A CENTURY OF BLESSING
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-28-68 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is certainly a marvelous service to share: we are celebrating our one hundredth anniversary. This is the first event and order of the day. And you have just been listening to our Clarion Choir, under Perry Taylor, their director. And these are intermediates; they are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old; those three ages, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old. And they sing like professionals and I hope to my back, where I cannot see them, they act like professionals, up here in this choir. Well, it is a happy and a glorious day, going to be filled with many marvelous and wonderful things. I’m glad and grateful to see all Columbia Mississippi over here a-sittin to my right. The Tom Watts family and the Dr. Bush family, whose preacher boy belongs to our church; goes to Southwestern Seminary at Fort Worth, but works over here like a trouper. I read in the Mississippi paper this last week, where you Dr. Bush, had been appointed on that committee to secure a successor to your executive secretary who died. Dr. Chester Qualls was one of my dearest friends; he and I were classmates in the Southern Seminary and on a missionary trip to Peru, in South America, he died, and it was a great sadness to all of us. And I would express to you Dr. Bush, and for all your dear people, our remembrance in that tragedy and our prayers for you as you secure God’s man for that strategic place of leadership.
Now this is the pastor bringing the message entitled A Century of Blessing. I read one of my favorite texts; it is Isaiah 51:1-2:
Hearken to Me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you.
This is reflective of a habit of those old Hebrew prophets to call their people back to a remembrance of their forefathers. “Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and unto the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah who bare you” [Isaiah 51:1-2]. And in the message that I bring this morning, I want you to notice that they both are mentioned in God’s call to remembrance. “Look unto the rock, unto Abraham your father; look unto the hole of the pit from whence ye are digged, unto Sarah who bare you” [Isaiah 51:1-2]. And this will appear as the message progresses, the tremendous contribution of Sarah, as well as her husband Abraham, to the building up of the kingdom of God in the hearts of men.
Now, as I look back and read through and reminisce in my own part in this century of blessing, I found myself overwhelmed with so much to say in so small a time in which to say it. I had to choose something; I had to choose just one thing. So out of the recounting of the past century I have chosen the buildings of our church home. In 1872, that would be four years after the church had been organized with its eleven members, they laid the foundation for their first house of worship, just about a block down Patterson Street from where we are now. And Abram Weaver, the pastor of the church, said this as they laid the foundation for their new building, “This is an important day in the life of our First Baptist Church. It is a day when we tell the people of Dallas that the Baptists are here to stay.” That is a reference to the great difficulty they experienced in founding and keeping viable a Baptist congregation in the flourishing little frontier community called Dallas. Pastor Weaver continued, “It is a day when we shall show Dallas that we have roots planted deep in the soil. And it is important for another thing too,” said Pastor Weaver, “it is a day when we must recognize that the women of our church must be reckoned with, both by the congregation and by the people of Dallas. Their spirit, their faith in themselves and their faith in God are responsible for our being here today,” the women of the church, that little handful of dedicated women. He continued, “All of us owe a great debt to Mrs. W. L. Williams and her Ladies Industrial Society”; that was the beginning of our far- flung Women’s Missionary Union. Weaver continued:
They have made it possible for us to begin construction today of the city’s first Baptist house of worship. And we can look to them to make this church a powerful force for good and for God. Let us ask the Master to bless our labor for Him, and then get to work!
And they built the house themselves; and that’s the way he concluded his dedication of that first labor: “Let us ask the Master to bless our labor for Him, and then get to work!” And they built that first house of the Lord. And a thoughtful member added, quote, “From that day on, from their entry into that new building, this has been an active and a growing church.” So in 1872 they started building, and in 1873 it was completed. The finest structure in the city of Dallas was the First Baptist Church; and it cost six thousand dollars, an astronomical sum in those days.
Then the church grew and the blessing of heaven was upon it. And in the 1880’s they began to speak about another place, another house. They had outgrown that place and that house. In 1890, under the pastoral leadership of A. M. Sims, they built their second house of worship; and it is there today. If you go outside, at the corner of the church, at Ervay and Patterson, you will find the marble cornerstone; and it is dated 1890. And that beautiful building still stands, and we worship in it. This is one of the most phenomenal of all the things I know of in church history. With all of the vast increase in every department and phase of our church life, we still walk up that main entrance and pass that cornerstone dated 1890. They paid for the building $90,940; again, an astronomical sum in those days. And they built that house of worship. It was the finest building in the Southwest; and people came from far and near to look upon it. Pastor Sims stayed just that period of time in which they built the building. And after he had built the structure, he felt his work was done, and he left.
