Dr. Truett and His Church
July 1st, 1984 @ 10:50 AM
DR. TRUETT AND HIS CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-1-84 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Dr. Truett and His Church. This is the fortieth year that on the anniversary of the Sunday near to the death of the great pastor, that I have prepared a message concerning some facet of kingdom interest to which he gave his life.
As I reviewed these last thirty-nine years, I was surprised to learn that I had never delivered a message on Dr. Truett and his church. I had prepared many, many addresses on the work to which he gave his life. The nearest I have come to a message concerning his church was one year when I prepared a sermon on Dr. Truett and the shepherd heart, the pastor’s heart. But I’ve never prepared a sermon on Dr. Truett and his church. And so the sermon today concerns the great pastor who was the undershepherd of this congregation for forty-seven years. And the background text is the beautiful word that Paul writes in Ephesians 5:25: “Christ loved the church—Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it.”
In the early part of the year in 1897 the brilliant and gifted young pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Charles Louis Seasholes, accepted the pastorate of the First Baptist Church of Lansing, Michigan. And that left this congregation without an undershepherd. In their seeking for a man and praying for a man to take Pastor Seasholes’ place, there happened to be on a business trip in Dallas in the spring of 1897, Dr. J. B. Cranfill, who was the editor of the Baptist Standard, the publication of our state paper in Waco, Texas.
Up here in Dallas, Dr. Cranfill happened to run into Colonel W. L. Williams, who was the senior deacon in the church, a member, one of the eleven of those who founded the congregation in 1867. And Colonel Williams said to Dr. Cranfill, “We are seeking a pastor. Do you have someone to suggest?”
And Dr. Cranfill immediately replied, “There is one man, and his name is George W. Truett, pastor of the East Waco Baptist Church in Waco.”
Well, the name found a fertile response in the heart of the senior deacon. And when they inquired about him, they found unusual words of commendation from J. B. Gambrell, the statesman who created the Baptist denomination in Texas, and from B. H. Carroll, the pastor of the First Church in Waco, the head of the Bible Department in Baylor University who later took the Bible Department from Baylor, moved it to Fort Worth, and it became the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, flourishing over there now.
Two years before, in 1892, this young man Truett had been asked to be the financial director of Baylor to save it in a financial crisis in its life. And so signal was the blessing of God upon him, that after the two years of his working for Baylor, at the age of twenty six he entered the university as a student, living in the home of Dr. Carroll, and was called as pastor of the small East Waco Baptist Church, the congregation that he pastored for the four years that he was in Baylor. And in June of 1897, when Truett was thity years old, he was graduated from the school and was living there in east Waco, pastoring the church, with his wife and one baby girl named Jessie.
So the pulpit committee here in Dallas, having prayed and having sought the mind of God, sent word to the young pastor in Waco that they would love him to come and be the pastor of this congregation in Dallas. And the pastor down there, young Truett replied, “No, under no conditions.” He was happy where he was. It was his thought that he might attend Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, after which he would come back to the church in east Waco.
But the church here and the pulpit committee, as they continued to pray, felt more and more convinced that the young pastor there was the man of God for them here. So upon a day, in the summer of 1897, the church gathered here in conference and unanimously called him to be pastor of the church, whether he accepted it or not. When they did that, courtesy demanded that the young preacher come up here and talk to the pulpit committee, which he did. And the young preacher said, “I have just one condition that I wish you would be aware of in my coming; namely, that I am to be free to take any collection at any time that the Lord leads me to take up a collection.”
Well, they had never had any programming like that, and the church was under a fearful financial burden. They owed $12,000 on their new building. Well, they were astonished at the request, but they so wanted the young preacher to come that they acquiesced. And he accepted the invitation, and on the second Sunday in September, which became his anniversary Sunday—and when I came here, was the big day for the Sunday school—the second Sunday in September, when they celebrated the anniversary of the coming of Dr. Truett. Everybody might scatter out after that Sunday, but everybody came here the second Sunday in September, celebrating the coming of Dr. Truett.
