(Used with permission)
When Col. W. L. and Lucinda William moved to Dallas in1867 to set up his law practice, they wanted to worship at a Baptist church. Two little Baptists churches had already failed and a third one, Pleasant View Baptist, moved to the “suburbs,” or rather a small farming community nearby. It is still in existence today near White Rock Lake.
When summer came, W. L. invited W. W. Harris, a tall, slender Baptist evangelist of age 32, to lead revival services in the Masonic Lodge building. Harris was an eccentric, life-long bachelor who thought little of his appearance and had little regard for money. His passion was in preaching, which he did with eloquence and vivid descriptions that deeply touched the listener’s heart and soul. He began each sermon with a song and could hold the audience’s attention for well over an hour. He was so effective in his sermon delivery, his classmates at Baylor nicknamed him “Spurgeon” after the great Charles H. Spurgeon from London.
After Harris’ revival, our First Baptist Church of Dallas was organized with eleven members. Harris was called as the minister on a part-time basis. It is difficult to pin-point how long Harris was the pastor, for he just simply came less and less as he continued his evangelistic work.
Over the next 25 years, seven more pastors served the congregation. C.A. Stanton, a white-haired man in his fifties, came in October, 1870. His tenure was short – only 8 months – His main contribution was a challenge he made to Lucinda Williams upon his departure – to organize the women, or the church would fail. “We went to work with a purpose to succeed!” wrote Lucinda Williams. Their first mission was to raise money for a building of their own, and they acquired $500, enough to build the foundation.
The efforts of the women spurred the men of the church to employ W. Abram Weaver as financial agent to travel throughout the state and raise additional funds for the new building. He did this with success, raising $6000. The congregation was able to purchase land on the northeast corner of Akard and Patterson, and through their own physical labor, built the frame structure, which measured 35 X 65 feet and was considered “quite commodious.” Weaver was then called as the 3rd pastor of the church, serving from February 23, 1873 to September 1875.
G. W. Rogers began his tenure January 23, 1876, at the age of 65. After about one year, Rogers was then replaced by a young James Hudson Curry, age 28, in 1877. Robert Taylor Hanks became the 6th pastor in January 1883, and the membership grew to over 600 during Hanks’ six years and six months. Rev. Hanks should have been regarded as the greatest pastor of First Baptist before Truett. However, controversies erupted during his tenure, and he finally resigned in 1889 during an emotion-packed service. He remained a faithful member of the church for several more years.
Albert Meredith Simms served as pastor from December 1889 to April 1892, when he was forced to resign due to declining health. During his time the historic sanctuary was built at a cost of $90,000.
The next minister was Charles Louis Seasholes. Though just out of seminary, he was a very capable and beloved leader who served in the pulpit from 1892-1896.
When the church was seeking its 9th pastor, a large pulpit committee was appointed under the leadership of none other than our founder, W. L. Williams. Other members of note in the church by then included Rev. and Mrs. R. C. Buckner, founders of Buckner Orphans Home, Mary Hill Davis, recording secretary, then president, of the Texas Women’s Missionary Union for a total of 33 years, and Col. C. C. Slaughter, – banker, rancher, Indian fighter, and dedicated man of the church. He founded the American National Bank of Dallas, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, The Texas Baptist Commission, and funded the beginning of Baylor Hospital of Dallas through his contributions estimated at over $320,000. Some sources give him credit for providing most of the funds to build our historic sanctuary. After his death in 1919, his daughters, especially Minnie Slaughter Veal, carried on his philanthropy toward First Baptist Church.
George Washington Truett became our 9th pastor in 1897. He was a big man with a big heart. He hailed from the hills of North Carolina and came to Texas to pursue a law degree. Of course this was not to be, and he was our pastor for 47 years. Under his leadership, the church grew from 715 to 7,804 members, becoming the largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention. When the growing congregation needed more space, he said. “We will build up rather than out.” The sanctuary was remodeled and expanded in 1907, again in 1925, and again in 1941.
Under his leadership, First Baptist Church expanded its mission emphasis, and also remembered its ministry to the city of Dallas. During the 75th Anniversary Celebration of the church (in Truett’s 46th year), the program stated, “There is a great work for our church yet to do. Every city needs a strong downtown church to keep the community church-minded. With the future growth of Dallas clearly assured, our church must meet the great challenge and carry on a large ministry to the people, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, our divine head.”
In addition to his ministry at First Baptist, Truett also preached to cowboys in West Texas every summer for thirty-seven years, served as a chaplain in Europe for six months during World War I, and preached on the steps of our nation’s capitol to 15,000 in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention of 1920. He was a vital part of the founding of Texas Baptist Memorial Hospital, now known as Baylor Hospital.
George Truett died July 7, 1944. 6000 mourners overflowed the sanctuary for his funeral. He is remembered as one of the most influential preachers in America in the first half of the century, and one of the greatest Baptist preachers in history.
His passing was a terrible blow to the church, and some predicted its demise. Yet there was a group of men and women who remained committed and prayerful as they heeded Truett’s admonishment, “Brethren, when I’m gone, take care of the church!”
One special man, Robert Coleman, served as a sustaining bridge between Truett and the new minister to come. “Brother Bob” came to First Baptist in 1901, was ordained a deacon in 1903, and became Truett’s assistant in 1904 until Truett’s death. He led the singing, was Sunday School superintendent for 36 years, and often filled the pulpit during Truett’s absence.
Our 10th pastor, Dr. W. A. Criswell, was licensed to preach at age seventeen. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree with high honors from Baylor (1931), his Master of Theology (1934) and his Doctor of Philosophy (1937) from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and also his honorary Doctor of Divinity from Baylor in 1945. He married Betty Harris, a student at Kentucky State College, in 1935. Their first pastorate began in 1937 at First Baptist Church of Chickasha, Oklahoma. In 1941, they were called to First Baptist Church of Muskogee, Oklahoma and were there until called to Dallas in 1944.
Dr. Criswell brought new vision and new energy to First Baptist Church. He started programs to minister to every age level and challenged the church to expand its facilities, which resulted in the construction or purchase of seven major buildings on six city blocks.
“We are downtown because we choose to be downtown,” Dr. Criswell stated, and used the growing facility to minister to the entire family through recreation, fellowship, worship, discipleship and missions.
Dr. Criswell turned the pastorate over to Dr. Joel Gregory in November, 1990, and took on the title of Senior Pastor. Dr. Gregory resigned in September, 1992. Dr. O. S. Hawkins became the 12th pastor on October, 1993. In 1995, Dr. Criswell took the title of Pastor Emeritus, and Dr. Hawkins became the Sr. Pastor. Dr. Hawkins resigned in October, 1997, followed by Dr. Mac Brunson 1999-2006.
Sunday, August 5, 2007, The Pastor Search Committee presented their recommendation of Dr. Robert Jeffress, Sr. Pastor of First Baptist Church, Wichita Falls, TX. They were collectively convinced that Dr. Jeffress was the man God wanted. Sunday, August 12, 2007, in a Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving, the church warmly received and elected Dr. Jeffress as their 14th pastor.
First Baptist Church remains a vital and strong church in downtown Dallas, embracing our past while boldly stepping into an even brighter future “with a purpose to succeed,” fulfilling Christ’s great commission in the local church, community, and beyond.