Dr. Hawkins, it is a joy to welcome you to the campus of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary today. You have already served us richly by preaching to our chapel community. Thank you so much for your friendship and for being here and ministering God’s Word to us. It is a particular joy of mine to host you in the President’s home—the Vivion Home, in the Spurgeon Room where we are surrounded by some of C. H. Spurgeon’s books and artifacts. It is a special joy because I know of your appreciation for Spurgeon, and W. A. Criswell’s appreciation for Spurgeon, who was a mentor to you. Criswell is one that our denomination looked to for decades for leadership, but has now been gone to be with the Lord for a little over 10 years.
Today in the conversation, I want to revisit W. A. Criswell. I feel a certain stewardship, as a seminary president, to make sure the young men we train for pastoral ministry—for the preaching task—not only know the great preachers of today, but they know the great preachers of yesterday. It is really impossible to think of twentieth-century Southern Baptist life, and even twentieth-century life within the broader Evangelical Movement without thinking of W. A. Criswell.
It is a joy to have you here. You knew him like few others did. Let me begin the conversation by asking you, how did you come to know W. A. Criswell in the first place?
My pastor that led me to Christ and Dr. Criswell were good friends. They were life-long friends. I actually came to know him very personally when I was in my 30s and I was pastor of First Baptist Ft. Lauderdale. The church had seen some spiritual success and growth. He took me under his wing and he became like a father to me. We vacationed together in the summers, Susan and I did with Dr. and Mrs. Criswell. We spent time in Europe with them; we spent time in New York. They were into antiques, which we were not, but we always enjoyed spending one week a year with them. For many, many years he was like a father to me.
You had the opportunity to be one of his successors at First Baptist Dallas for about five years before going to your current post as president of GuideStone. Talk about Criswell, the preacher. There are many ways to think of him: Criswell the pastor; Criswell this Titanic figure, something of an institution in and of himself. But as I look at Criswell from a distance, I find it difficult to reduce him beyond the pulpit. That is, first and foremost, who he was. Talk about Criswell, the preacher.
Sitting here, looking at this portrait of Spurgeon reminds me that he really had no real peer in his heyday. People today need to know that neither did Dr. Criswell—I am talking about in the prime of the ministry he received from the Lord. He was an unusual man. He was brilliant. He earned a Ph.D. from Southern when few people were doing that. I always thought if he had gone into politics, he would have definitely been a senator, probably president. If he had gone into law, he would have been a Supreme Court justice. If he had gone into business, he would have built a Fortune 500 company.
Fortunately, for us in the evangelical world, God called him into ministry. He was a preacher par excellence. He was a student of both of the languages. He could speak to you and talk to you on any subject, whether it be Greek mythology, history, anything. He had a brilliant mind, and yet, he preached a gospel that could be understood by everyone. Fortunately, he has left us a lot of books to remember this brilliance.
It seemed like every time, in Southern Baptist life at least, that there came a crisis moment, there would come a book from Dr. Criswell. I remember when the evolution issue became a big thing among some seminary professors in Southern Baptist life. Dr. Criswell wrote, Did Man Just Happen? When the Charismatic Movement began to take hold in Southern Baptist life, it was really charismania, and there came the book, The Holy Spirit in Today’s World. Even foreseeing the battle for the Bible that the Southern Baptists went through in the late 70s and 80s, Dr. Criswell gave us, Why I Preach the Bible as Literally True.
His books, his writings, and today, like Abel, being dead, still speaks through www.wacriswell.com, which has over 4,000 of his sermons. Unlike Spurgeon—we are here in the Spurgeon library—if we want to read Spurgeon, we can only do it linearly. We can only read what he wrote. On www.wacriswell.com, there are 4,000 of his manuscript messages alongside his handwritten notes, alongside audio, and alongside video. We not only get to read what he said, but we can hear and watch the pathos in his voice—the passion in his life—as he delivered his messages.
In answer to your question, he really had no peer. He was very respectful of his predecessor. Dr. George W. Truett was a life figure. It is hard for preachers today to believe the significance and platform that Truett had. You go to Dallas today and there is Truett Hospital, a part of Baylor Hospital. There is Truett Elementary School. There are edifices all over the city of Dallas named after this preacher of First Baptist, George W. Truett. He pastored there for 47½ years.
Criswell also was a bit taken with Dr. J. Frank Norris, who also was a graduate of Southern and the pastor of First Baptist Fort Worth. Many people do not know, but it was the largest church in the world in the 20s and 30s. He ran multiple thousands of people, Morris did. He was a fire-branded Fundamentalist. They both morphed into Criswell. Criswell came in 1944 to succeed Dr. Truett, just months after Truett’s death. He took the Fundamentalist, fire-brand passion and eschatology of Norris, coupled it with the statesmanship, polish, and being a builder of this instead of a tearer of things down that Truett had. He put both of them in a unique package that really changed evangelical thought in the world for those years.
