Southern CrossRoads



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BY ART REMILLARD

The Editors of the Journal of Southern Religion recently added Curtis W. Freeman’s article, “‘Never Had I Been So Blind’: W. A. Criswell’s ‘Change’ on Racial Segregation” to Volume 10. Here’s an excerpt from the conclusion…

W. A. Criswell discerned the political signs of the times more clearly than anyone could have imagined. He was able to envision the passing of the Dixiecrat politics of the Solid South, and the emergence of a new conservatism that would fit like hand-in-glove with the New Religious Right. He later would be hailed as both the godfather of the conservative resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention and a spiritual advisor in the southern strategy of the Republican revolution. Yet what he 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.”

For those unfamiliar with Criswell and his position on segregation, his obituary in the New York Times offers a quick primer.

The Rev. W. A. Criswell, a leader of the conservative movement now in control of the Southern Baptists and former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, one of the denomination's first megachurches, died on Thursday in Dallas. He was 92. He was the former head of the Southern Baptist Convention and was pastor of First Baptist, the nation's largest Southern Baptist congregation, from 1944 until 1991, becoming pastor emeritus in 1994. The author of Why I Preach That the Bible Is Literally True and 53 other books, Mr. Criswell was a target of both denomination liberals and conservatives during his two terms as convention president in 1968-70. . . . Mr. Criswell once told the South Carolina Legislature that integration was “idiocy,” but he announced after his election to the convention presidency in 1968 that he was renouncing segregation, a practice that was then common in Southern churches and elsewhere.

Also in JSR news, two members of our editorial board Walter Conser and Rodger Payne co-edited, Southern Crossroads: Perspectives on Religion and Culture. Here’s a description from the University Press of Kentucky website (you may notice some familiar names)…

Southern Crossroads: Perspectives on Religion and Culture takes the study of southern religion beyond a narrow focus on Christianity and churches. The interdisciplinary research found in this volume extends to non-Western religions and even to such topics as food, music, art, vernacular folkways, and literature. Contributors include Walter H. Conser Jr., James R. Curtis, Matthew Day, Marcie Cohen Ferris, Paul Harvey, Samuel S. Hill, Barbara Lau, Bill J. Leonard, William Martin, Donald G. Mathews, William D. Moore, Charles E. Orser Jr., Diana Pasulka, Celeste Ray, Randall J. Stephens, and Charles Reagan Wilson.

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