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Pro-Trump pastor whitewashes history of pastors during Jim Crow — including the history of his church

(RNS1-jan8) Dr. Robert Jeffress reads from the Bible. For use with RNS-JEFRESS-OBAMA, transmitted on January 8, 2014, Photo by David Edmonson, courtesy of First Baptist Church, Dallas, TX

Pastor Robert Jeffress is senior past of First Baptist Dallas and the most visible evangelical pastor to back Donald Trump’s candidacy. Jeffress, a relative newcomer to politics, explains his activism as part of his God-given responsibility as a pastor and a Christian.

“When you look at American history, whenever there was a need for a great change, it was pastors who led the way,” Jeffress said in a video message.

Jeffrees said pastors were the leaders during the American revolution and the fight for the abolition of slavery.

“And it was pastors who were at the forefront of the civil rights movement. What if pastors back then had said, ‘I’m not getting involved’? We would not have a country today,” Jeffress said.

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.

The sermon was well-received in South Carolina. So much so that Criswell was invited to give it again the next day at the South Carolina capitol. The speech was printed and distributed widely, particularly among White Citizen Councils. After his sermon, the South Carolina legislature passed a resolution calling on the federal government to put the NAACP on its subversion list and ban its members from public employment.

The reaction was not as warm back in Dallas. Criswell was criticized by other prominent Baptist leaders, other pastors, and the local press. He received hundreds of letters from professors and students at his alma mater, Baylor University.

Criswell found that he had broken a taboo in Southern Baptist circles. Pastors of large prominent churches were expected to oppose segregation (or at least the worst versions of it). If that was not expedient, then they should remain quiet, avoid politics, and focus on “spiritual” issues.

Criswell learned his lesson and side-stepped the controversial topic from then on. He would occasionally include references to Bible passages that he viewed as supporting white supremacy (e.g., the curse of Ham myth) or segregation, but segregation was an issue that he avoided for over a decade.

In 1968, this changed. The annual conference was being held in Texas; Criswell led the largest congregation in the country; it was the centennial of First Baptist Dallas; and there was a push to elect a theological conservative to the SBC presidency. Criswell’s only handicap was his reputation as a segregationist.

Criswell responded to this dilemma by publicly stating his support for integration. His previous positions, he said, were exaggerated. He had been having a change of heart. When pressed if his own congregation was integrated, Criswell could only give a conditional response; so, the next time he was in his church, he announced that First Baptist Dallas would now have an open door to anyone seeking membership.

Was this a true conversion? Historians and others debate this. It was certainly an opportune time for Criswell to change his position. Even Criswell’s own memory is mixed on the question. In 1984, he told a reporter that he still opposed some aspects of public school integration.

“My soul and attitude may not have changed, but my public statements did,” Criswell said.

Like other churches and pastors in the South, Criswell responded to public school integration by founding a private school, First Baptist Academy, in 1972. While not formally integrated, the school did not graduate a black student until the 1980s.

Baptist historian Curtis W. Freeman concludes that Criswell was someone who understood the changing politics in the SBC and the south:

…what [Criswell] wanted more than anything was to be the pastor of the largest Baptist church in the world. His change ensured that would be possible for years to come. Although Criswell has been described as a man of principle and conviction, he more fittingly personified the populist conservatism that was shared by many other white Baptists in the South. They resisted integration in the here and now but were willing to make pragmatic concessions as the social arrangement of Southern culture changed. For the time being the biblical vision of a racially reconciled humanity would have to wait. Nevertheless, as Criswell reminded them, “In heaven we’ll all be together.”

The debate about the sincerity of Criswell’s transformation aside, one thing is clear: he was not a pastor who fought for civil rights. He spoke out against integration and then was silent on the issue until after the nation had moved on the issue.

Robert Jeffress is not alone in his white-washing of the past. Sure, clergy were on the forefront of the civil rights movement. Pastors of black Baptist and black Methodist congregations, clergy from the National Council of Churches, rabbis, Catholic priests, some white Southern Baptists, and other “scathing, good-for-nothing fellows.”

