J. B. Cranfill: the Men Around Dr. Truett


J. B. Cranfill: the Men Around Dr. Truett

July 13th, 1969 @ 8:15 AM

Hebrews 11:4

By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

Hebrews 11:4

7-13-69    8:15  a.m.


Now on the radio you are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the morning message.  It is entitled The Men Around Dr. Truett; the men around Truett.  In so brief a time, in so small and fleeting a moment, I have only opportunity, just sort of, to point out the era in which the life of Dr. Truett was cast was the era that molded the Baptist work in the state of Texas.

It was so largely chaotic!  For example, there were four different Baptist Conventions, and you are going to see some of the disunion that lay in our Baptist witness in Texas as I proceed with the address.  But the ministry of Dr. Truett was cast in a time when the work of our people in this state was amorphous.  And he, towering like a giant, and some other men like B. H. Carroll, and J. B. Gambrell, and J. B. Cranfill, molded the life of our denomination that you see today.  And so much of it was done in this First Baptist Church, as you will see in this message this hour.  Now out of the men around Dr. Truett, I have chosen one, and his name was Dr. J. B. Cranfill.  And if I were to choose a text for the message, it would be in Hebrews 11:4: “He being dead yet speaketh.”

Now as you know, on a Sunday nearest the anniversary of the death of Dr. Truett––and he died the seventh day of July in 1944––on the Sunday nearest the anniversary of his death, I deliver a sermon on some area of his vast and far-flung ministry.  It would ordinarily have been presented last Sunday, but I was in a crusade in Oklahoma City last week and exchanged pulpits with the pastor of the First Baptist Church, so I did not have opportunity to deliver the message then.  I am especially interested in delivering the address because our church is seeking to endow, to found, to make possible a Chair of Evangelism in Baylor University––a school that he saved and a school from which he was graduated, the school that he loved all the days of his life.

And we’re seeking three hundred thousand dollars to endow that Chair of Evangelism.  We have a little less than half of it now.  And if as the days progress God would lay it on your heart to make a gift to that chair––teaching young people the Word of God in Baylor University––if you’d like to do it, make the gift through the church and designate it for the Chair of Evangelism.  And God will bless it as long as that institution teaches God’s Book to young people.

Now Dr. Cranfill, he was a medical doctor, he was a Baptist preacher, he was a journalist of the first order, editor, author, and he was a shrewd businessman.  His parents were born in Kentucky, both of them.  They married there when they were young.  And they came to Texas in a covered wagon drawn by a team of oxen.  They settled in East Texas around Gilmer, but the father was restless all of his life.  He himself was a medical doctor and a Primitive Hardshell Baptist preacher.  From East Texas, he came to the wilderness, the untouched, uncivilized area of this country at Denton first, and then around Weatherford next.  And there around Weatherford, out from Weatherford, J. B. Cranfill was born the twelfth day of September in 1858.

But the father despaired of the country ever being civilized, subjected; the raids of the Indians were frightful.  He had gone there because he had been preceded by a brother.  And when that brother’s son was murdered by the Indians––and by the way, I can understand the Indian; that was his country, it was his land, it was his home, and when the white settlers came and took away his land and took away his home, I can understand their violent response.  But that waged here in Texas, my great-great grandfather fought.  He came here in the 1820s.  My great-great-great grandfather fought through all of those Indian wars.  But in any event, the elder, the father felt that the country would never be subjugated, it was wild and full of bloodshed.  And when they had those raids, he would take his little family into the fort that the government had built at Weatherford.  But despairing of peace and quiet, he finally gave up and came back to East Texas.

While he was there in East Texas, the War Between the States broke out.  And one of the tenderest passages I’ve ever read in my life is the description of Mrs. Cranfill, the mother, gathering the little brood of small children around her knee, reading to them every night a chapter out of God’s Book, and then praying for the father who was away, and for the Confederate armies, and that right would prevail in the earth.  After the war, the father came back, and they wandered down through the southern part of Texas around Gonzales and then turned westward and again entered a wild wilderness—this time Coryell County, which is about fifty miles west of Waco—and settled around Turnersville.  I began my ministry in Coryell County and held a revival meeting at Turnersville, so the things that entered into his life—the places, the people, what happened—I can follow so easily in my own experience.

