DALLAS The Rev. W.A. Criswell, a revered minister for more than 70 years and pastor emeritus of the nation’s largest Baptist church, died here yesterday morning at the age of 92.
The legendary Mr. Criswell had been in frail health for more than a year and had been hospitalized several times during that span for cardiac and digestive problems.
His passing brought a deluge of praise and adulation from many quarters, including the mighty of Christendom, the thousands of homeless persons who benefit annually from Dallas Life Foundation a local charity that helps down-and-outers rebuild their lives and the many preachers who were groomed by Mr. Criswell.
The Rev. Billy Graham, the evangelist who for years has considered himself a member of Mr. Criswell’s First Baptist Church here, said yesterday it was “almost impossible to evaluate the life and ministry” of the man he considered one of the best ministers of his time.
“He had a multiplicity of gifts,” Mr. Graham said. “He had one of the most loving hearts I have ever known. His devotion to scripture inspired thousands of young clergy from many denominations.
“His preaching was electric in its power, and he was anointed by the Holy Spirit in an unusual way. His counsel and love to me meant more than he ever knew,” Mr. Graham added.
A few years ago, Mr. Graham said Mr. Criswell was “the best preacher I ever heard, anywhere.”
“Do you know that man actually came down here and sat and ate with us?” asked a derelict known only as Denver at one downtown mission yesterday afternoon.
“I told him I would come to his church, but I sometimes didn’t have any money to offer,” the elderly homeless man said. “He said he would put in for me. He was what religion is all about.”
Wally Amos Criswell (the initials W.A. were almost always used) first appeared in the local church’s pulpit in November 1944. On that day, the brash young Oklahoma minister, age 34, told parishioners he could see the day when the church would grow beyond their expectations.
“We’ll go on and up with our various works,” he said, promising the church would spend more on missions and would witness more than 5,000 in Sunday school attendance.
When Mr. Criswell arrived, membership was about 8,000. At its peak, it reached about 28,000. Annual giving exceeded $12 million a year, and untold millions were spent on charitable causes.
Mr. Criswell was known for his grandfatherlike image: white suits, white hair, eternal smile and a singsong voice many found captivating.
Under his tutelage, First Baptist Church became not only a church, but also a Christian empire, becoming like the Catholic diocese in New York the largest single property owner in the downtown area. Estimated value for the spread is said to be more than $50 million.
He created First Baptist Academy for children, Criswell College for the training of ministers and the 500-bed shelter called the Dallas Life Foundation. The church currently runs 21 missions across the city.
It also has a Christian radio station, KCBI (for Criswell Bible Institute).
By the 1960s, Mr. Criswell had become the most powerful leader among Southern Baptists. He was considered by many as the father of the conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention.
Twice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, he traveled far and wide, conducting evangelistic crusades.
Funeral services will be held at noon Wednesday at First Baptist Church.