A personal look into the life and ministry of W.A. Criswell


First Baptist Dallas Pastor W.A. Criswell delivers his "Whether We Live or Die" sermon at the 1985 SBC annual meeting. YOUTUBE/Screen capture

We must never forget those great men of the faith who preached the Word of God with such passion and power. I want to be sure our wonderful younger pastors are made aware of some of the heroes of the faith who have gone on before us.

Therefore, for several years I have wanted to provide our readers young and old with a personality sketch of some of Southern Baptists’ greatest and most notable personalities – preachers who have gone on to be with the Lord. The idea of such a project began to take shape when I encountered Jack Pogue at the W.A. Criswell Sermon Library booth at the Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix last month.

Mr. Pogue, owner of a Dallas commercial real estate company, was the close personal friend, partner in ministry, and confidant of Dr. Criswell, legendary pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, TX. Dr. Criswell is remembered by many of us for his electric preaching style and frequently acknowledged as the greatest preacher of his generation. For the last four years of Dr. Criswell’s life, Jack Pogue took the iconic pastor into his own home and became his personal caretaker.

An interview with Mr. Pogue provided a personal and unique perspective on the life of Dr. Criswell. I believe you will find it both informative and inspiring.

By J. Gerald Harris

The Christian Index: What were the circumstances that led you to First Baptist Church of Dallas and to the ministry of W. A. Criswell?

Jack Pogue: I grew up in a very liberal church in another denomination in Sulphur Springs, TX, and when I moved to Dallas in 1965 I attended another liberal church. In all those years, I never heard a preacher preach a sermon from the Bible. Their sermons were always on the issues of the day, our responsibility to treat the “down and out” with love and respect, suggestions of current books to read, relevant movies to go see, and the need to be conversant with certain political issues.

A friend encouraged me to start reading the Bible and to begin praying every day. I had never done either. I started reading the Bible over and over from Genesis to Revelation. The more I read the Bible, the more I wanted to be in a church where the Bible was proclaimed with authority.

Finally, one Sunday after listening to another liberal message in the liberal church I was attending, I decided to go the very next Sunday to hear Dr. Criswell preach. I told no one I was going to hear Dr. Criswell preach.

W.A. Criswell served as pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, TX from 1944-1991. He was named pastor emeritus in 1994, a title he held until his death on Jan. 10, 2002.

Index: Your experience with liberal theology and your search for the truth was the experience of many in the 1960s and 70s. What was the result of your visit to Dallas’ First Baptist Church?

Jack Pogue: When Dr. Criswell got up to preach on that Sunday morning in November 1970, he said, “Before I introduce my sermon, I just want to say one thing to you dear people. As long as I have been your pastor for these 27 years, every sermon that you have heard me preach has been from the pages of this Holy Book; and I promise as long as I am your pastor, every sermon you will ever hear me preach will be from the pages of this sacred Book.

As he spoke he held the Bible above his head; and at that moment the Lord said to my heart, “This is the church I want you in and this is the pastor I want you to be under.”

Two or three months later I asked a dear friend, Jim Ray Smith, a deacon at First Baptist Church, to introduce me to Dr. Criswell. On Feb. 19, 1971 Jim introduced me to Dr. Criswell and when I shook the pastor’s hand I knew he and I were going to have a very special and close relationship.

Index: How did your relationship with Dr. Criswell develop and mature?

Jack Pogue: As the days and months passed, Dr. Criswell started using me as a member of the church to negotiate the purchase of all the properties that the church needed to buy in order to build a future sanctuary when he would no longer be the pastor of the church.

During all of the negotiations he and I became good friends. He gave me the opportunity to be involved in the work of the Lord and I assisted him in other facets of his ministry including Criswell College, Dallas Life Foundation, and the W.A. Criswell Foundation.

Index: To your recollection, what was the most inspiring, moving moment in Dr. Criswell’s ministry in Dallas?

Jack Pogue: On numerous occasions Dr. Criswell commented in his preaching that the most inspiring, moving moment in his ministry was when he preached a sermon entitled “The Scarlet Thread Through the Bible.” He started that sermon on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1961 at 7:00 p.m. and the message continued until after midnight on January 1, 1962. The church was jam packed from start to finish and even after midnight the pews were full and people were sitting in the aisles and along the walls of the sanctuary.

"W.A. Criswell: The authorized biography" by Billy Keith was published in 1973. GERALD HARRIS/Index

The Christian Index: What was Dr. Criswell’s greatest challenge as pastor of First Baptist Dallas?

Jack Pogue: I think his greatest challenge was when the church was $7 million in debt in the 1980s because of the Ross Avenue parking garage. Dr. Criswell called me one night absolutely in tears. He felt that God had given him the vision to build that garage, but he asked me to help him find a solution to this heavy financial burden that was on him and the church.

