Paul Pressler, disgraced Conservative Resurgence strategist, dies at 94

HOUSTON (BP) – Paul Pressler, the Texas judge whose grassroots strategy redirected the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), died June 7, 2024, in Houston, Texas, three days after his 94th birthday and less than six months after the settlement of a lawsuit alleging decades-long sexual assault by Pressler against multiple victims.

For decades in the SBC, Pressler was venerated as an almost mythical hero of Southern Baptists for his coordination and leadership of what is known as the Conservative Resurgence.

However, when Pressler was 87, his legacy was forever stained when a lawsuit was filed alleging that he had sexually molested the plaintiff, Gareld Duane Rollins, from the late 1970s when Rollins was 14, and enrolled in a Pressler-led Bible study, through 2004.

This was the first time most Southern Baptists became aware of such accusations against Pressler, though he had confidentially settled a different lawsuit in 2004 from Rollins alleging assault. Evidence in the 2017 case included affidavits by multiple men who claimed Pressler engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with them beginning in the 1970s.

Also in 2004, it is now known, Pressler received a letter from a committee at his church at that time, First Baptist in Houston (HFBC), reprimanding him for spending time naked in a hot tub with an unidentified man. “… We believe it is biblical and consistent with the culture of HFBC to hereby communicate an expectation that you no longer engage in behavior such as occurred with (name redacted) on the night in question,” the letter said.

Pressler, in a court response to Rollins’ 2017 lawsuit, “generally and categorically” denied “each and every allegation” in the lawsuit, which sought more than $1 million in damages.

A Texas district court judge dismissed the molestation allegation in 2018, ruling that it was filed beyond the state’s five-year statute of limitations. But slander and libel claims by Rollins were not dismissed, nor a breach of contract claim related to a 2004 lawsuit Rollins settled over an alleged assault by Pressler. In February 2021, a state appeals court reversed the district court, allowing the statute of limitations to proceed, affirming Rollins’ reported realization of the abuse through psychiatric counseling in 2015.

At the annual meeting of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention in 2017, no one was named as the recipient of the H. Paul Pressler Distinguished Service Award, and it has not been awarded since—a sign of how far the once revered judge had fallen.

Prior to the lawsuit and sexual abuse allegations, Pressler would have been considered one of the most influential and powerful Southern Baptists of the 20th century.

With Pressler as the key strategist and Paige Patterson, then a Bible college president, as inerrancy’s champion, the duo spoke to pastors and laypeople across the country, in groups small and large, in a months-long effort toward the 1979 vote that placed Adrian Rogers in the SBC’s presidency during the annual meeting in Houston.

“The citadel of liberalism was charged and the hill on which to die was captured, but not without great cost,” Pressler wrote in his 1999 autobiography, “A Hill on Which to Die,” from Southern Baptists’ B&H Publishing Group.

“God has given the victory in an amazing way. I praise Him for it,” Pressler wrote of the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence centering on the Bible’s inerrancy as foundational for evangelism and missions. “I pray that His people will preserve this victory to His glory until He comes again.”

Successive victories for more than a decade gave conservative SBC presidents a path to place like minded trustees on the boards of the Convention’s seminaries and other entities who would select leaders with a high view of Scripture. One of the movement’s early successes, in 1980, also was the adoption of Southern Baptists’ first-ever pro-life resolution.

Rogers, then-pastor of the Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church, in an endorsement at the front of Pressler’s autobiography, wrote, “‘A Hill on Which to Die’ is a real page-turner for any who want the truth and an inside view of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. … Southern Baptists owe an incredible debt to this man.” Rogers died in 2005.

W.A. Criswell, another former SBC president and pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church in Dallas, wrote that Pressler’s book is “a story of faith, courage, heroism, and love told by a layman as devoted to Christ and to the Bible as any clergyman who ever lived.” Criswell died in 2002.

Pressler, as a member of First Baptist Church in Houston, was elected as the SBC’s first vice president in 2002 without opposition. He prevailed over a moderate nominee when he was elected as a trustee on the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board (IMB)), serving from 1992-2000, and as a member of the SBC Executive Committee, serving from 1984-1991, the last two years as vice chairman.

At the 1996 annual meeting in New Orleans, he delivered one of six theme interpretations, noting from 2 Chronicles 7:14 that “anything that turns us away from pursuing a holy life and a deeper walk with our Savior is a wicked way.”

“We sin as a nation when life is cheapened by the murder of the unborn and of the elderly,” he said. “Our nation sins when … principles of biblical morality and sexual purity are no longer promoted. … If we turn from our wicked ways, God will forgive and heal as He has promised. But if we persist in selfishness, we will reach far fewer people for Christ and we will have a society in which it is very difficult to live.”

