Criswell's Legacy
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Tue Oct 29, 2013 at 11:58:27 AM EST
When George Truett, the famous pastor of First Baptist Dallas passed away, the entire city of Dallas shut down to mourn the deceased legend.  Truett's famous sermon, delivered on the steps of the nation's Capitol, was a landmark for the First Amendment interpretations in the nation.  He championed the Baptist doctrine of separation of church and state.  Dr. W. A. Criswell would chart a distinctly different channel in his influence upon Southern Baptists.  Both men held seats of influence by the facts they were leaders in the nation's largest protestant church.  The church was the flagship of the Southern Baptist Convention, by its size, fiancés and historic legacy.  Anyone who headed this congregation would be graced with invitations to seats of power and influence both in the religious and political community.    It would leave a stamp of influence on the lone star state.
Many ironies followed Criswell and his positions.  The L.A. Times published a book about his pro-choice views while he was President of the SBC.  Most pastors today in the nation credit him for the influence in turning the SBC toward a strict pro-life stance.  Later on in his life he changed his views along with the culture around him.  Though he was a Baptist minister, he did not practice Baptist policies.  He wanted to operate like a CEO, not a typical pastor.  Jimmy Carter noted his fellow Baptist believed lay leadership was not Biblical and weakened the pastor's authority.1  

Criswell often proposed a literal interpretation of the Bible, yet in practice recognized symbolic passages.  He said he believed in the inerrancy theory of the Bible yet stated  in his commentary that the last few verses in the Book of Mark did not belong there.  He led the charge to ban professors who  he believed negated the miracles in the Bible.     He would be challenged on ABC news with the fact that he had once written that the account of the Nile turning into blood came from the red clay on the river bank.2

Baptists believe in the priesthood of the believer.  That is, the congregation has the final say.  Criswell did not like this idea and said a committee run church is a dead church.  He wanted to choose his successor much like a king or bishop, leaving the church out of the process.  This would cause him some grave problems whenever he began to retire from the church.   He never allowed a negative vote in business meetings after a proposal.  The church was $9 million in debt and no one knew of this.  It was incredible the amount of debt and there was no open disclosure of the fiancés given to the church as Baptists require.  Contracts for severance for pastors were not even brought before the church.3

W.A. Criswell will be remembered for his belief that women should not have authority in the local church which will be one of his legacies.  The irony is that many sources noted the influence of dominant women in his life.  Some even doubted his masculinity over such.  His mother and wife were both controlling figures.  Word at the church was that Mrs. Criswell ran things and if you crossed her you were gone. 4  I recall my bothers' college football coach telling me about being in the class.  He noted the reverence of the class as each member bowed on their knees before the lesson began.  This class, which averaged over 300, was full of men.  This is significant given the fact that Fundamentalist Baptists do not believe a woman should teach a class with boys over ten years of age.  The way around this as with Sarah Palin's defense of this dogma, was to claim they were under the authority of their husband.  I recall stories from Baptist preachers across the state that whoever went there had to please this older lady or they would find their life hell on earth.  Not exactly the apostle Paul's vision of the submissive wife.  It appears Mrs. H.L. Hunt carried lots of wait in the congregation also.  We might make the case that her money was used to start the revolt of Fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist "Convention.  Yet, the church by practice was a male oligarchy.   There were special councils in the church that membership was by invitation only.  It appears strange the way Dr. Gregory explained administration in the church that was outside the bounds of what is to take place in church administration in Baptist circles.5
Prominent Baptist pastors stated they could not have survived in the church because of the way it was operated.  Gregory quoted a source that said Mrs. Criswell would tear up the church rather than lose her power.   This was a church where at the drop of a hat a member would take the pastor and family off for an expense paid trip to the Master's Golf Tournament.  It had over 47 kitchens in the buildings and one could get lost just  walking around in buildings.  There were four palatial pastor's offices.  Each adorned with expensive paintings and elaborate relics.   It was not the typical church.6

While I was a seminary student I got word of the boasts made by Criswell that he would not allow blacks to enter his church.  I was to understand that Billy Graham threatened to take his membership out of the church if this was the policy.  The pastor later changed his tune on race.  Some historians claim it was to appease Graham and be allowed to be President of the SBC.  During his term as pastor it was noted by sources that the restrooms had signs "For Whites Only" on them.  W.A. once shouted on cameras that you can no longer call the insects "Chigger", you have to call them" Chigroe".7 I still recall the article from an Alabama newspaper quoting the Dallas pastor.  He was reviewing the many missions he sponsored.  He several times referred to the Hispanic congregations as those little "greasers."

There is a famous event that took place with W.A. in South Carolina.  He was preaching in Columbia and delivered one of these segregation messages.  Criswell adhered to the "Curse of Ham" theory.  This was the theory that Blacks were cursed by God to be servants to White people.  This was the  widely held doctrine at Bob Jones University.  Strom Thurmond, the famed Ole South Segregationist, got word of Criswell's message and introduced him as a speaker for the South Carolina Legislature.    Criswell did his segregation, curse of Ham, thing and it moved the legislators to a jubilant response.  They helped then back laws banning state employment for anyone who belonged to the NAACP.  In 1958, the orator was invited to speak  at the graduation exercise of a large Dallas High School.  He provide them with his sermon gem on the Biblical justification of segregation based on the curse of Ham.8  The curse of Ham was a Southern myth about  Noah's sons.  Fact is that Ham was not a black person like the myth pretends.  The idea that a PHD from a seminary would deliver such a shallow and bigoted version of interpretation of the text is certainly confusing considering  Criswell's standards.

