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?