In 1897, the church called the young graduate from Baylor University, George W. Truett. And in 1897, the far-flung and fabulous ministry of Dr. Truett began. Here and once more, the church found itself crowded to the rafters, pressed to the wall. So in 1908 they took that beautiful building and added this part to it. They took the building that was at Patterson and Ervay and extended it to San Jacinto, one block down, all the way through, all that part of the building there. And so marvelously did the architect create that building, it looked as though it were made that way from the beginning. And once again, it was looked upon as one of the finest and most beautiful sanctuaries in the southland. And people came from far and near to see it. And that is the building, the front part of this auditorium, is that building that they created in 1908. Then the church continued to grow and to grow and to grow. And in 1924 they knocked out this wall of the church and extended it to its present size and proportion in which you now worship. And in 1924 they built what we call the Truett Building, the seven story educational building that sits back of our sanctuary.
In 1924 this block was covered with the auditorium and the educational building of the First Baptist Church. They entered into a building program that costs more than eight million dollars; which again was an unheard of and astronomical sum in those days. And I can remember as a boy, I can remember reading the criticism of the First Baptist Church in Dallas; and it went like this: “With all of the need of the mission fields, and with all of the call from the poor, think of a church spending a million dollars on a building, think of it.” Well, I thought of it, even as a boy; and I said to myself, “I’ve heard that before.” You know where I heard it? That’s what Judas Iscariot said when Mary broke the alabaster box over His head; they said, “Why wasn’t this taken and given to the poor?” [John 12:3-5]. I don’t care what you do, there are going to be some two-by scantlings around, saying, “Why do you build that building? Why do you put in that beautiful window? Why do you build that steeple? Look at all these folks around here half starving to death.” You’ve always got those folks with you. I had a deacon leave this church because some of our young people went over there and made a beautiful little chapel out of their assembly room, and they called it the Criswell Chapel over there. That’s one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen. You’ve got folks like that around you all your life. They’ve got a quirk in them; they’ve got a screw loose in them. I say, if we’re going to do it for God, do it beautiful, do it fine, do it the best you can. I’ve always felt that, and when I make a gift to God, I ought not to take it out of something that is nothing to me at all;” I’ve got some old clothes, I’ll give them to God; I’ve got some old worn out shoes, I’ll give them to God; but the finest and the best I’ll keep for myself”…No! a thousand times, no!
What we do for God, let’s do the best we can! And if we’re going to build a building, let’s make it worthy of His glorious name. If we’re going to sing a song, let’s sing it the best that we know how to sing it. If we’re going to preach a sermon, “Preacher, do it good; don’t bore us with something that doesn’t amount to anything.” Going to teach a class, teach a good lesson. Whatever we do, let’s do it fine for God. And that’s the history of this church from the beginning. They built a magnificent monument here. And after these years and years and years and years, almost unheard of, with the vast enlargement of this First Baptist Church in Dallas, we still use those glorious monumental buildings that they erected so many, many years ago. Go outside and look at that cornerstone, and bow your head and say, “Lord, we thank Thee for such men and such women who built so nobly in years past.” “Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah who bare you” [Isaiah 51:1-2].
Then, in the providences of God and in the coming of the present pastor, the church continued to grow and to expand in every area. One of the—oh, you can get married anywhere, even in a blacksmith shop or a hamburger joint, and you can get married anywhere, I know. But when I came to the church we had no chapel; and all we could do was either have a wedding ceremony in this auditorium that’d seat three thousand people, or use a Sunday school classroom. And I performed wedding ceremonies all over this city because these young people wanted a pretty little chapel in which to marry; and they’d go to every church in this city. There is hardly a church in Dallas in which I have not performed marriage ceremonies. So I told these dear people of this church, “Now I’m tired of that. I want to marry my children, my young people, in our church; and I want a chapel, I want a chapel.” I said, “I want a chapel.” I said, “I want a chapel, I want a chapel, I want a chapel, I want a chapel.” Well, I said that and I said that until finally the people began to say, “Well, I think we need a chapel, don’t you? I think we need a chapel, don’t you?” And that’s where that building across the street came from that they have called the Criswell Building; and it’s the hardest thing in the world for me to say that. But that’s where that building came from. We went across the street and bought that property there, and we built two beautiful chapels in it, and there are three now. There is a little chapel there called the Criswell Chapel that’ll hold about eighty or ninety or something like that, a beautiful thing. It’s on the fourth floor. Then there is the Slaughter Memorial Chapel that will seat a hundred and ninety-two. Then there is Embree Chapel, we call it Embree Hall that will seat about seven hundred. And the Lord blessed us as we entered that tremendous building program. That building, with its furnishings, cost two million dollars. How the rising costs of construction astronomically soar. That building across the street, with its furnishings, cost about two million dollars.