Now when he was eighteen years old he attended a brush-arbor revival meeting by the Hardshell, the Primitive Baptist Church in Coryell County.  Most of the men who were guests in their home were Hardshell Baptist preachers, and in this revival, he had a date.  He had picked up a young woman and they were seated there under the brush-arbor in that revival.  She was vastly uninterested, but as the preacher preached his sermon, he made a proposition, and he said, “Are there any here today who hope to be a Christian, not now, but some other time?  If there is someone here who does not intend to be a Christian now, but expects to be a Christian someday, will you come and give me your hand?”

Well, it shows the honesty of the young man, because he turned to his girlfriend and said, “I must go forward, for I intend to be a Christian someday.”  Now he said, “I thought that to be a Christian would be to take all of the wonderful joys out of life.”  Isn’t that a strange thing that young people have, that you have a better time if you have an evil time, if you have a sinful time?  That’s how Satan blinds our eyes.  The people who have a good time have a good time.  Well, he was like most young people, “If I become a Christian, all of those joys and pleasures of life will be denied me.”  So he had planned to be a Christian when he got old.  Well, he turned to the young woman and said, “I intend to be a Christian sometime, and I must answer that call.”  Well, she thought it was ludicrous, but he left her side and went down the aisle.

And the moment he stepped into the aisle and down to the front, something happened to the young man.  I’ve always felt that if a man would take the first step toward God, God will meet him in the way.  Something will happen to you in that committing decision, “I will respond.”  He did.  And when he got down there and gave his hand to the preacher, he was under powerful conviction, and he knelt with the penitence to pray, and his father and mother saw it.  And the people prayed, and he prayed all that night, came back to the next service, kneeling as a penitent, and at the next service—and at the following service, while he was praying, the burden, he describes, was lifted.  And they begin to sing a song, and it is the song that you will sing here once in a while, saying, you don’t know why, but you greatly love it:

When I can read my title clear

To mansions in the skies,

I’ll bid farewell to every tear

And wipe my weeping eyes.

And he says that at that time that old song had this ending to it:

O come, angel band, come and around me stand

O bear me away on your snowy wings to my eternal home.

[When I Can Read My Title Clear,” Isaac Watts, 1707]

And he describes that service.  I haven’t been in a service like that in years, but I used to be.  When the people would just start singing, and shaking hands, and the tears just roll over their faces, those were the sweetest services I’ve ever been in my life.  I began, as you know, when I was a youth.  I was seventeen when I started preaching, and I was very slender.  You would not think that now, but I was.  I did not weight but a hundred thirty-five pounds.  And I have had big, big strong men—they’d work with their hands all their lives, and they were strong—I’ve had them nearly squeeze me to death, just hug me in one of those services, singing and weeping and shaking hands, just rejoicing in the Lord.  Our rejoicing today is in some other place.  We like the television set, or we like to go to the amusement or the show or something.  But when I was a youth, all of our joy was centered in the church and in the blessedness of Jesus.

Well, he was converted and felt called of God to preach.  He thought everybody was called of God to preach when they were converted—found out he was the only one that felt that way, and he was licensed to preach by that Primitive Baptist Church.  Well, he became a schoolteacher and a doctor practicing medicine, and finally a journalist, a newspaper publisher in Turnersville and then in Gatesville, which is the county seat of Coryell County.  I used to think that whoever was pastor of Gatesville had the greatest field in the world, greatest church.

In 1883, he made a business journey to Waco, and on his way back––and I used to drive back and forth over that road every week, going to my pastorates while I went to Baylor––he stopped at McGregor; I’d go through McGregor, going and coming.  And there was a man holding a revival meeting in McGregor; his name was B. H. Carroll, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Waco, and he stopped and attended that revival.  That was the first time he saw B.H. Carroll, and immediately was overwhelmed by the tremendous gifts and endowments of that theologian and preacher and man of God.

