At dusk on Jan. 2, 1979, I met with Dr. Criswell in his private study at the First Baptist Church of Dallas. His disarming warmth and total concentration on his visitor were remarkable, especially considering the controversial nature of the appointment.
The meeting was scheduled to request his endorsement of the first Southern Baptist convocation on peacemaking and the nuclear arms race, planned at Deer Park Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., for Feb. 16-17, 1979.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's student and faculty planners anticipated widespread criticism for the peace conference. We thought that a word of support from the most influential Southern Baptist pastor would provide a protective hedge and might encourage others to lend their support.
My visit home to Dallas at Christmas afforded an opportunity to ask for Criswell's blessing.
Criswell listened carefully with murmurs of agreement, I handed him a draft letter addressed to fellow Southern Baptists. He slowly read the four paragraphs. He scribbled several changes, making it more personal.
He said he would have his secretary type the letter on his personal stationery and would mail it to me. Fearing a change of heart, I suggested that I could wait for her to retype it. He nodded with understanding. While she retyped the letter, we stood in his office and prayed for the conference's success. Then, he signed the letter.
I left his study beaming with absolute confidence that the convocation would be a success and criticism would be muted.
In the letter, Criswell endorsed the idea that "the nuclear arms race can be brought under control and that the strategic arms limitations talks being carried out by our government can help in that direction."
"Southern Baptists need to begin taking the biblical call to peacemaking more seriously," he said.
"You have my best wishes and prayers for the Southern Baptist convocation on peacemaking and the nuclear arms race in Louisville," Criswell signed.
Two weeks later, James Dunn, director of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, wrote, "I was almost overwhelmed at the coup you pulled in getting the splendid statement from Dr. Criswell."
Indeed Criswell's endorsement attracted widespread media attention and paved the way for other SBC leaders to state publicly their support. It certainly contributed to the attendance of some 400 registrants.
Of course, some Southern Baptists accused conference planners of being Communists and naïve about the nuclear arms treaty called SALT II.
The Deer Park meeting played a role in the creation of the Baptist Peacemaker publication, the sponsorship of other similar conferences and the eventual inclusion of a world day of prayer for peace on the SBC's official calendar. But without Criswell's endorsement, the results could have been much different.
Criswell's death last week unlocked a flood of praise from Southern Baptist leaders and made the front page of the Dallas Morning News. In due season, his leadership will rightly receive critical scrutiny.
For now, I remember him fondly and appreciatively as one of the most notable Baptist pastors in the land who did the right thing at the right time for the sake of peace.
Robert Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.