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Dr. WA Criswell: Hero of the faith and inspiration to us all

Wallie Amos Criswell(1909-2002), notable Southern Baptist pastor and prolific author.
Wallie Amos Criswell(1909-2002), notable Southern Baptist pastor and prolific author. | Facebook/The W. A. Criswell Sermon Library

For all my conscious memory I have been an omnivorous reader. My mother taught me to read (phonics method) shortly after my third birthday as she became weary of my constantly asking her the meanings of words in articles in the sports page of the Houston paper.

I have deeply loved history, fiction (my favorite author is Jane Austen), and biography. I love reading books as long as it doesn’t involve math. When I finished what I knew was my last math course (“Integral and Differential Calculus”) at Princeton, I threw myself a celebratory party.

However, as I have gotten older, I find myself drawn inexorably to more and more biography and autobiography. This past week, I had the privilege of reading the new biography of Dr. W.A. Criswell, the pastor of the premier First Baptist Church of Dallas from 1944-1990.

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During his half-century ministry there, the church grew incredibly and Dr. Criswell himself became the living symbol of the successful defender of the conservative Christian faith in America. Dr. Criswell and First Baptist Dallas became “ground zero” as the successful model of a conservative, Christian, expository ministry in the center of one of the most sophisticated cities in America.

Dr. Criswell served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention (1968-1970), founded Criswell College, and became the crown prince of Christian pulpiteers for three generations of Evangelical Protestant ministers in America.

I had the privilege of serving alongside Dr. Criswell for 13 years (1975-1988) as a professor, academic dean and associate pastor of the church.

It was the privilege of a lifetime to observe Dr. Criswell as a pastor, an evangelist, a college chancellor and an administrator of a multimillion-dollar ministerial enterprise. I have never met anyone like him before or since. Undergirding everything he did was his love for the lost people of the world and his desire to reach them with the Gospel of his Savior. He was also the inspirational leader of the “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention (1979-1990).

A new biography of Dr. Criswell has just been published. It is written by Dr. O.S. Hawkins, himself a former pastor of First Baptist Dallas (1993-1997). Dr. Hawkins has spent his adult lifetime serving Southern Baptists as a pastor, denominational leader and now a wise older statesman of Baptists and other Evangelicals across America.

Dr. Hawkins obviously has great admiration and affection for Dr. Criswell. In many ways, they developed a spiritual father-and-son relationship. There have been other biographies of Dr. Criswell and even an autobiography, Standing on the Promises. One thing I have learned from reading so many biographies over the years is that no one biography gets everything told that can be told.

The more biographies you read about a person, the better you come to understand that person. Each effort provides a different perspective.

This new biography, Criswell: His Life and Times by Dr. Hawkins certainly fulfills that promise. I learned things about this remarkable servant of the Lord I did not know, and I lived and worked with him for 13 years. This biography is reviewed elsewhere in The Christian Post.

But here and now I want to focus on one thing that is not as well known as it should be. Enough time has passed that it is now time to tell the story without which one cannot fully understand the true greatness of the man.

The life of a pastor is a lonely one. You really cannot develop truly close relationships with your parishioners — you are their pastor, after all. Maybe, if you are fortunate, you can have a dear friend in ministry with whom you can develop a close and intimate friendship. The same thing is true for the pastor’s wife. If she is wise, she will not confide in church members — her husband is their pastor.

Having been in the ministry for 61 years (since the age of 16), I can relate from personal experience just how lonely it can be. As I have counseled fellow pastors, I can tell you there are some men who are faithfully serving the Lord and their pastoral flock without the faithful support that comes from having a loving and understanding wife serving alongside him.

Of course, the case is true for some pastors’ wives who are neglected by husbands who have forgotten that their personal priorities should be: 1) the Lord Jesus 2) your wife and family 3) the church and ministry.

For those of us who served alongside Dr. Criswell (as Dr. Hawkins and I were privileged to do), it became obvious over time that all was not well in the Criswell marriage. There always seemed to be a certain formality and aloofness that I do not observe among husbands and wives who have strong, mutually supportive relationships.

It was clear for those who chose to notice and were close enough to do so that Dr. Criswell was not the recipient of the intimacy and support that so many of us in ministry know is so crucial to happiness and success. I must say that my experience serving with Dr. Criswell made me even more appreciative of my wife and life’s partner for now almost 53 years. I cannot imagine walking through some of the valleys my ministry for Jesus has called me to walk through without the support and companionship of my wife.

In this new book, Dr. Hawkins pulls back the curtain and gives us a glimpse of the lonely path Dr. Criswell had to walk for so many years carrying the burden of ministry without the understanding and support of his wife.

I know there are some who will read this column who are being forced to walk a similarly lonely path. I am so sorry for you and I promise you I pray for you on a regular basis. I am sharing the episode that Dr. Hawkins relates in the hope that it will comfort and guide you as you walk through your deep valley.

Dr. Criswell spent the final four years of his life in a hospital bed in Jack Pogue’s home in Dallas. During those years Jack invited Mrs. Criswell to come over for dinner several nights a week. One night she arrived with five tangerines in a brown bag. She announced that these tangerines were only for Dr. and Mrs. Criswell. Since Jack Pogue was the only other guest, the reference was unmistakable.

Understandably, Jack was offended and told Mrs. Criswell so in no uncertain terms and left the room. After Mrs. Criswell had left and Jack returned, Dr. Criswell asked Jack to call Mrs. Criswell and apologize.

Jack, surprised, asked why he should apologize to her. She had been the one who was ungrateful and rude.

Dr. Criswell’s reply is pure spiritual gold and does so much to explain the man, his ministry, and his greatness.

“Oh, son, I am not asking you to apologize to her for her sake. I am asking you to apologize to her for your sake.”

He continued: “For thirty-five years I have lived with that sort of thing. I was becoming angry and bitter like you are tonight for the things she has put me through for thirty-five years. Think of it. I allowed that bitterness into my heart. It’s from Satan. It’s not from Jesus. And I finally said, ‘Goodbye, Satan. I am not going to give you a place of bitterness in my heart.’ And so when I feel a root of bitterness springing up, I just wave it goodbye and do not let it take root. I am not asking you to apologize for her sake but for your own sake. If you will, you will grow in grace and be more like Jesus.” (O.S. Hawkins, Criswell: His Life and Times, Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2024, p. 217-218).

Think of all the spiritual victories for the Lord’s Kingdom that would not have been won if Dr. Criswell had let that root of bitterness grow in his heart.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, take heart! Jesus is sufficient and in Him we can triumph over any trial or temptation.

Have courage!

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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