W(allie) A(mos) Criswell (1909-2002), Southern Baptist minister and leader, was born into a poor Baptist farming family in El Dorado, Oklahoma and raised in Texline, Texas. Converted as a teenager he felt called to be a preacher and was ordained at the age of seventeen. He graduated with honors from Baylor University in 1931 and went on to study at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he received a Ph.D. in 1937. After seven years as pastor at two Oklahoma churches, Criswell was called in 1944 to replace famed pastor George W. Truett at the First Baptist Church of Dallas. Under Criswell’s leadership and strong emphasis on evangelism First Baptist experienced tremendous growth and by the late 1950s had become the largest congregation in the country with a membership of well over 10,000. By the time Criswell resigned his pulpit and entered “semi-retirement” in 1995, the church had over 25,000 members.
The author of more than fifty books including a Criswell Study Bible, and a ubiquitous presence on radio and television throughout the southwest, Criswell exerted great influence among both Texas Baptists and the SBC as a whole. From 1968 to 1970 he served as president of the SBC. Although theologically and politically conservative (in 1956 he denounced forced integration), Criswell backed the Convention’s 1968 official repudiation of racism and segregation, claiming it should be accepted “by every Southern Baptist.” Committed to the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy, Criswell was a key behind-the-scenes player in the “conservative takeover” of the SBC that began in the late 1970s.
For further reading see W.A. Criswell, Standing On the Promises: The Autobiography of W.A. Criswell (Nelson, 1990); Nancy T. Ammerman, Baptist Battles (Rutgers, 1990).