Criswell's politics were somewhere to the right of Glenn Beck's.  During the Vietnam war he chastised war protestors as Communists from his pulpit.9  Rice historian Chandler Davidson wrote that there were three kingpins in Texas that led to the revival of the GOP in the state.  One was a segregationist politician, the other two were in First Baptist Dallas.  One was Criswell, the other was H.L. Hunt, the wealthy oil baron.  10
The Kennedy episode in Dallas provides an interesting story in the legacy of the church and politics.  Criswell had delivered a sermon claiming that the election of JFK would be the end of religious liberty in the nation.  This was interesting since he openly stated the separation of church and state doctrine was created by an infidel.  I recall his public endorsement of Gerald Ford over fellow Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter for President.  Criswell also endorsed Nixon and the first Bush.  H.L. Hunt liked the anti-Kennedy sermon so well he mailed it out all over the state to churches.  11

Bryan Burrough and other historians have linked Texas and national politics to big oil.  He connects the dots to the Hunt family and their attempts to influence politics around the nation.  The 501c3 tax code could be attributed to the battle between the Hunt family and LBJ.  Their fiction church radio broadcast known as Fact Forum, was beamed around the nation.  It was hard right politics under the guise of the Christian faith.   Hunt was a racist and anti-Semite.  He blamed Jews for problems in the nation.  On the morning of the Kennedy assassination the Hunt radio program was saying Kennedy was going to deprive Texans of the right to bear arms.  This is a kin to calling the state to a prepare for war.  Anti-Kennedy messages on the program were constant.  The day of the assassination one of the Hunt sons took out an ad in the Fort Worth newspaper with an apparent dead or alive wanted poster.  After the assassination took place the first place the FBI came to visit was the Hunt mansion.  The Hunts promptly laid low and stayed away from town for a while.  Hunt's third wife, Ruth, got him into Criswell's church.  Hunt liked the idea that Wally Criswell stated there was not a liberal bone in his body.12

When H.L. died, Criswell, of course, conducted the funeral.  He referred to  Hunt as `Mr. Golden Heart who had the wisdom of Solomon."`   He also noted in the service how that the father had taken such great care of his afflicted son Hassie.13  He did make every effort to meet all the needs of Hassie.  One of those needs was met by nurses who followed him around to meet his need whenever he felt the urge to reproduce.14  Hunt himself was excused by his first wife for having secret families.  After all, she reasoned, if you have superior genes it is a mandate you pass them along in the Texas range.  I am sure Criswell was not aware of this when he eulogized in his eloquent fashion.

An item of note is the Hunt money and how it impacted the Southern Baptist Convention.  It was their money that set up Criswell College.  This was the school established because you could not trust the denominational schools to get it right. You can make the case without this institution, and its leader,  you would not have the right wing takeover of the convention.  The school is traced back to Hunt money and its attempts to influence modern culture.
The legacy of Criswell's  political views continues on in the church.  Pastor Jeffries has openly endorsed Mormon Romney over the Democratic version.  Lawyers from the church have mailed out articles stating 501c3 rulings are not Constitutional and limit free speech.  With the movement of younger adults further and further into Dallas suburbs, it will become increasingly more difficult to keep attendance up in the church.  Truth is it is continuing to decline in attendance and Criswell knew that staying downtown would prove to be difficult in keeping the influence and money flowing. The church will have to convince the prospects that their own version of American politics is important for saving the nation.  Thus the drive will be worth the effort.  

People who knew the pastor found him personable and kind.  He did serve a large church for over  four decades and survived to build a large mega church.  Though he at times had questionable tactics, his character and kindness are well known.  No one works with volunteers over such a time span without people skills and grave diplomacy.

Question arises as to whether it was the people or the pastor who led them into these channels of the Religious Right.  Was it the influence of the Hunt's and others in the church who led him away.  Was it the lure of big money, oil and surrounding yourself with these types that did him in?  I prefer to believe he yielded to the temptation of such power, prestige, and influence, especially when they are kingpins in your own congregation.  The church never allowed him to do what he wanted to do in selecting his own successor.  They would not tolerate this, but did encourage him to select the Presidential choices for the congregation.  His legacy has been burnt deeply into the brand of Texas and Baptist churches around the nation.  It is a legacy that not ride quietly into the sunset.

1.      Jimmy Carter, Our Endangered Values, Simon & Schuster, N.Y., N.Y., 205, pg. 42
2.     Bruce Gourley, The Godmakers, Providence, Franklin, Tenn. 1996, pg. 152.
3.    Joel Gregory, Too great A Temptation,  Summit Group, Fort Worth, Texas, 1994.pgs., 83,72.
4.    Ibid. pg. 19.
5.    Ibid.  pgs. 141, 192, 119.
6.    Ibid.  pgs. 192, 130.
7.    Letter from Steve, Newman, Raleigh, N.C. 1991.
8. Aril 2008
9.    Alan LaFever, Texas Baptist History Volumes XXI-XXXIII. Historical society, 2008. Pg. 166.
10.    Chandler Davidson, Race & Class in Texas Politics, Princeton Press, Princeton, N.J> 1990, pgs. 208, 214, 216.
11.    Harry Hurt III, Texas Rich, Norton & Co. N.Y., N.Y>, 1981, pgs. 348-349.
12.    12.  Jerome Tucille, Kingdom, Jameson Books, Ottawa, Ill. 1984.
13.    Hurt, pg. 348.
14.    14. Tucille, pg. 219.

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