God was so very good to us; and we worked out a deal that only God Himself could have done. With God’s guidance we put a deal together that involved:

  1.  Selling the air rights above the Ross Avenue parking garage for $7 million to Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and Lincoln Property Company.
  2. We sold an option that we owned on the old YMCA property, which was across the street from the parking garage. We bought the other properties in that same block, including a street from the City of Dallas, and the old Baptist General Convention building. We ended up selling all those properties to Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and Lincoln Property Company – enough property for them to build a large office building.
  3. We sold Metropolitan Life and Lincoln Property Company the rights to lease the 1106 parking spaces in the Ross Avenue parking garage. First Baptist has received all the parking revenues from the rental of those parking spaces since 1984 and will continue to receive that income forever.

The money that the church received from the sale of the air rights above the garage and the income from the rentals received on the parking spaces amounts to several times more than the original $7 million debit. All of this was done because of the vision God gave Dr. Criswell to build a garage and because God, through every day and month of these negotiations, led us step by step.

Index: What was the heartbeat, the focus of Dr. Criswell’s life?

Jack Pogue: The heartbeat of his life was preaching the Word of God and preaching that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, and inspired Word of God. He believed that through the wooing of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Gospel, people of all ages would be won to Christ. He never failed to give an invitation. Always, his messages closed with an invitation to the young and old alike.

Another heartbeat of his life was encouraging young pastors. He would very often tell the young pastors that the best thing that God did for him was that for the first ten years of his ministry, the Lord let him pastor small country churches. He told them that during those years he learned how to prepare sermons, how to build a church, how to staff a church, and how to build a choir in those small village churches. He also encouraged those young pastors to look upon their assignment as a gift from God.

Businessman Jack Pogue, right, was a close friend of W.A. Criswell, the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas. Because of his appreciation for Criswell's expository preaching, Pogue established academic chairs in his name at four Southern Baptist seminaries. Photo courtesy of Jack Pogue

Index: How did Dr. Criswell prepare his sermons? What was involved in his preparation process?

Jack Pogue: Dr. Criswell studied four hours every single morning from 8 a.m.-12 noon, six days a week. He encouraged preachers everywhere to devote their mornings to God, to be expository preachers, and to bathe their sermons in prayer.

When he went to other churches and convention meetings, young pastors would come up to him and ask, “Dr. Criswell, when you get up on Monday morning after preaching Sunday night aren’t you concerned about what you are going to preach the next Sunday morning?”

The pastor would always reply, “No, I am not concerned. I know what I am going to preach on the next Sunday morning. It will be the next verse after the verse I preached on the Sunday night before. Where I leave off on Sunday night, I will start at the next verse the next Sunday morning.” And he encouraged those young preachers to study those morning hours, to be expository preachers, and to bathe their study and sermons in prayer.

Index: What was the most disappointing moment in his life or ministry?

Jack Pogue: I think the most disappointing thing he encountered in his ministry was the liberalism that was being taught in classrooms and preached from the pulpits across America. That concern motivated him to write the book Why I Preach that the Bible is Literally True. That is also why he preached that sermon “Whether We Live or Die” at the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas in 1985. That book and that sermon were the driving forces behind The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention.

(A video of the sermon can be viewed here.)

Index: I have heard that the business meetings at First Baptist Church in Dallas were interesting. What characterized those business meetings?

Jack Pogue: Dr. Criswell would preside and he never took a “No” vote. He would present his vision and his plans for the church to the deacon body, and he would say, “All who are in agreement hold up your hands.” And then he would say, “That is all of us.” He absolutely never took a “No” vote.

Index: I believe he preached his last sermon at the Pastors’ Conference at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He preached his sermon on The Old Time Religion. It was a classic, but that was a tremendously significant moment for Dr. Criswell and those in attendance. Tell us about that sermon on that occasion.

Jack Pogue: What most people do not realize is that Dr. Criswell was very, very sick when he preached that sermon. I had just gotten him out of the hospital the day before after his having had two blood transfusions. He was unable to walk without assistance. I had to have a friend to help me get Dr. Criswell to the church that night. My friend and I got on each side of Dr. Criswell to hold him up; and we didn’t stop for anybody to talk to him or shake his hand or pat him on the shoulder. He was so sick that the night before and the morning and noon of the day he was preaching, he was unable to eat.

When he stood behind the pulpit to preach that night, he lowered his head and prayed that the Holy Spirit would give him the strength to preach that sermon. And then all of a sudden, looking up, he started preaching in a powerful voice. Jerry Vines, pastor of First Baptist Jacksonville at the time, would tell you that was the greatest hour in the history of the church. It certainly showed me, and I believe everyone in the congregation, the power of the Holy Spirit of God.

In that sermon Dr. Criswell told about a young cowboy who had been crushed by a horse that reared up and fell backwards, crushing the cowboy’s body. That cowboy had been won to faith in Christ through a message from John 3:16. He asked Jake, the cook, to go get the boss man’s big black Book, and when the cook came back with the Bible, the young cowboy had Jake to open the Bible to John 3:16 and to place his finger on that passage. That is how the young cowboy wanted to die – with his finger on John 3:16.

Then Dr. Criswell said, “That is the way I want to be buried. I want to be buried with an open Bible on my chest.” At Dr. Criswell’s funeral the undertaker allowed me to put my Bible on Dr. Criswell’s chest, above his heart, opened to Isaiah 40:8: “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the Word of our God shall stand forever.”