On that Sunday, he began his ministry here in the city of Dallas. And the first thing he did was to call the deacons together and announce that he was going to take up a special collection for state missions. It was in September, and that’s the month, you know, we have our mission offering. So when the deacons met with him, he asked them, “How much money do you think that we will gather for the state mission offering?” And the deacons said, “It would be a miracle if we can collect as much as $25.”
Well, Dr. Truett was astonished and said, “My brethren, I intend to give that much myself, and Colonel C. C. Slaughter here will give at least a hundred dollars.” They all burst into laughter. They thought that was best joke on Colonel C. C. Slaughter they ever had heard of in their lives. Now, Colonel Slaughter was the greatest cattle baron the world has ever known. At one time, he controlled more than three million acres of ranch land in the state of Texas. Well, again, they acquiesced, and when they took up the offering, they had the tremendous sum of $300, and Colonel C. C. Slaughter had given the hundred. So they started.
Now, when he came, the church immediately began to grow. And God added to the congregation. There were 715 members when Dr. Truett came. And the church was built that way, this way. The congregation sat parallel to Ervay Street, and the pulpit was there. And the church was one of the most beautiful in the state and one of the most spacious. When you see those tall stained-glass windows there–there is a balcony across them now—but then they were in the beautiful, Gothic, towering auditorium. So when Dr. Truett began his work here, in 1924 they went into a tremendous building program. They remade this sanctuary. And it assumed the form and contour that you see here now. And they built the building back of the sanctuary that we have named the Truett Building in honor of the great pastor.
Now that leads me to an affirmation, and I want you to understand that in doing this, I am by no means—I don’t have it in my heart—to bind the church in all the future years. I am just saying what God has led the church to do in these generations past. As they began to look forward toward the great enlargement of this sanctuary and the building of the educational building just beyond it, the question came up about moving the church, taking it from downtown where is it was located and moving it out into the residential areas of the city.
Dr. Truett gave himself then and all the after years of his life to the proposition and to the dedication that the First Baptist Church in Dallas ought to remain downtown. He very much was persuaded that, he very much believed that, and he very much dedicated his ministry to that, that the church should remain downtown.
Now may I add a paragraph, a page here out of my own life. In the city of Dallas, in these years past, God gave me the friendship of a Jewish banker in the city. His name was Fred Florence, and he was the president of the Republic Bank. There never has been anyone who’s ever been better to me than Fred Florence. I haven’t time to begin to describe all of the kindnesses of that wonderful man and the generosity of that wonderful man to me.
Anyway, upon a day, he asked me to come to see him down there at the bank. And when I sat in his office, he said to me, “I would like for us here in Dallas to build the most beautiful church in the world. I’d like for the most beautiful church in America to be here in Dallas.” Then he looked at me and added, “And I would like for it to be your church.” He called it, “your church.”
Well, I said, “Mr. Florence, it will take millions and millions of dollars to build a church like that.”
Well, he said, “I will help you raise all of the money for it.” And Mr. Florence had intimate converse with men like Hoblitzelle and others, the richest men in the nation. He said, “You sell your property and that’ll be your contribution to it. And I’ll raise the rest, and we’ll go out here and we’ll build the most beautiful church in America. And it’ll be in Dallas, and it’ll be yours.”
Well, I said, “Mr. Florence, that is so opposite of everything our people have ever been persuaded of, and the opposite of what I’ve always thought. So let me think about and pray about it.” Well, I sent him word after the passing of a few weeks and said, “Mr. Florence, it’s wonderful and gracious of you to do that, but I can’t find it in my heart at all. And I don’t believe the church would want to move.”
So the days passed and about a year later he called for me again. And I went to his office, and again, he said that same thing. “I would like for Dallas to have the most beautiful church in the world. It’s a part of the civic pride of Dallas. The most beautiful church in the world is in Dallas. And I’d like for it to be your church.” Then he repeated what he would do. And I said, “Mr. Florence, once again, I’ll do my best to pray it through.” I did, and I sent him word. I called him and said, “Mr. Florence, we can’t do it. God has put us here. God has set us in this place. He has chosen this for us. And we cannot move.”