Now we’re going to pick up, in the moment that remains, we’re going to pick up what Abram Weaver said back there in 1872: “All of us owe a great debt to our women; without them it would not be possible for us to begin construction today.” As the time went on, some fantastic and fabulous and remarkable things happened to me in this pastoral ministry. And when I say them, I just, I just wonder, “Will people believe such things as that?” They may sound unrealistic; yet they happened, and here they are. Upon a day there came to me here at the church, when my study was where Dr. Truett had his for the years, back of the auditorium here, there came a woman whom I had never seen and had never heard of. And she introduced herself, “My name,” she said, “is Mrs. Hattie Rankin Moore.” She said, “I have been ill, and lying there in bed, I have been listening to you on the radio. And I have been hearing your appeal that you wanted to build a mission in West Dallas. And I have come to give you the money for that mission in West Dallas. I heard you say that it would cost 50 thousand dollars; I have come to give you that 50 thousand dollars.” She gave it in the form of a downtown piece of property in Houston. I persuaded our deacons not to sell that property; it is now right in front of the Humble Oil Building in Houston, Texas, the tallest building in Houston. We own the lot right in front of that building. And we raised the fifty-thousand dollars and kept the lot; and we’re going to keep it, unless after I’m dead you deacons do something crazy, we’re going to keep that lot till Jesus comes again. And that’s where our Truett Memorial Chapel came from. And upon a day, Mrs. Hattie Rankin Moore came to me and said, “I want you to go with me to the First National Bank building.” And I went with her, and I sat down by the side of her lawyer, and she said, “I want you to dictate to the lawyer what you want to do with my estate.” So I dictated that paragraph in which she left all of her estate to the First Baptist Church in Dallas. And I dictated it supporting our missionary program. She had four sisters, and the estate was to support those four sisters until they all were translated to heaven; then all of it will come to our First Church. And the estate is in one of the great banks in Houston, Texas. And in these immediate years that lie ahead, three of the sisters, one of them is still living, and it will be a memorial to that gracious woman forever. For in that estate are some of the most valuable properties in Texas.
Then the most fantastic of all: I began my ministry here, and there came to see me Minnie Slaughter Veal. This was in the 1940s. And as you know, she was one of the four Slaughter children, Colonel C. C. Slaughter’s children, who belonged to the church when I came, four of them. Minnie Slaughter Veal, Mrs. George T. Veal, came and said to me, “I have changed my will. Heretofore I had divided my estate in two of our institutions. But I have decided to make it a three part bequest: this institution and this institution and the First Baptist Church.” Well, I was astonished! She said, “I want to help build this church, really.” One of the heads of those institutions became very angry at me. He thought that I had talked to Mrs. Veal and had persuaded her to change her will. I had no idea of it at all! I did not even know very well Mrs. Minnie Slaughter Veal. It was something that came out of her heart. She said, “I want to do this.” So, she placed our First Baptist Church for a third part in her will.
Now when we were building this building that we call the Criswell Building, the property here on the town side of us across Patterson Street came up for sale. It was a church, and they decided to move out. There have been seven downtown churches move out since I have been here in Dallas. And that church decided to move out. And the property was up for sale. I went to our deacons, and I said, “This property is for sale, we ought to secure it. If we don’t somebody will buy it and build a sixty story building on it, and we’ll never have it.” Well the deacons said, “Pastor, we have borrowed more than a million dollars for this building here, and we dare not go in debt anymore.” Well, I said, “I understand, that’s right. I understand, we ought not to go in debt any more.” Well, I was standing on the curb there, right out beyond the door of our Truett Building, on Patterson Street, looking at that property. And Mr. Souther, our educational director, was standing there by my side. And I said to Billy Souther, “This is one of the tragedies of a lifetime. This property is for sale, and if we don’t get it now, we will never be able to possess it. And we desperately need it. And I have talked to the deacons about it, and they say we are overwhelmingly in debt and must not add to it, and we cannot buy it. Oh, this is a tragedy!”