He began to publish the sermons that Carroll preached in his paper in Gatesville, and he would go to Waco on the weekend in order to listen to B. H. Carroll as he preached.  And in those days in 1883, the latter part, the day before Christmas, his little boy was born.  The little fellow was three years old and became ill.  But being better, Dr. Cranfill made a journey to Corsicana and stayed there in the home of Pastor Mullins.  The pastor had, at that time, a brilliant son named E. Y. Mullins, who later, you know, was president of the World Alliance and president of Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky and the greatest theologian we’ve produced.  While he was there—this brilliant young fellow was a telegrapher—and there came a wire and E.Y. Mullins brought it to Dr. Cranfill and tenderly read it to him.  The wire said that his little boy, Carroll Cranfill, named after J. B. Cranfill, was dead.  It was a tremendous sorrow to his life.

Now as we hasten—in his journalistic life he was a publisher of a newspaper at Turnersville in Coryell County, then at Waco, and finally here in Dallas.  In those days there were two members of this church: one, the pastor Robert T. Hanks, and another, Samuel A. Hayden.  And Hayden hated Hanks.  And Hayden published a paper entitled the Texas Baptist Herald, and in that paper he sought to destroy the pastor of this First Baptist Church, Brother Hanks.  And as time went on, Brother Hanks began a paper called the Western Baptists, and the feud became so intense that it spilled out all over the state, and the First Baptist Church divided, and the denomination divided.  Wherever this church has gone, the whole denomination has followed it, and when there was trouble in this church, there was trouble in the denomination; and when this church split, the denomination split.

Well in those days, Dr. Cranfill of Waco bought the paper, the magazine of Pastor Hanks—of this church—and he moved it to Waco and changed the name to the Baptist Standard.  And when he entered that work, he inherited that feud from Hayden.  And upon a day, in the passing of the time, as Hayden continued his vicious attacks, the convention—the Baptist Convention—denied Hayden a seat.  They withdrew fellowship from him, and when that was done, Hayden sued J. B. Cranfill, B. H. Carroll, J. B. Gambrell, and George W. Truett for one hundred thousand dollars, which was an astronomical sum in those days.

The trial was here in Dallas, and it was without precedent in Christian history.  It lasted seven years; and the reason for it lay in the judge here in Dallas.  I did not know these things until I began reading about that incomparably sad and tragic trial.  If you have a judge who is prejudiced––and this judge was in sympathy with Hayden––if you have a judge who is prejudiced, it is tragic for those who are being accused.  And for seven years that trial continued.  Now C. C. Slaughter, Colonel C. C. Slaughter, was in that group, and he paid just to get out of it.  But Cranfill says that that nearly ruined him; he owned the property at Akard and Main down there, and he had to sell his property in order to pay for that long litigation.  Oh, those things!  And as you know, the denomination split and that is where the Baptist Missionary Association comes from.  They have a school in Jacksonville, Texas and there used to be BMA churches all over the country.  They are not so numerous anymore, but they were everywhere.  The First Baptist Church of Oak Cliff, which was a separate town, was a BMA church.  Oh, those days were frightful!

Now, upon a day when J. B. Cranfill in Waco and in Dr. Carroll’s church was financial secretary of Baylor University, he was invited to become superintendent of missions for the state of Texas and accepted, so that meant, in 1890, that there was no financial secretary for Baylor University, and the school was about to go under.  They owed at that time the astronomical sum of ninety-two thousand dollars and couldn’t pay it.  In those days there was a missionary mass meeting in McKinney, and B. H. Carroll was coming up there to preach to that missionary mass meeting, but mostly they were going up there to interview a young man who had been recommended to them to be the financial secretary and to raise that burdensome debt off of Baylor University.  And the young fellow, who had been recommended to them by the pastor of a church in Whitewright, where he belonged, was an unknown George W. Truett.  So J. B. Cranfill and B. H. Carroll went up there to McKinney to interview this unknown; a young man, George W. Truett.  They were impressed by him.  You know the rest of the story because I have spoken of it several times here in this pulpit; and Dr. Truett accepted that responsibility and went all over this state raising money for our Baptist school, Baylor—and succeeded in it—and then entered it and was graduated from it.