The second time that happened was in the executive ministry of Dr. J. Howard Williams. He grew up in this church as a boy. He was the executive leader of Texas and later president of Southwestern Theological Seminary. He died as president there. When they sold the Baptist building here in Dallas, Dr. Williams, who belonged to the church, came to me and he said, he said, “Pastor, let’s take the money from the Baptist building, and let’s take the money that would be contributed by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and let’s take the money that would be available for us in the sale of the property of your downtown church, and let’s go out and let’s build a great Baptist center. We’ll have our Baptist headquarters there, and your great First Baptist Church will be there. And we’ll make it a great Baptist shrine and Baptist center for the whole world to see.”
Well, I told Dr. Williams the same thing, but he said, “Pray about it. You think about it.” So I did the best I knew how, and I gave word in return to Dr. Williams, “God hath set us here. This is our chosen place. This is sacred to us. It was through all the forty-seven years of the ministry of Dr. Truett, and I feel the same deep conviction and persuasion. We cannot do it.” So we have stayed downtown. I repeat, it is not in my heart in any wise to bind the future, but I would love to think until Jesus comes, the First Baptist Church stays downtown.
Edgar A. Guest wrote, “I like to see the downtown churches holding their places. It seems good to me that here and there amid the rush of traffic, there should remain a building that has no bargains to offer, and so shop windows displayed. This is a hospital for sick and weary souls. It is making a battle not for our own sake, but for the sake of others. A church in any neighborhood is an asset, but none so much as a downtown church.”
And that wonderful and loved American poet wrote it like this,
God bless the church on the downtown street
That hears the city’s cry,
The church that sows the seed of the Word
Where the masses of men go by.
The church that makes ‘midst the city’s roar
A plea for an altar of prayer,
With a heart for the rich, a heart for the poor,
And rejoices their burdens to share.
The church that’s moved by the call of Christ
Who wept o’er the city’s need,
Who sent His disciples to work for Him
Where the forces of evil breed.
The church that gives and the church that lives
As seen by the Master’s eye,
God bless the church on the downtown street
That answers the city’s cry.
[adapted from “The City Church,” Ralph Walker]
Dr. Truett made the great decision when this present sanctuary was built in which you worship now and added to it the tremendous educational building immediately behind it. He made the decision that we ought to stay downtown. We have given ourselves to that conviction and persuasion, and I could humbly pray with no thought of binding the future, I can humbly pray that the First Baptist Church stay downtown forever.
Dr. Truett and his church; he had an immeasurable, compassionable love for this congregation. In the days of his ministry here, he was asked, invited, chosen to be president of Baylor University. And when that was presented to him, he answered in one of most beautiful sentences I have ever heard of in my life. And I delivered a message on that one time. He answered them saying, “I have sought and found the shepherd’s heart. I cannot come.” What a beautiful way to answer that invitation. “I have sought and found the shepherd’s heart,” loving his people, staying with his people.
There was another instance in the life of Dr. Truett when he was importuned and adjured to go to another pastorate. Dr. Truett and John D. Rockefeller, Sr., were dear friends. Rockefeller—John Rockefeller, the senior, the scion, the head of the family, had a great love and admiration for the pastor of this church.
John D. Rockefeller was the leading deacon, and he was the Sunday school superintendent of the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. And he felt that it was wonderful, that the church there would be prosperous, if Dr. Truett would come and be their pastor. So he did everything that he could to get Dr. Truett to come there.
I remember one time in a group when Dr. Truett was talking about John D. Rockefeller. John D. Rockefeller, as you know was dyspeptic, he had stomach trouble, and his food didn’t digest, and he was therefore very skinny. He was very slender. He was very—he looked emaciated to me—and so Dr. Truett said that one time he and John D. Rockefeller were seated back on the back seat in the limousine, and they began talking about his riches. And John D. Rockefeller said to Dr. Truett, he said, “Dr. Truett, they say that I am the richest man in the world. But what good does it do me? All I get out of it are three meals a day and the clothes that I wear. The meals I eat don’t digest, and the clothes that I wear don’t fit.”
I’ve often thought of that. If you have a good appetite and most of us do, and if you’re plump enough that your clothes fit you, why, you’re richer than the richest man in the world. That must be you, Ed. It must be you.