And Mr. Souther said to me, “Well pastor, why don’t you ask God for it?” I looked at him in amazement and astonishment! “Ask God for it?” I said, “Well, I never thought of such a thing. I thought you were supposed to ask the deacons for it!” It had never occurred to me. “Well,” he said, “why don’t you try it, why don’t you ask God for it?” I said, “Billy, I believe I’ll try it.” So I got to praying, “Lord, Lord, that property there.” And I got a telephone call, it was from Mrs. Veal. She said, “Pastor, I hear you’re down on your knees praying for that property across the street.” I said, “That’s right, Mrs. Veal.”
“Well,” she said, “What does it cost?” I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll tell you real soon.” I found out we could buy it for $255,500. I called her, and she said, “Go buy it, and I’ll give you the money.” And Mrs. Veal gave me $255,500 to buy that property across the street. Then after we bought it, I got a second telephone call from Mrs. Veal. She said, “Pastor, what did you want with it? What do you want to do with it?” I said, “A downtown church is choked to death in this traffic problem.” Not on Sunday, for the downtown is empty in parking on Sunday— whenever one of these people goes out to some other church on the edge of town and says, “The reason I don’t come downtown is I can’t find a parking place,” they’re just stringing you along—you can park fifty thousand cars downtown in Dallas on Sunday, it is empty. They pour in here during the days of the week; but on Sunday it’s empty, you can park thousands and thousands of cars downtown. We don’t have a parking problem on Sunday. It is in the days of the week that the downtown church is choked to death by the city, and you can’t build a church just on Sunday; it has to be built seven days a week. And I said to Mrs. Veal, “I want to build a parking building, and on top of it I want to build a glorious recreational building for our young people.” Well she said, “How much money will it cost?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but I’ll tell you real soon.” So I called her back and I said, “It will cost a million five hundred thousand dollars.” And Mrs. Veal said, “Build it, and I will give you the million five hundred thousand dollars.” And that building went up, and the church never knew where it came from all those years that it was building. She did not want it known, and the church did not enter into it. I built that building with the money that Mrs. Veal gave me, $1,755,500, that’s where that building came from. One of the sweetest, most gracious, blessed, precious women in the world, Minnie Slaughter Veal. And, of course, upon her death, the estate has been divided three ways; and a third of it goes to support this work. We use that Minnie Slaughter Veal estate in two ways: we use it to support the building that she built. We feel that that building ought to be beautifully kept, as long as time lasts, and to support that building and its program, we devote that estate. And the other part of that estate we use in supporting scholarships in our Baptist institutions. The youngsters who are preparing for God’s work, we try to help them get ready to serve the Master in their education.
Now my time is gone and I have just touched the hem of the garment, but I wanted you to know just a little bit, and we’ve taken so small a segment of it, just a little of the favor and blessings of God upon our church. Now tonight, I’m going to preach on the next one hundred years. I hope you can be here tonight because the best I can with the wisdom God has given to me I’m going to look ahead. What kind of a world will it be, these next hundred years? What will life be like? What will our government be like? What will our nation be like? And what must our church be like? And if we are going to grow, and if we are going to be the great instrument of heaven in this next generation, as God has helped us to be in the past generation, we have a tremendous work yet to do. We have buildings to build that must be built. And we are girding our loins, and rolling up our sleeves, and dedicating our lives to build them. And as the days come and go, more and more you will find these plans materialize and be presented to you as the First Baptist Church, as Dr. Truett’s famous sermon, “Hats Off to the Past”—praising God for the vision of our forefathers—“and Coats Off to the Future,” getting ready for the tremendous assignment that lies ahead.
Now we must not tarry too long here in the auditorium. We have our Sunday school immediately. On the first note of the first stanza, to give your heart to Jesus, or to put your life in the fellowship of the church, a family you, a couple you, or one somebody you, in a moment when we stand to sing, on the first note of the first stanza, come and stand by me. Do it now, and God bless you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.