At age 16, Pressler traveled from his native Houston to New Hampshire to enroll at Philip Exeter Academy, then earned an undergraduate degree at Princeton in 1952 and a Navy ROTC ensign commission. While earning a law degree at the University of Texas School of Law after his military service, he won a seat in the Texas legislature in 1957, serving until 1959, deciding to end his foray into politics for a law career.

He was appointed as a Texas district court judge by then-Gov. Preston Smith in 1970, subsequently winning reelection votes before a court of appeals appointment by then-Gov. Dolph Briscoe in late 1978. He also served on President George H.W. Bush’s Drug Advisory Committee. He retired from the court in 1993 and went into private practice.

Pressler made a profession of faith at age 10 during a revival meeting at South Main Baptist Church in his native Houston.

“I realized that I had never disbelieved the gospel,” he wrote in his autobiography, “but I had never recognized that I was a sinner and that Jesus Christ shed his blood to pay the price for my sins. As I sat in the pew, I bowed my head, accepted Him as Savior and Lord, and Jesus Christ came into my heart.”

His first brush with liberalism, Pressler recounted, came at Exeter when he visited a nearby Baptist church and spoke of his salvation experience to the pastor, who responded, “I don’t know what you people from the South mean when you say somebody has been saved.”

At Princeton, he helped launch a Baptist student organization that played a role in leading several dozen students to Christ, while various classroom experiences continued to elevate his discomfort with liberalism.

In 1953, he wrote a lengthy letter to the Texas Baptist Standard, which was never published, stating that his concerns about liberalism “can be multiplied many times from my own limited experience” at Princeton. “It is my earnest prayer,” he concluded, “that you will alert those who believe God’s Word and love Him to the danger of modernism which confronts us today so that we can all be more effective witnesses to His glory.”

As a member of Second Baptist Church in Houston in the mid-1960s, Pressler was named to a committee to study a mounting controversy over liberal theology sparked by Ralph Elliott, a professor at the SBC’s Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., in his book titled “The Message of Genesis.” Word of Pressler’s personal 50-page “Report to Second Baptist’s Deacons” began to spread beyond the church, prompting him to print 5,000 copies for distribution.

In 1977, Pressler “promised God I would not sit back any longer” after five Baylor freshmen from a youth group he had led invited him “to see their textbooks, hear what they were being taught in class, and help them know the truth.” The meeting left Pressler dismayed that “young people I had helped come to know the Lord and whom I had helped build up in the faith were being harmed by teaching in an institution supported by the SBC Cooperative Program of giving.”

Pressler soon called Patterson, whom he had met 10 years earlier after a layman’s conference at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS.) Pressler and his wife Nancy and Patterson and his wife Dorothy had discussed their concerns about the SBC’s direction into the early morning hours of their 1967 visit at the Café du Monde.

In the lead-up to the 1979 annual meeting and in the years afterward, Pressler was able to accept an array of speaking engagements since the appeals court’s oral arguments were scheduled on Thursdays, allowing him to work on his caseload while on the road.

A 1980 explanation of conservatives “going for the jugular” to gain trustee control of the Convention’s entities dogged Pressler over the years. “The use of this metaphor was very unwise,” he acknowledged in his autobiography. “The Baptist newswriters seized on this to make me look like an angry monster.”

As an Executive Committee member, Pressler often disputed the fairness of the Convention’s news service, Baptist Press, toward conservatives. He drafted a 50-page compilation of specific examples in 1985 but contended that no corrective action was taken. In July 1990, the Executive Committee terminated Baptist Press director Al Shackleford and news editor Dan Martin in a meeting while Pressler was in Europe on a previously planned family trip.

Pressler, in his autobiography, recounted a family tree with deep Baptist roots, including his grandparents, Herman Paul and Veannis Pressler, longtime members of First Baptist Church in Austin. A great-great-great grandfather, Hosea Garrett, served 38 years as a Baylor trustee during its early years and was elected as president of the Texas convention and second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention. O.H.P. Garrett, Pressler’s great-great grandfather, served various terms as the Convention’s secretary. Another great-great grandfather, Eggleston Dick Townes, was the first moderator of the Austin Baptist Association.

Pressler donated his papers, encompassing 63 cubic feet, including correspondence, news clippings, periodicals, audio and video cassettes and books, to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) in Wake Forest, North Carolina. The collection in microform also is housed at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky.

In addition to his wife of 65 years, Pressler is survived by three children, Jean, Anne and Paul IV, seven grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. The news of Pressler’s death was unknown publicly until media reports emerged that a private family service had been held June 15.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Art Toalston is a writer based in Nashville and a former editor of Baptist Press.)

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