Now in the meantime, a disastrous fire had destroyed the press and the plant of the Baptist Standard in Waco.  So he came up here—Dr. Cranfill did—to see Colonel C. C. Slaughter, and desperately needing help to keep the paper going.  Colonel Slaughter bought half interest in the Baptist Standard with this understanding: that he would move the Baptist Standard to Dallas.  So Dr. Cranfill came to Dallas, moving the Standard here, in agreement with what Colonel C.C. Slaughter, the great layman in this church, had asked.

Now after he’d been up here about five months, Brother Seasholes, the pastor of the First Baptist Church here in Dallas, resigned.  And Colonel W.L. Williams, the senior deacon in the church, went to Dr. Cranfill and said, “Do you know somebody who would make a good pastor for the First Baptist Church in Dallas?”  And Dr. Cranfill immediately said, “George W. Truett, who has just graduated from Baylor in Waco and has just married Josephine Jenkins, the daughter of Judge Jenkins in Waco, and is now pastor of the little East Waco Baptist Church.  You get him.”

And Dr. Cranfill went to the other members of the church and told them of the superlative virtues of Dr. Truett, and the church called him.  And in September of 1897, George W. Truett came to this church to be pastor of it.  Dr. Cranfill had preceded him here four months, and though Dr. Cranfill looked upon the twelve years that he had been under the ministry of Dr. Carroll in Waco, he had no idea of the enormous, vast outreach of God’s blessedness upon his pastor, Dr. George W. Truett, under whose ministry he served as a fellow worker until he died in 1942, for forty-five years.

Now I must close.  Isn’t it amazing how time passes?  I’ve been talking to you over thirty minutes already.  There is a sadness in Dr. Cranfill’s life that I can just feel all through his autobiography.  You remember I said when he was converted, God called him to preach?  Sometimes the gifts of a man, the superlative gifts of a man, sometimes have a tendency to pull him away.  Dr. Cranfill was a gifted man; he was a very shrewd businessman, very much.  He was a doctor; he was a schoolteacher; he was a fine journalist and editor and author.  So when he gave his life, answering God’s call to be a preacher when he was eighteen years old, converted in that Primitive Baptist revival meeting, he got away from it, practicing medicine and teaching school.

And when his little boy died—little Carroll Cranfill, the little three year old boy—he came back to Gatesville, and before the church in a broken heart, described the sorrow of his life, rededicated his life to the Lord and was licensed to preach by that Missionary Baptist Church in Gatesville, and gave his life again to be a preacher.  And as the days passed, his journalistic career pulled him away from it.  And in 1890, the First Baptist Church of Waco called for his ordination, and he was ordained a Baptist preacher.  But again, the interests of life pulled him away from it.  And when he closed his autobiography, he closes it with these words, “When Helen Hunt Jackson was within a few short hours of her death, she wrote the lines that follow.  And they so truly represent my own heart that I leave them with the reader as my closing word.”  Now you listen to the feeling of this poem:

Father, I scarcely dare to pray,

So clear I see, now it is done,

That I have wasted half my day

And left my work but just begun;

So clear I see that things I thought

Were right and harmless were a sin;

So clear I see that I have sought

Unconscious, selfish aims to win;

So clear I see that I have hurt

The souls I might have helped to save;

That I have slothful been, inert,

Deaf to the calls Thy leaders gave.

In outskirts of Thy kingdom vast,

Father, the humblest spot give me;

Set me the lowliest task Thou hast;

Let me, repentant, work for Thee!