Pastors of segregated churches did nothing. Criswell is remarkable for his involvement. As pastor of the largest congregation in the country, his sermon gave legitimacy to segregationists. Yet, when he received blowback from other prominent Baptist leaders, he retreated into silence. He did nothing on civil rights for 12 years. When he finally integrated his church, it happened to be at a time it was expedient to do so.

Fortunately, there were others who chose a different path. But if you’re looking for heroes of social and political change, don’t look to the history of First Baptist Dallas.

The question future historians is this: Is Jefress’ decision to get involved in politics by campaigning really like pastors at the vanguard of the civil rights movement? Or is it more like his predecessor, who used his pulpit to give legitimacy to segregationists?

I am grateful to the research of Curtis Freeman (here) and Joseph Davis (here). I cannot cite them enough in this post; all of my understanding of Criswell comes from their historical research.

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About the author

Tobin Grant

@TobinGrant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.


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  • “God almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”

    F. Bailey Smith, former president off the SBC, in the late ’70’s.

  • Bravo Garrison! If this guy can’t even get the name right, how much more of his “research” can we not trust?

  • Well, yes, southern baoptists are obliged to believe that Catholics, Buddhist, Jews, etc are going to hell. That does not preclude cynical political alliances with any of their devil-owned people.

  • “Is Jefress’ decision to get involved in politics by campaigning really like pastors at the vanguard of the civil rights movement? Or is it more like his predecessor, who used his pulpit to give legitimacy to segregationists?”

    The latter.

  • Watching the So. Baptists in action is sickening. I relate to secular humanism which rejects revolting dogmas that encourage hate and intolerance. When will we ever learn?

  • The Bible, God’s holy word, states that those who believe not are condemned already. John 3:18 They are going to hell, to a place of outer darkness, of weeping and gnashing of teeth, everlasting burnings. There will be no escape from that place of torment.

  • You equate the love of God who sacrificed his only begotten son for you as hate and intolerance? Do you not believe that we should have borders, that we should vet new citizens? Do you think that because I agree with Romans 1 concerning the sin of homosexuality, that I hate homosexuals?That is their choice to follow and partake of that sinful lifestyle.

  • No JackieAllen simply points out the centuries of hate and intolerance perpetuated by alleged followers of Jesus. The lack of respect for the boundaries of others is a fairly common affliction to certain Christians. Obnoxiousness towards other faiths, although in many cases unintentional, is fairly common to those with an urge to proseltyze.

  • And if that is the word of holiness, if that’s what you think of as holy, extortion on a galactic scale, then…

    Thank god I’m an atheist.

  • Right on cue. Right to dumping on gay people, as if there were no other sins it he world.

  • “alleged followers of Jesus” have no corner on hate and intolerance. Hate and intolerance are common to all cultures and demographic subgroups. Marxist rationalism was supposed to be the answer to all human problems, look how well that worked out. Among those relatively few who practice genuine Christianity, there is no better example of love for a common humanity.

  • You know, there is absolutely nothing any genuine Christian could say to defend that remark by Smith. I believe it was Mark Twain that declared, “Better to be thought a fool, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

  • ” Among those relatively few who practice genuine Christianity”

    You Christians can’t even get along with each other without animosity! “Genuine Christianity” being whatever ones own. beliefs are. Others are subject to denunciation and exclusion.

    The opposite of religious fanaticism isn’t Marxism. It’s secular democracy, ecumenism. Marxism is just religious fanaticism in a different package.

  • Here are some references for anyone who would take Jefress’ comments too seriously:

    “Jesus: Master Segregationist” by Lawrence Neff
    “God’s Garden of Segregation” by H.C. McGowan
    “Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization” by Theodore Bilbo

    Clearly not every devout Christian was on the side of civil rights

  • I have to disagree with you. This is employing the no true Christian fallacy in the service of revisionist history. Smiths remark did not occur in a vacuum.