When you think about that run First Baptist Dallas had, basically for a century it had two pastors: George W. Truett and W. A. Criswell. To think of a multi-decade long pastorate, nearly a half-century pastorate for Truett, and depending on when you actually peg Dr. Criswell’s retirement date, perhaps even over a half-century.
I say Truett was there 47½ and Criswell was there 50, but I am a little partial.
There you have it. Talk about what kept him in that pulpit week after week, year after year, decade after decade, being faithful and preaching away.
Number one, the man was like Nathanael—he was without guile. It never entered his mind that anyone would have an evil thought toward him or anything else. He was the purest-minded man I have ever known. He was passionately in love with the Lord Jesus Christ, and he loved the Word of God. He gave his morning—all of them—to the study of the text in Greek and in Hebrew, both of which he was proficient in. So much of his preaching issued out of that.
What other people do not realize, though, is that he was not just a great preacher, though he was. I will speak in a moment about what I think is the hinge on Southern Baptist life in the twentieth century that he preached. People know him as a great preacher, but few know that he was an unbelievable pastor. He loved his people. He visited them. He wept with them. He cried with them. And they knew he loved them. One of the reasons he had such incredible unanimity and 100 percent following and support in the church for decades was because they knew that he loved them.
A lot of people remember him, as you said, as a preacher and a lot of people remember him as a theologian, writer, or builder—Criswell College is named after him. I remember him in his pajamas on Saturday nights over on Swiss Avenue at the parsonage when I would go back in the back door. He would be in his study, and I would go over what I was going to preach the next Sunday and before I left we would kneel there at that couch, and he would put his hands on me and pray for me. I remember visiting hospitals with him. I remember him holding the hands of people dying— that he had pastored for decades—and standing there with tears streaming down his cheeks singing, “I Feel Like Traveling Home.” He was singing to people as they died, weeping. I remember him in restaurants. When we would get up to leave when we were finished eating, we would look around and he would be back thanking the busboy for serving him. He was a man of detail. He was a man who loved people, regardless of who they were or what walk of life they came from.
That is very encouraging to hear the way he so channeled his heart for ministry, even to the least of these. Circling back around to his pulpit ministry, I know John MacArthur, whom we had on campus here recently, has referenced the fact that when he went to Grace Community Church in 1969, Criswell was one of the very few models of exposition out there that he could look to. In some ways, you think of Criswell channeling different tributaries, whether it is the Conservative Movement and Resurgence in our denomination, or more broadly speaking of the church at large. He was championing and modeling expository preaching. Talk about that style of preaching that he practiced and his convictions about it.
He was doing this in a time that few people were. He was doing this in a time where some people were writing series of sermon books called Simple Sermons (Herschel Ford). Not taking anything away from Dr. Ford, but Dr. Criswell was far more into the Word of God. As you know, one of his most famous sermons was preached on a New Year’s Eve in Dallas, when he started preaching at 7 p.m. It became the book, The Scarlet Thread Through the Bible. He preached hours into the night, through the morning, tracing the scarlet thread from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21—all through the Word of God. He is known as a Bible preacher.
I suppose you would have to see the church from the inside to see the brilliance of this man because his genius was not only in the pulpit, though it was the strongest pulpit in twentieth-century America, in my opinion. His genius was also in organization and the way he led the church. For example, he was such a visionary. He changed Sunday school from what he would call a “vertical organization,” to a “horizontal organization.” First Baptist Dallas was the first Sunday school to age group itself on a horizontal level to reach more families. He caught onto family ministry before anybody else did. He built a building which had a bowling alley and gymnasium before any church ever had a gymnasium or bowling alley or anything to reach families.
Ironically, he was like Jesus in two particular ways. Jesus attracted women to him that served in ministry, and he attracted reprobates. Criswell did the same thing. He attracted both of those types of folks. God brought three women along that really built First Baptist Church along with W. A. Criswell. Minnie Slaughter Veal, whose father, Col. Slaughter, was the founder of Baylor Hospital, and many things in the early days in Dallas and he was a deacon at First Baptist. Minnie Slaughter Veal inherited much of his wealth, and to this day, the trust at First Baptist Dallas still funds choir mission trips and things like that.
