 300 people and broadcast on radio throughout the region,” the newspaper noted.

She first met Criswell when he became pastor of her hometown church in Mount Washington, Ky., while he also was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

As recounted in a biographical sketch of Betty Criswell from First Baptist Dallas: “In 1933, when W.A. became pastor of the little church in Mount Washington, Ky., he did not realize that women were not to pray in public in Kentucky. In his first Wednesday evening service he wanted to have a prayer service. He began by asking a woman on the front row to pray and she refused. He continued asking each woman on the front row and each one shook her head no. He continued on to the second row of women until he got to Betty Harris. She finally agreed to pray. Afterwards he asked her why it was that she finally acquiesced to pray and she responded that she took pity on him and decided she was just going to pray.”

Criswell became a frequent guest of her family at lunch and dinner and, two years later, he and Betty were married in the chapel of Southern Seminary in Louisville. In 1937, Criswell graduated from the seminary with a Ph.D. degree in philosophy and Betty completed degree at Western Kentucky State Teachers College (now Western Kentucky University) in Bowling Green.

“Prior to graduation,” the biographical sketch recounts, the couple “made a prayer covenant with the Lord that they would accept the first church that called W.A. to be their full-time pastor,” which turned out to be First Baptist Church in Chickasha, Okla.

She is survived by two grandsons; the Criswells’ daughter, Mabel Ann, died in 2002 as did W.A. Criswell.

A memorial Service will be held at noon Tuesday, Aug. 8, in the sanctuary of First Baptist, 1707 San Jacinto in downtown Dallas. Visitation will be from 5-8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 7, also in the church sanctuary.

Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, Texas, will officiate at the memorial service. Jeffress grew up in the church and later served as its youth minister.

Flowers may be delivered to the sanctuary on Aug. 7, while memorial gifts may be made to the W.A. and Betty Criswell Scholarship Fund Baptist in care of the Foundation of Texas, 1601 Elm St., Suite 1700, Dallas, TX 75201.