    1900 years of official, church sponsored anti-semitism, starting in Paul’s writings, continuing with the gospel of John, And continuing right on down to the present day. With charming little stop-overs for the laws in medieval Europe, the forced conversions and expulsions of Catholic Spain, Martin Luther, the pogroms my ancestors experienced, and entrenched anti-semitism in this country in my life time. When I was a boy, the pope officially apologized for it, some 15-w20 years AFTER 6 million Jews were murdered by Christian Germany. And Christian Hungary. And Christian Poland.

    Sorry. That one just doesn’t fly.

  • Mr. Grant, you are using something Jeffress did NOT say to point out another topic. That is not fair. The fact that Criswell is an embarrassment, or that racism existed in the SBC, does not mean reform cannot take place in the SBC. At least Jeffress calls for that and gets to the bottom line: changed hearts are the main goal, changed governments are secondary (and will hopefully follow from the former).

    Criswell’s views are typical of how one’s sensibilities, rather than thoughtful morals or theology, color one’s views. Every one of us has to be careful of that. Middle-class, regional, ethnic, or historical sensibilities are NOT the same thing as moral values and duties or, in this case, biblical theology.

    (Also embarrassing, Criswell did not have a grasp of apologetics and got clobbered by the atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair in a radio debate I heard in the 70’s. He resorted to calling her a “heifer”.)

  • The “no true Christian (or Scotsman) fallacy” is not even a fallacy! It’s an ad hominem attack. The Scot does not have a canon of teaching, codified and believed to be inspired by God, to determine whether a true Scotsman would drink milk with his porridge! The Christian does have a canonized standard. And that canon says in the Book of Acts that God heard the prayer of the Jewish man, Cornelius, before Cornelius came to Christ. God hears whomever God wants to hear!

  • I chuckled. But whether the Christian’s standard (The Scriptures) are inspired by God is another question. I’m just pointing out the “No True Scotsman” is not a logical fallacy.

  • I have to challenge my own Christianity every day, searching my soul. I’m certainly not standing pat on my own actions, thoughts and motives. As for Marxism, it may not be democracy, but it’s definitely secular unless you make a synonym of religion and philosophy. Actually, most Christians today who have doctrinal differences still embrace each other as fellow believers. Note: I said most, not all. Finally, I have as much confidence in modern secular democracy for solving the world’s ills as I do Marxism.

  • Other than declaring that the Church was an extension, yet to some degree, a supersession of Mosaic Judaism, which I would not characterize as anti-Semitism as such, I find nothing in the writings of Paul or John that rise to the level of anti-Semitism. Bearing in mind that both were Jews, and Paul was a Pharisee. I do not challenge the deaths of 6 million + Jews during the course of WW2, nor do I deny that some putative “Christians” were either culpable or cowardly in that event. I do, however, challenge the notion that the Nazis’ who controlled Germany, Hungary, and Poland, were by any legitimate definition, “Christian.” Hitler himself was a neo-Nordic pagan, despite a Catholic upbringing, and manipulated Christians as long as they were useful to him. Further, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer we have a Christian who gave his life in opposition to Hitler, and the Rev. Martin Niemoller who confessedly declared his failings in not speaking out against Hitler sooner.
    No, Smith’s remarks were not made in a vacuum, and because we cannot change the past, we must concentrate on securing the future against a culture and environment that would allow anti-Semitism to revivify itself.

  • Uhh. Not to undercut your argument, but Cornelius was a Roman Centurion. You are indeed correct that God hears whomsoever He will.

  • I knew that I was just seeing if you were paying attention! Ha! Thanks for the correction. I should have checked that passage before posting.

  • I guess it could be called a rhetorical fallacy because logically it’s so problematic to say “no true X would do Y”, unless one could conclusively show why no true X would do Y. It’s more accurate to say, for example, “No true Christian would be consistent in doing Y (if Y were inconsistent with what Christ taught)”.

