Criswell College is named after its founder, Dr. W.A. Criswell, of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. On October 5, 1969, his twenty-fifth anniversary as pastor, Dr. Criswell presented to the church his vision for an institution that would provide biblical teaching that would be both intellectually and spiritually sound. As pastor, he felt a strong need to provide the very best biblical training for the hundreds of Sunday School teachers at First Baptist Church. Also, there were many Southern Baptist pastors who had not had the opportunity to finish college or even to begin. Dr. Criswell assigned the task of determining the possibility of beginning a Bible institute at First Baptist Church to Dr. James W. Bryant, his Minister of Evangelism and Church Organization.

On April 6, 1970, a committee was established to study the feasibility of the project. The committee was composed of First Baptist Church deacons who dedicated selfless hours to the cause. Committee members included: W.C. McCord, (Chairman), Darrell Beckstead, Jack Brady, Mart Cutrell, Joel Goodwin, Grant Hensell, Andy Horner, Fulbright Mays, George Reever, Robert Schroeder, George Shearin, Howard Shipley, Clarence Talley, Charles Tandy, Cliff Winckler, and Ed Yates (CBI Trustee Minutes, April 6, 1970). After a six-month study, a report was presented to the deacon body on October 5. The report stated: “Our church should establish an institute for intensive Bible study, based on conservative evangelical Christianity as preached and practiced in our church,” (Report of “Bible Institute” Committee, 1970, p. 2). The church enthusiastically approved that recommendation on October 7, 1970.

Against the wishes of the pastor, his name was attached to the Institute. The name was chosen because it expressed in a unique way the determination of the founders to build the school solidly on the Bible-centered evangelical theology and evangelistic passion, which characterized the lifelong ministry of W. A. Criswell.

Evening classes began on January 12, 1971, with Dr. James W. Bryant as Academic Dean, Dr. W. A. Criswell as President, and Mr. Leroy Till as Dean of the Music School. The inaugural programs of study in 1971 included the Basic Bible Student’s Certificate and the Basic Music Student’s Certificate. The Certificate programs consisted of twelve semester hours of study which included courses in Systematic Theology, Old Testament, and New Testament. On the first night, 329 students enrolled. For the next twenty-four months, the College operated solely as a night school.

Dr. H. Leo Eddleman became the first full-time President in July, 1972, and Dr. Criswell was named Chancellor. A milestone was reached on January 8, 1973, when day classes were inaugurated with approximately 32 students. The three-year Diploma in Biblical Studies was initiated in 1974. Dr. Eddleman’s health eventually led him to step down from the presidency, though he continued to teach Hebrew and Old Testament.

On February 24, 1975, Dr. Paige Patterson became President of the college, serving for the next seventeen years. The distinctives of the school became very evident: uncompromising commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture, expository preaching, the study of the biblical languages, personal evangelism, global missions, and an education in which every student was regularly involved in ministry. Under Dr. Patteron’s leadership, enrollment increased from less than eighty to more than three hundred.

The academic program was strengthened by the introduction of a B.A. curriculum in 1975. In August, 1977, a graduate program was inaugurated and named “The Criswell Graduate School of the Bible.” In October, 1979, the American Association of Bible Colleges accredited the undergraduate programs, and in 1985 the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) accredited all programs of study. Following the recommendation of SACS in 1985, the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies became the name of the umbrella organization, which includes the College and other related entities such as radio station KCBI and the Criswell College Bookstore. “The Criswell College” was adopted as the name for the degree-granting entity of the Criswell Center.

Since its inception, Criswell College had been housed in the facilities of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. Prayers for a dedicated campus were answered in 1989 when the Gaston Avenue Baptist Church decided to relocate. Through the generous efforts of Mrs. Ruth Ray Hunt, the Gaston Avenue property was acquired for the College, and the First Baptist Church remodeled and refurbished the facility. In January of 1991, the College moved onto its own campus.

At the end of the 1991-92 academic year, Dr. Patterson left Criswell College to become President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. Dr. Richard R. Melick, Jr. became the fourth President in October, 1992 and served through August, 1996. An acknowledged New Testament scholar with extensive academic experience, Dr. Melick came to Criswell College from Mid-America Baptist Seminary, where he directed the doctoral program and chaired the New Testament Department. Under Dr. Melick’s leadership, the college experienced record enrollment growth and added several academic programs, including the Master of Arts in Christian Leadership.

On December 5, 1996, the Board of Trustees elected Dr. C. Richard Wells as the fifth President of the College. Dr. Wells received the Master of Ministry degree from Criswell College in 1979 and returned in 1982 as Professor of Pastoral Theology, later serving also as Dean of Students. Before coming as President, Dr. Wells served on the founding faculty of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama, teaching in the areas of homiletics and pastoral counseling.

Dr. Wells is an academician with a passion for the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ. He holds two earned doctorates and has many years of experience as a theological educator. Dr. Wells also possesses a pastor’s heart after serving many years in pastoral ministry. His vision is to see a generation of men and women inflamed by the glory of God and superbly prepared to preach, evangelize, counsel, teach, and lead churches to faithful kingdom ministry.

On May 31, 2003, Dr. C. Richard Wells left Criswell College to become Senior Pastor of the South Canyon Baptist Church in Rapid City, South Dakota. Dr. Lamar Cooper, Executive Vice President and Provost, was named Acting President by the Board of Trustees.

On January 10, 2002, Dr. W.A. Criswell, Founder and Chancellor of Criswell College, went home to the Savior he loved and whose love and grace he proclaimed for more than 75 years.

Dr. Jerry Johnson was elected the sixth President of Criswell College on December 5, 2003. He graduated from Criswell College in 1986, receiving the Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies. In 1997, he received a Master of Arts in Historical and Theological Studies from Conservative Baptist Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and in 2003, he received his Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He served as President until November 2013, when he became President & CEO of the National Religious Broadcasters.

At that time, James T. (Jimmy) Draper, Jr. was elected by the Board of Trustees to become Interim President.

Dr. Draper was President of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1982 to 1984 and more recently was President and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources from 1991 to 2006. His proven and dynamic leadership during the time of transition was instrumental to the college’s future.

On July 7, 2014, the Board of Trustees unanimously elected Dr. Barry K. Creamer as the seventh President of Criswell College. He had previously served as Criswell’s Vice President of Academic Affairs since 2011, as Professor of Humanities since 2004, and as the college's Chief Operating Officer during the 2013-2014 presidential transition. During his time as a professor and administrator, he was influential in the lives of countless students and instrumental in the college's adoption of an online program and curriculum expansion. Creamer earned a Doctor of Philosophy in Humanities from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2000, a Master of Divinity (graduating summa cum laude) from Criswell College in 1994, and a Bachelor of Arts in English (graduating cum laude) from Baylor University in 1985.

Today, Criswell College thrives on its own campus, with a respected full-time faculty and a number of ongoing part-time/adjunct professors. The student body includes over 300 students from more than 30 states and 30 countries. By His grace, Criswell College is moving in new directions for God’s glory.

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