(Below is the first of four videos of the sermon on YouTube. For the sermon in its entirety visit the W.A. Criswell Sermon Library.)

Index: So, the sermon in Jacksonville was his last sermon. Did he ever mention preaching another sermon after that?

Jack Pogue: Two months before he went to be with the Lord, he wanted to preach one more sermon. I have a picture of him sitting at my breakfast table with his Bible before him, a notebook on the table, looking through a magnifying glass, his hand trembling, looking out of the side of his eye. He had macular degeneration in his eyes and he had to look out of the side of his eye.

Unfortunately, he never got to preach that sermon, but I believe the Lord Jesus took note of Dr. Criswell’s desire to preach “one more sermon.”

Index: I understand that Dr. Mac Brunson, pastor of First Baptist in Dallas during Dr. Criswell’s last days, came to your house to visit with Dr. Criswell prior to his death. Tell our readers about that visit.

Jack Pogue: Yes, Dr. Criswell lived at my home the last four years of his life. Since my bedrooms were all upstairs, he was too weak to get up those stairs, so I put a hospital bed in my den for him, and I slept in that den with him because he would have to get up all through the night.

Many, many times at night when he would go to sleep he would start preaching in his sleep. He would give an invitation for people to come down and give their lives to the Lord, saying, “If the Holy Spirit is moving in your heart, come. Today is the day of salvation.” I marveled at the fact that even in his sleep, Dr. Criswell had his heart and mind on Jesus, on the cross, and on lost people.

Criswell's most famous sermon – The Old Time Religion – was made available on a 33 1/3 RMP record. GERALD HARRIS/Index[/caption]

A few days before Dr. Criswell died he lost his ability to speak. Two days before Dr. Criswell died Mac Brunson came to see him. When I opened the door, I said, “Dr. Brunson, Dr. Criswell hasn’t said a word in ten or eleven days and he won’t be able to talk to you. He is asleep in a recliner in my den, but again, he will not be able to speak to you.”

Dr. Brunson said, “I don’t care, I want to see him.” We walked into the den and I awakened Dr. Criswell, and I said, “Dr. Criswell, Dr. Brunson is here to see you.”

And for the first time in those ten days, Dr. Criswell put a sentence together, and it was the last thing he ever said. He pulled his hand out from under the quilts, and in a weak and a very trembling voice, he said, “Oh, are you here for the revival?”

When he said that, I knew he had been dreaming and that in his sleep, and as he was dying, he still had his eyes and his heart on the cross, on Jesus, and on lost people. He never said another word. Two days later he went on to be with the Lord.

That, to me, tells the story of Dr. Criswell’s entire life. From the moment he accepted Christ as a ten year old boy to the moment he passed into eternity, he had his very soul and heart on Jesus, on the cross, and lost souls. I thank the Lord for letting me see that. It made a huge impact on my life.

One last thing – once on the way to the airport, I asked Dr. Criswell, “What is saving faith?” He said, “2 Timothy 1:12: ‘For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day.” Dr. Criswell added, “Saving faith is a committing of my life, my soul, and my destiny to Jesus.”

The Christian Index: You were with Dr. Criswell in the last years of his life and I suppose at the moment of his death. What was that like?

Jack Pogue: Dr. Criswell died at my house on January 10, 2002 at 1:17 a. m. I was reading John 14:1-3 about God preparing a place for those who love Him and Philippians 2:5-11 about the matchless name of Jesus. I am absolutely convinced that either the Lord Jesus Himself or an angel came down to take Dr. Criswell to heaven.

For over two years Dr. Criswell had been unable to lift himself from a prone position to a sitting position in the bed in which he slept. All through that time when Dr. Criswell needed to get up, I would have to put my arm under his back and lift him to a sitting position. But the morning he died, as I finished reading the Bible, I looked up and he was in a sitting position on that bed.

I am convinced that it was either the Lord Himself or an angel that came down and got him.

To find out more about Dr. W. A. Criswell and to read transcripts of thousands of his sermons and also see videos and hear audios of his sermons visit The W.A. Criswell Sermon Library at: www.wacriswell.com

Large numbers of pastors and laymen alike visit this website every day and find amazing insights and inspiration for daily living and their Christian ministries.

Pogue concluded, “You know, a great majority of our Baptist preachers have never been to seminary and do not own libraries or even any research books. We get emails from preachers of the smaller churches who tell us that this sermon library website of Dr. Criswell's is all the library that they need in preparing their sermons for their small congregations. We got one from a pastor in Moore, TN who said, ‘For me and my generation, Dr. Criswell is the north star of theology.’ Helping the pastors of these churches is something that Dr. Criswell always wanted to do and is now doing through his 4150 sermons.” 

It was noteworthy that one of Dr. Criswell’s quotes was on a banner at the Criswell Sermon Library booth at the Phoenix convention: "To lift Him up, to preach His name, and to invite souls to love Him and to follow Him – it is the highest, heavenliest privilege of human life.”

First Baptist Dallas, First Baptist Jacksonville, interview, preaching, SBC history, W.A. Criswell