[“A Last Prayer,” Helen Hunt Jackson, 1888]


I have this comment to make: if God has ever called you to do something and you don’t do it, there will be a trail of sadness in your life as long as you live.  I have heard that note of sorrow expressed ten thousand times.  “Called me to be a missionary, I didn’t do it.”  “Called me to be a preacher, and I wouldn’t do it.”  “Called me for a task and assignment, and I wouldn’t do it.”  It will stay with you as long as you live.

Now the ministry of J. B. Cranfill; I used to hear him over the radio when I lived in Waco, going to school.  He had a radio Bible class in this church and a marvelous ministry.  So last night, last night, late last night I received a telephone call, and the pastor on the other end of the line said, “Criswell, I see you’re going to speak about the men around Truett tomorrow, and especially about Dr. Cranfill.  I want to tell you something.”  He said, “I was living on a poor farm with my parents as a boy in Collin County.  I was bit by a dog, and a country doctor gave me a rabies shot, and I had a violent reaction against it, and for ten months I lay in bed on that farm.  I lay in bed and was facing death.”  And he said, “I took a penny post card”––inflation sure has changed that.  Can you remember a penny post card?  Can you remember it?  He took a penny post card; he had been listening to Dr. J. B. Cranfill with a little crystal radio set that he had by the bed, and he wrote to Dr. J. B. Cranfill here at this church and said, “I’ve been listening to you every Sunday on the radio.  I’m a teenage boy.  I’ve been here ten months and they expect me to die.  Would you pray for me?  And would you have Dr. Truett pray for me?”  The preacher said, “To my surprise, I looked out the window and there was a black Cadillac driving in front of our poor home.  Out of it came two men:  one was Dr. Cranfill and the other was a surgeon at Baylor Hospital.  They examined me, and Dr. Cranfill put me in that Cadillac and brought me to Baylor Hospital, and they ministered to me there, and I got well.  I lived.”  He said, “When Dr. Cranfill came and looked at me I was so sick,” but Dr. Cranfill said when he looked at the boy, “God’s going to make you well, and you’re going to be a Baptist preacher.”  When the lad was well, he went to Dr. Cranfill and offered to pay him, and Dr. Cranfill said, “No, son, no.  Jesus will pay me.  God will reward.”  So the young fellow—six feet four inches tall, weighing two hundred pounds—graduated from high school up there, and Dr. Cranfill called Dr. Tidwell and the men at Baylor University and said, “There’s a young fellow coming, going to be a preacher.  Open the door for him.”

And the preacher said, “I never lacked for a church all the years that I attended Baylor University, nor for a place to preach.”  He said, “I just wanted you to know that about Dr. Cranfill.”  You know who that preacher is?  It was Dr. Charles Cockrell, pastor for these so many years at the First Baptist Church of Garland, Texas.  You don’t realize sometimes what you’re doing; and God bless the ministry of that great and good man.

I saw him one time when he came to Baylor to speak.  He died two years before I came here to be pastor of the church.  Dr. Truett preached the funeral service in this place, and said, “There’s a triumvirate of great pioneer Baptist men in Texas: B. H. Carroll, J. B. Gambrell, and J. B. Cranfill.”  Oh, dear people, as I stand in this place and look over this assembly of Christ; I don’t know how it is that God could have placed me in so marvelous a train, with so incomparable a host of predecessors!  Ah, this church and its ministries; it just hurts my heart not to speak of so many things I prepared for the moment.  I wanted to tell you how it was he became a Missionary Baptist from a Hardshell Baptist.

Now Lee Roy, we must sing our appeal, and while we sing it, a family you to give your heart to Jesus, or a couple you, or just one somebody you, while we sing this song, would you come and stand by me?  Somebody you, taking Jesus as his Savior, as God shall open the door, answer the call and come down that aisle.  Does God call you to do something?  Does He?  You come and say, “Pastor, I feel in my heart God’s call, and I’m going to do it.  He will give me grace and blessing in His divine presence and see me through.  I’ll do it.”  While we sing, as the Spirit of Jesus might speak the word, you come this morning, while we stand and while we sing.