Anyway, Rockefeller’s church sent word here and committees here, pulpit committees here again and again to try to persuade the pastor to come there to Cleveland. And Dr. Truett would not entertain the thought. So the pulpit committee finally said to the great pastor here, “Dr. Truett, could you be moved? Is there anything that would entice you to be moved?”
He said, “Oh, yes! Oh, yes.”
Well, the pulpit committee brightened up with the hope, and they said, “Dr. Truett, what would it be? What would it be that would take to move you?”
And he humbly replied, “Move my people. Move my people. Let’s just all go up to Cleveland, and I’ll go with you,” Dr. Truett said. “Move my people.” He loved this church.
I was seated one time at a Southern Baptist Convention, and Dr. Truett was preaching. Up here in the large balcony around in the auditorium, I was seated in the balcony to Dr. Truett’s right, and I was seated by a glorious layman, Dr. John L. Hill of our Sunday School Board. And as I sat by Dr. Hill listening right down there to Dr. Truett preach, while he was preaching, Dr. Hill turned to me and said, “That is the only man in the world who cannot be moved.” What a tribute to him and to this congregation. No institution, no presidency, no exalted assignment anywhere in the world could move him away from shepherding this flock—a tremendous tribute.
May I speak in the few minutes that remain, may I speak of the devotion of Dr. Truett to the Christian ministry? When he was a youth, he was born in the mountains in western North Carolina, a little town called Hayesville. And he and his brother Luther, in northern Georgia, in the mountains of northern Georgia, had a school over there at Hiawassi. And because his father and mother had come out here to Whitewright on the farm, finally George and his brother Luther decided to come out also. And George at that time was nineteen years old. Then as the days passed, he entered a little college they had in Sherman, studying in order to study to be a lawyer. He wanted to be a lawyer.
But in those days when he would be speaking at the church, he never spoke anywhere but that people would come up to him and say, “Ought you not to be a preacher?” Just instinctively when people looked at him and heard him they felt that he ought to be a preacher of the gospel of the grace of the Son of God. Well, as the days went by, when Dr. Truett was about, say, twenty-three or twenty-four years old, he went to a business meeting on Saturday afternoon at the church at Whitewright.
Now I can remember, and I’ve been pastor of churches when they had their conferences, they call them, their business meetings Saturday afternoon. When Dr. Truett went to the conference to the church on Saturday afternoon, to his surprise, to his amazement, the church was filled, it was jammed, and as he went and sat down, he thought, “Well, this is the most unusual occasion.” So after the regular business was done, the leading senior deacon in the church at Whitewright stood up, and he began to talk, and as he did he began to speak about the young man George Truett. And he said, “My brethren, there comes a time when the church ought to do what it ought to do. When it ought to listen to the voice of God, and the Lord has told us in this church that we ought to ordain to the gospel ministry George W. Truett.”
Well, the young fellow stood up and said, “My brethren, no! I will be a lawyer. I have an intention to be a lawyer, not a minister.”
They would not listen to any deferment. They said, “This is of God.” And they voted unanimously there to ordain George Truett to the gospel ministry. He had a loving relationship with his mother, Kimsey. Her last name was Kimsey, and her father was a preacher and his father a preacher in the mountains of Kentucky. And he greatly loved his mother. So he went to his mother with it, saying, “Mother, it is my intention to be a lawyer and these people have voted to ordain me to the ministry.”
And the mother said, “Son, these are godly people. And they know the mind of the Lord. And they’ve been led to set you aside to the gospel ministry. And, son, you must listen.” So the boy acquiesced, and he was ordained there in the church in Whitewright.
Well, one of the most moving of all of the moments I ever lived through was at a Southern Baptist convention. There were about thirty people—thirty preachers—invited to a lunch at the convention. And they were going to do honor to Dr. Truett as he began his forty-fifth year here in the church. And I’ve tried to think through, “How is it that I was invited to that little select group of men?” I have no idea; it’s gone out of my mind. But in that little select group of thirty preachers out of the thousands of the Southern Baptist Convention, I was invited to that lunch in the hotel. And as we met there honoring Dr. Truett as he began his forty-fifth year here, why, Dr. Truett spoke. He never spoke that I didn’t just simply find myself wafted up to heaven. But I was moved that day, deeply so, as the great pastor spoke of his ministry here in this church.