  • Marxism had it’s own saints, theology, idolatry and worship. It had more alike with many state established churches than it did any notions of secularism. Like all theocratic states, communist ones did not tolerate any belief but the state sanctioned forms of worship. Religion in a different trapping.

    BTW secularism began as a religious concept. It is not synonymous with atheism.

    “Actually, most Christians today who have doctrinal differences still embrace each other as fellow believers”

    Have you read Floydlee’s posts? Even you have denied people as being Christian at all over such differences. Every time a progressive church is mentioned in RNS, the knives come out. Insults are hurled. They are called apostates or phony Christians. Who are you kidding here?

  • I suspect you actually haven’t done much research on this topic.

    Hungary, Germany, and Poland were Christian before the Nazis, and were Christian afterwards. One must assume they were Christian during as well. Hitler is well documented for stating that nazism, supported by Christians, was a Christian movement.

    Google Christianity and antisemitism, Google Reichskonkordat, Google bible and antisemitism. I wish I had kept the documents I had found concerning the Lutheran church’s support of Hitler and antisemitism before the war, but Luther himself was a well known antisemite. You ought to also look at the documents that founded the Vatican state, and the apologies for antisemitism by the pope.

    To claim otherwise simply ignores history.

  • I never asserted that secularism is the equivalent to atheism, I understand the distinction well. And in fact I agree with you that Marxism is essentially a religion of sorts at bottom. But it amazes me that so few secularists/humanists/atheists failed to abandon it until it collapsed under its own contradictions, a fate that will not be Christianity’s. I can’t speak for Floydlee. I specifically endeavor to avoid personal invective. I may argue passionately, even heatedly, but see no point in insult, though sarcasm may occasionally creep in. I do deny the Christian orthodoxy of those whose perspective is clearly in contrast to the clear teaching of scripture. Are there a handful of squishy areas that are difficult to interpret? Yes, but they are very few.

  • Hitler used Christianity as a tool, in Leninist parlance; “Useful Idiots.” There is substantial evidence that Hitler himself was, as I stated, a neo-Nordic pagan. As far as Luther goes, I concede your point with one caveat. Luther thought he had discovered a truth in the bible missed by the Roman Church, “The just shall live by faith.” It was on this basis he became a reformer. He and Mohammed share an interesting connection. Both thought they had an insight lacked by others, both were initially sympathetic to the Jews, it was only later, after the Jews in Arabia and Germany respectively in their specific time frames rejected the entreaties of Luther and Mohammed, that both turned towards anti-Semitism. Which, I will acknowledge and insist, was completely wrong. In addition I suspect Luther was not quite rational in the latter stages of his life. I know of no systematic persecution of Jews in Poland in the 30’s prior to the Nazi invasion. Perhaps I do need to look a little deeper.

  • I was referring primarily to the nazi era, but I seem to remember polish pogroms as well. You can also check out the Russian pogroms. They even made a musical about it– fiddler on the roof. My grandfather left wherever he was from– it’s s little unclear, but it might have been Bessarabia– because he was not popular with the local authorities.

  • Sorry for some of the incoherence in the previous posting that you responded to, my iPad does strange things sometimes, and I never know when it is going to do it.

    There is some evidence that hitler was a neo Nordic pagan, but it equally well implies that he was just fascinated by by all things magical and mystical, because he was a megalomaniac obsessed with power. That was the point of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But more important, he knew his audience. Kaiser Bill was also virulently antiSemitic, as crazy on the subject as hitler was. (It is a testament to what a nasty piece of work he was the even Hitler didn’t like him) It wasn’t too long after the Dreyfus affair in France. And as I said, those Lutheran church statements justifying the holocaust were chilling, as were the Catholic statements concerning both the Reichskonkordat and mussolini’s gift to the Vatican. You might also want to google the sumptuary laws of medieval Europe. Rather interesting accounts of the Jews.

