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Yale, Brown or Southern? Criswell’s choice was obvious

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The year was 1931, and a young W.A. Criswell was trying to find God’s will in choosing a graduate school.

Criswell had just earned a bachelor’s degree from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and he had his list of graduate schools narrowed down to three: Yale University in New Haven, Conn.; Brown University in Providence, R.I.; and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Yes, Yale and Brown.

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W.A. Criswell’s 1934 graduation photo. He then stayed at Southern to complete his doctorate.

Criswell — who later described himself as a “Bible-thumping preacher,” who wrote a book titled “Why I Preach That the Bible Is Literally True” and who was a key leader within the Southern Baptist Convention through the later half of the 20th century — actually considered attending a non-Baptist school.

Criswell, who died on Jan. 10 at the age of 92, detailed the account in his autobiography, “Standing on the Promises.”

“What a temptation it was that summer to pack my bags and head north to New England!” he wrote. “I longed for the exhaustive libraries and demanding classes of those historic eastern universities, and on the surface it looked as though God had cleared the way. I was accepted at Brown and Yale.”

One of his friends, Baylor grad Philip Hyatt, was attending Brown and wrote a letter to Criswell.

“Go to Yale or join me at Brown, but forget Southwestern or Southern,” Hyatt wrote. “Expand your horizons. Take the risk.”

Criswell had decided that he wanted to attend a school out of state, so Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was not an option. But Yale and Brown were tempting.

Another Baylor grad, Ralph Cooie, was attending Southern. He also wrote Criswell, but begged him not to attend Brown.

“It may have started as a place of Baptist boys, Criswell, but it’s no place for Baptists now, at least not Baptists who are serious about the fundamentals of the faith,” Cooie wrote. “Join us at Southern, where you’ll find scholarship equal to Yale or Brown and at the same time a real commitment to biblical Christianity.”

A conversation with a friend, Stephen McKinney, was the deciding factor. McKinney and Criswell had entered Baylor as freshmen and had graduated together. But in terms of theology and personal belief, they had gone in opposite directions. As recounted in Criswell’s autobiography, McKinney began rejecting the Christian faith, telling Criswell that the Bible is “just another book” and asking him, “How can you be sure that God exists, Criswell?”

Such conversations were enough to push Criswell to Southern.

“Was it possible that whatever happened to Stephen at Baylor might happen to me at Brown or Yale?” Criswell wrote in his autobiography.

So, in the fall of 1931, a 21-year-old Criswell drove from Waco, Texas, to Louisville, Ky., to enroll at Southern Baptists’ mother seminary. When he arrived, Southern Seminary was in its fifth year at its newest location. The school had moved from downtown Louisville to its present location in the Crescent Hill section of the city.

Criswell arrived at Southern in the middle of the Great Depression, and the school had only 300 to 400 students. On his first day at Southern, he discovered that his church in Coryell County, Texas, had sent him an envelope filled with “five ten-dollar bills, three five-dollar bills and two one-dollar bills.”

Criswell opened the envelop in disbelief and wept.

“I had enrolled in Southern Seminary completely on faith,” Criswell wrote. “My tuition would be paid by a Baptist scholarship, but I had absolutely no money saved to pay bills for room, board, books, special fees, winter clothing, auto expenses, and offerings. To open that envelope and discover that sacrificial gift made my heart leap and my hopes rise.”

Criswell soon began looking for a place to minister, and he found two small churches in Oakland and Mount Washington, Ky. For the next three years, he preached three Sundays a month at Mount Washington and one Sunday at Oakland.

While pastoring at Mount Washington he met his future wife, Bessie “Betty” Marie Harris, who just happened to be the church pianist and a youth leader.

“I was determined to stay at Mount Washington until she accepted my hand in marriage,” Criswell wrote.

They were married on Valentine’s Day, 1935. He then resigned his pastorate at Mount Washington and he and his wife moved to Bowling Green, Ky., to pastor a church in nearby Woodburn. He continued to pastor at Oakland. He commuted from Bowling Green to Louisville.

Criswell earned two degrees at Southern — the master of theology and the doctorate of theology. In an interview with Southern Seminary Magazine (The Tie) in 1995, Criswell said his days at Southern were critical in his preparation for his ministry. In particular, Criswell said the school’s professors gave him a love for the Bible’s original languages of Hebrew and Greek.

“I took Hebrew under [John R.] Sampey and Greek under Dr. A.T. Robertson and Dr. Hersey Davis,” Criswell said. “That has been a part of my background in expounding the Word of the Lord. I look at that text, I look at those words, and in doing so there are many, many profound revelations that God has placed in his Word, that just reading in an English translation do not appear.”

Davis served as Criswell’s doctoral supervisor. Criswell wrote his dissertation on “The John the Baptist movement in Relationship to the Christian Movement.”

“I greatly loved and admired Dr. Davis,” Criswell said in 1995. “He was so encouraging to me, and his classes in New Testament were thrilling to me. Years later, I wrote a book from my preaching through the Gospel of Matthew, and I would say 99 percent of that book is based on the notes I took in his class.”

Criswell graduated with his doctorate on May 4, 1937. A lifetime full of learning and preaching the Word of God had begun.

In 1995, he offered a word of advice to young ministers. He urged them to “prepare your life to be a student. Start it in seminary — study. Make an A+ in everything! And when you get out of school, keep up that habit of studying. If you’ll do that, God will bless you, and people will love hearing you preach.”

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust