I am sure much of what court evangelical Robert Jeffress has tweeted here is true. I rejoice with all those women and men who experienced redemption and changed lives through the ministry of First Baptist Church–Dallas. I know some of you.
But I am also a historian. It is my calling. It is what I do. So let me note that there are other “powerful threads” that run through the history of First Baptist Dallas. Let’s start with political scientist Tobin Grant‘s 2016 Religion News Service piece on longtime pastor W.A. Criswell. The piece draws on the research of Curtis Freeman and Joseph Davis.
Here is a taste:
Whatever role pastors and other clergy had during the fight against slavery and Jim Crow, there is a specific history that Jeffrees is ignoring. Obviously, his own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, was not on the side of abolitionists. More notably, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas was a prominent segregationist who long saw the fight against integration as part of the gospel.
W.A. Criswell led the church from the 1940s to the 1990s. During this time, the church tripled in size to 22,000 members, including notable members such as Billy Graham. Criswell’s election to the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1968 marked the beginning “battle” of the conservative takeover of the denomination.
The election of Criswell was surprising. In the 1968 convention, the SBC voted to integrate its churches and welcome all races to membership. Criswell, however, was the most prominent segregationist in the SBC.
In 1956, Criswell spoke at the State Evangelism Conference in South Carolina. Against instructions to stay clear of segregation, Criswell gave a fiery sermon that linked the fight against integration with evangelism. All Southern Baptist pastors should, according to Criswell, speak out against those who were advocating integration.
Criswell did not mince words. He railed against both the National Council of Churches and the NAACP as those “two-by scathing, good-for-nothing fellows who are trying to upset all of the things that we love as good old Southern people and as good old Southern Baptists.”
He even used racist humor to make his points: “Why the NAACP has got those East Texans on the run so much that they dare not pronounce the word chigger any longer. It has to be cheegro.”
Criswell saw integration an attack on both state rights and democracy by carpetbaggers. Even more so, it was a blow to Southern Baptist religious liberty: Churches had the right and the responsibility to keep their congregations segregated.
Segregation was best for blacks and whites, Criswell said. Blacks, he argued, would never be able to excel, teach, or lead in a congregation of whites. Instead, they should stay in churches with other blacks. Segregation also limited miscegenation. And that, Criswell warned, was going to cause problems for everyone.
Read the entire piece here.