  • ‘But it amazes me that so few secularists/humanists/atheists failed to abandon it until it collapsed under its own contradictions, a fate that will not be Christianity’s. ”

    Religious belief is not rational. If it were all of it would collapse under its own contradictions. One does not believe because of evidence and logical argument. One believes because they have faith. Its why I wince every time there are comments on Jana’s column about why Mormonism is silly. They are pointless. Such arguments even if accurate have zero effect, because people don’t believe in a religion that way. Religion makes sense to people in a purely personal level. No other criteria is necessary.

    “I do deny the Christian orthodoxy of those whose perspective is clearly in contrast to the clear teaching of scripture. ”

    As far as I can see, orthodoxy is not a criteria to Christian belief. Only of orthodox belief. “Clear teaching of scripture” is a fiction. Something claimed to assume a level of authority on the subject that does not exist outside of one’s given sect. The inability to accept and understand the concept that “one’s mileage may vary” is fairly pernicious. There are times one really needs to accept differences exist and that they are not going to be subject to your opinion or approval.

  • As musical theatre “Fiddler on the Roof” was wonderful, and I have no reason to doubt it’s historical authenticity. I think it represented a fair presentation of the Jewish point of view, or at least certain facets of it. Russian anti-Semitism, even as “officially” denied or discouraged under the Soviets, still exists, or existed at the time of the revolution, which is the approximate period of the play.

  • As usual, we find little common ground. I disagree that evidence and logic are not elements of one’s choice to believe. I find the logic of the bible quite compelling as it relates to human behavior and attitudes, and the remedy for them. The Scripture, parsed carefully, using the proper linguistic tools, is quite clear; on ethics, moral behavior, social responsibility, etc. Eschatological narratives in scripture are another matter. In the end, I trust the God I believe in to judge justly and compassionately, and where I may be in error in reference to His Word, I will depend on the forgiveness He has promised.

  • Thank you, however, I must confess that I took another shot at your position on another thread with another person on the issue of abortion (He agrees with you), specifically citing you. My regrets.

  • A Southern Baptist, even a modern Southern Baptist, citing the abolitionist movement as justification for political involvement, is insulting to folks like me whose religious tradition, Congregationalism (now mostly part of the United Church of Christ) actually did provide leadership in the abolitionist movement, and the 1960s civil rights movement. Speaking as a former Southern Baptist who left in large part due to its continued racism.

  • “until it collapsed under its own contradictions, a fate that will not be Christianity’s.” It is the fate of Cesar’s religion to collapse under its own illogical contradictions which its holy text, The Bible, well illustrates. Evolution tells a far more beautiful story of creation than something out of the Bronze Age.

  • Well! Ain’t that a lovin’ god! And he out sources hell too! Or is this god a she? Does it have biological sex organs?

  • “Cesar’s religion?” I don’t get your reference. Evolution is manifestly not a story of Creation, at least as far as the bulk of evolutionists have declared. And it’s quite obvious that as we view the universe from different perspectives, our ideas of what constitutes beauty would naturally clash.

  • The only prayer prayed by a lost person that God hears (heeds) is the prayer of the lost man seeking salvation. This is the case of Cornelius. He had fasted, he had done alms, he had lived a righteous life, he believed in God, yet he somehow knew that it was not enough.He wanted to please God. When he learned of Jesus, that was his sure way of salvation, and he quickly took his opportunity. That prayer of the sinner (Cornelius) imploring God and trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, is what God in heaven heard and answered.

  • A loving god does not wish for you to be tortured in hell by Satan and his demons for all eternity. It is up to you to receive the free gift of salvation paid by the innocent blood of the Son of God at the cross.

  • God can do whatever he wishes! If he wishes to heed the prayer of a lost man then that’s his prerogative. While I agree with you in principle, you are going to far. God can heed the prayer of a lost man and use the circumstances to bring him freely to faith in Christ.

  • Yes, God can heed the prayer of anybody for any petition. That is his prerogative; however, a lost man is ignorant of the fact that God is not obligated to heed his prayers in the same way that God is obligated to heed the prayers of his children. The only prayer of a lost man that God heeds and acts upon is when the lost sinner man pleads for salvation in Christ.