Criswell served as pastor of the nation's largest Southern Baptist congregation, the First Baptist Church of Dallas, from 1944 until 1991, when he was given the title of senior pastor. He has held the title of pastor emeritus since 1994.
Evangelist Billy Graham has considered Criswell his pastor since the early 1950s, when Criswell persuaded Graham to join First Baptist. "He was a giant and we will miss him," Graham said through spokesman Larry Ross.
Criswell was a target of both liberals and conservatives in the denomination during terms as Southern Baptist Convention president from 1968 and 1970. He espoused biblical inerrancy, the belief that the Bible is the literal, exact word of God and that events described in its verses are historically accurate. He wrote a book called "Why I Preach That The Bible Is Literally True" and invited liberal theologians to "get out" of the convention.
Criswell got criticism from the other side when he suggested Baptist leaders could open a dialogue with the National Council of Churches, which Southern Baptists considered too liberal in its religious and political outlook.
Over two decades, Criswell's Bible-based views came to prevail in the 15.6 million-member denomination, based in Nashville, Tenn. The increasingly conservative leadership passed a 1984 resolution against the ordination of women, supported a boycott of the Walt Disney Co. in 1997 and called in 1998 for women to "submit graciously" to their husbands' leadership. "Somebody said that Dr. Criswell preached the crusade and the younger generation carried it out, and I suppose there's a lot of truth in that," said Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. "A lot of us ... were profoundly influenced by the man and his message."
Said the Rev. Mac Brunson, the current pastor of First Baptist: "He's done more to change the face of Christianity around the world for our generation than anyone else."
Criswell once told the South Carolina Legislature during a speech that integration was "idiocy," but announced after his election to the SBC presidency that he was renouncing segregation. First Baptist was for the first time open to blacks.
For the most part, Criswell eschewed politics. But in 1976, while President Ford was seated in his congregation, Criswell endorsed him for re-election over Ford's Southern Baptist opponent, Jimmy Carter. In 1982, Criswell arranged through several Jewish leaders in Dallas for Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to come to the church. Begin had to cancel the visit because of the death of his wife.
Born on Dec. 19, 1909, Criswell grew up in Texline, a tiny farming community in the Panhandle. His parents hoped he would become a doctor, he said, but "ever since I can remember, I've been preparing to be a preacher. ... I have never deviated from that." He put himself through Baylor University pastoring a country congregation. and later earned a doctorate in theology.
During his years at First Baptist Church, it grew from 5,000 members to nearly 26,000 and had a budget of more than $11 million. The church has a private school, a small college of 300 students and a 700-bed homeless shelter.