Fifty years ago there was no better-known Protestant church in America than the First Baptist Church. God-fearing Southern Baptists from across the country spent their summer holidays in Dallas, only to attend Sunday services at the historic 1890 temple. red carpet and red-robed choir, and they gasped as the church’s granite-jawed pastor W. A. Criswell, often dressed all in white, approached the pulpit to loud musical fanfare.
Criswell was a gifted speaker, quoting long passages from Shakespeare (and of course the Bible) from memory. His voice was so loud that he never needed a microphone. After 50 years in the pulpit, he retired in 1994 and the church fell into disrepair as the deacons struggled to find a suitable man (never a woman) to replace his white shoes. Finally, in 2007, the job was offered to Robert Jeffress, then 51-year-old pastor of the Wichita Falls Baptist Church.
Jeffress, who grew up in Richardson, a northern suburb of Dallas, spent his childhood at First Baptist School. “I studied every sentence of Dr. Criswell’s sermons and read all of his books,” Jeffress told me. “When I was fifteen, God called me to be a pastor, and I remember going to Dr. Criswell to tell him where God was leading me. And he said, “Well, Robert, I want you to spend the summer studying every part of this church. I want you to work in the children’s field, in the mission, in the music program. . . because one day, I believe, all this will be yours. He knelt beside me and prayed that God would prepare me to be the pastor of First Baptist Church.”
Jeffress was hardly a Criswell clone. He wore dark suits and preached about the wages of sin in a calm, direct voice, always holding a Bible in his right hand. But he was not afraid to stir up the situation. The day he arrived, he began working to restore the church to its former glory, embarking on a $135 million building program to turn First Baptist into “a spiritual oasis in downtown Dallas.”
Today, First Baptist has 16,000 members. Sunday services, which include a full orchestra and a choir of 100 people, are held in a high-tech temple with three thousand seats. In the square in front of the church, a giant fountain spurts out jets of water, and majestic hymns are heard from loudspeakers. The complex includes educational buildings, three garages and a glass passage. All that remains of the original church is the historic sanctuary, which is still used today for weddings. While First Baptist isn’t as big as some megachurches, Jeffress’s radio show airs Monday through Friday on 1,100 stations, and his Sunday TV services are watched by more than three million viewers a week. His thirty-first book, What Every Christian Should Knowhas just been published.
Jeffress is especially known for his appearances on Fox News, where he strongly defends Donald Trump, who even attended a Sunday service in December 2021. Jeffress introduced him as “a great friend of Christians all over the world”. The audience gave Trump a standing ovation.
Jeffress told me in November that he was “enthusiastically” supporting Trump’s current presidential candidacy, but after Republicans began to backtrack on Trump after the midterms, he announced he would not support anyone until after the Republican primary. In any case, he insisted that he would never tell his members who they should vote for. “All I ask is that they vote based on their biblical values,” he said.
First Baptist continues to attract new members, Jeffress said, adding more than 800 members in the last year alone. He and the church’s deacons are talking about eventually building new buildings to house the church’s growing flock. “We have many souls to convert to Christ,” Jeffress said, “and we’re not going to slow down. We’re never going to slow down.”
This article first appeared in the February 2023 issue of the journal. Texas Monthly with the title “The First Baptist Born Again.” Subscribe today.