There came a time when Dr. Criswell wanted to buy the First Christian Church, which became available across the street from the church to expand. The deacons voted him down, and he was sad about it. The next day, Ms. Veal called him—I am going back into the late 40s, early 50s—and she said, “Preacher, I hear you are sad,” and he told her what had happened. Before long, there was a “For Sale” sign on the Christian Church property. Dr. Criswell told her that he had a dream of building a family center over there with bowling alleys, gymnasiums, a parking garage, and things to reach families. Before anyone knew it, there started a demolition on the church property. After it had been bought, it was demolished. Then, steel started coming up out of the ground, and all of the sudden a big building about 10 stories high went up. It was finished, and Ms. Veal went over and handed him the keys to the Veal Building. That is how some of the things took place in Dallas.
That is how you build a church.
Then, Mary Crowley, who built a company called Home Interiors, was on Billy Graham’s board for years, and she came to know the Lord there in the church. She was a great benefactor to all of the ministers of the church. Then, from the Hunt family was Ruth Hunt. Those three good, godly women had tremendous wealth and used it for the cause of Christ to help build the church.
That is a unique story and narrative for you to weave. Not only as rendering on history, but as one who has lived it himself as a pastor. There is a unique, providential confluence of a great man, uniquely gifted, incredibly devoted, personally sacrificial, in a city that is dynamic and growing within a broader region of resources, with different strong personalities and people with resources in the church. One, plus one, plus one, plus one, equals 10. These things come together in a unique way to expand the kingdom. As far as Dr. Criswell goes, it is hard to have a conversation about him without people sharing stories about some of his eccentricities. It is not uncommon for a uniquely gifted person and a great leader to have his own eccentricities, whether it is Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, or in the church realm, W. A. Criswell. Share some of the stories about Criswell which demonstrate his personal eccentricities.
He definitely had them. I shared thousands of meals with him over 25 years. Then, when I was pastor, we would eat some meal together every day. I do not think I ever ate a meal with Dr. Criswell that he did not eat off of my plate, or anyone else’s plate that was there. What he would do is he would stare at your plate for a minute, and you knew he was coming. One Christmas, Susie gave him a fork that had a long extension on it. That was one of his more strange mannerisms. He had a lot of things like that. He did not eat chicken because when he was growing up, he ate so much chicken that he no longer could.
I think one of the most interesting vignettes is what happened shortly after he came to Dallas in 1944. There are three things that symbolized Dr. Criswell: his name was synonymous with the Bible, his books, and the blessed hope. He was a premillennialist. He loved eschatology until his dying day. He lived believing in the blessed hope. Truett did not preach expositionally. He had a great voice which carried him. He never gestured. He stood in the pulpit, read the text, and preached his sermon as a great, stately man. His voice and his presence carried the room. Criswell was running from one end of the platform to the other. He was expository, passionate, and fiery. He was a premillennialist and Truett was not.
Criswell had been there about a year, and he decided that they needed to change the Articles of Faith of the church. He wrote into the Articles of Faith a strong eschatological statement that related to premillennialism. When it was brought before the deacons, more than one of the deacons had concerns about Truett not believing that—you have to understand, in those days Truett was greatly revered. One of the deacons stood up and said, “Dr. Criswell, the great George W. Truett pastored 47½ years in this church, and he could not sign those Articles of Faith. Criswell looked at him, smiled, and said, “You are correct, he couldn’t, but he could now and he would now.” He had a winsome way about defusing circumstances and situations that went along like that.
If I had to pick one verse that I think epitomizes Criswell, it would be 2 Kings 23:25. It is said of the good king Josiah that before him there was not a king like him who loved the Lord with all of his heart, and after him did not arise one like him. To me, that is W. A. Criswell. I do not know of anyone before him who really had the complete package, who loved God, was so greatly used, was dynamic, and was such a brilliant theological mind and passionate evangelical heart. He went all over the world every summer on a mission trip for a month. He had a plane crash in the jungles of South America one time. He went to the out-of-the-way places to preach the gospel to hidden tribes. He loved lost people. He was brilliant in mind, he was passionate in heart, and he was benevolent in hand. There are hundreds of ministries that became Christ’s hand extended to those in the city of Dallas and far beyond it who had nothing and needed something.
That is an appropriate place to wind down the conversation. You have spoken so insightfully into the man, and into the ministry. What a fitting person for us to remember and consider. Dr. Hawkins, would you like to tie up the conversation?
I would just tie it up by saying this—all of us have read Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, that great devotional book. In there, Oswald Chambers says that giants dwindle into ordinary men when you really get to know them. I would say that Oswald Chambers never met W. A. Criswell.
Wow. What a fitting way to end. You knew him well, and you can bear testimony to that assessment perhaps like few others. Thank you for your time. Thank you for the conversation. It is a joy to host you on campus, and a joy to reflect and celebrate the life and legacy of W. A. Criswell.
*Recorded in the Spurgeon Room on November 20, 2013topicsAudio, Spurgeon Room Conversations