When the meeting was over, I went to my hotel room, and I wrote down what Dr. Truett said. And I have it here in this note. Why I wrote that down, I do not know. Why I should have so faithfully kept it these many years, I do want know. But as Dr. Truett spoke, this is what he said:
The Christian gospel and work grow dearer and sweeter every day that I live. I was ambitious to be a lawyer, but God wanted me to be a preacher. Now, if God should give me a thousand lives and should say to me, “You wanted to be a lawyer, but I wanted you to be a preacher, now choose what you will be with a thousand lives,” without a moment’s hesitation, I would choose to preach to the end of every one of them, happy if my latest breath I may but speak His name, preach Him to all and gasp in death, “Behold, behold the Lamb.”
My grandfather died preaching. When the doctor said he had but a few moments to live, he asked to be propped up in bed, called in the neighbors, and died talking with them about the gospel.
Then he added, “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Isn’t that amazing that I should have written that down? Never would I have thought in writing it, that I’d be here after forty years speaking of his dedication to the gospel ministry. The providences of God are overwhelming to me.
I must close. I want to do so with a tribute. On Dr. Truett’s thirty-fifth anniversary, Dr. Fred F. Brown, who was pastor of the First Baptist Church at Knoxville, Tennessee, and then president of our Southern Baptist Convention—Dr. Truett wrote to the church here a message that was printed in the Reminder—and on his thirty-fifth anniversary, Fred Brown wrote this:
From the time I have known that I had the opportunity to write these words, an old Bible expression has been running through my mind, “man of God.” As I think of the Lord’s place that Dr. Truett has occupied in kingdom affairs for more than a quarter of a century, I find the explanation of his fruitful leadership in this scriptural expression “man of God.” As I thank the Lord for your pastor’s unsurpassed pulpit power and try to analyze it, the usual explanations come to mind: orator with unusual physique, marvelous voice and delivery, mind richly furnished and continuously growing, heart power that touches and moves like a restless tide of spiritual fervor. But none of these satisfy as an explanation of Dr. Truett in the pulpit. And I find myself repeating “man of God, man of God.”
And that leads to a poem with which I close, written by Dr. George Liddell. As some of you know, Liddell and Scott have published the incomparable Greek-English lexicon. Well, George Liddell, Dr. Liddell wrote this poem, and I think it’s a tribute to Dr. Truett.
Give me a man of God—one man,
Whose faith is master of his mind,
And I will right ten thousand wrongs
And bless the name of mankind.
Give me a man of God—one man,
Whose tongue is touched with heaven’s fire,
And I will flame the darkest hearts
With high resolve and pure desire.
Give me a man of God—one man,
One mighty prophet of the Lord,
And I will give you peace on earth,
Bought with a prayer and not a sword.
Give me a man of God—one man,
True to the vision that he sees,
And I will build your broken shrines,
And bring the nations to their knees.
[“A Man of God,” George Liddell]
That is the great undershepherd of this church who presided over the congregation and who preached in this sacred place for forty and seven years. And as he said, “And if I could die a preacher, I could wish for nothing better.” Oh, what a rich, infinitely adorned heritage does this wonderful congregation possess. And to walk in this train, and to be a fellow member of this sweet communion, to me is a foretaste of heaven itself.
We are going to sing our hymn of appeal. And as we sing it, we have two parts of our appeal: one, there is a recommitment, reconsecration of your life to the Lord, and we have a prayer committing ourselves in a new and a deeper way to the blessed Savior. Come, kneel with us, and you are welcome.
Then of course, to give your heart in faith to the blessed Savior [Ephesians 2:8]; to accept Him as the Lord of your life in the free pardon of our sins [Romans 10:9-13]; to write our names in the Book of Life in heaven [Revelation 20:12, 15, 21:27; Luke 10:20], come. To put your life in the fellowship of this dear church, welcome. Bring the family with you. To answer the Holy Spirit in His appeal to your heart, come. As the Spirit shall speak, as God shall lead in the way, as angels shall appear, come. Come, while we stand and while we sing.