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Died: Disgraced Southern Baptist Leader Paul Pressler

The Texas judge behind the political strategy for the “conservative resurgence” molested and assaulted teenage boys, according to allegations eight men made in court.
Died: Disgraced Southern Baptist Leader Paul Pressler
Image: Illustration by Christianity Today / Source Image: Houston Chronicle / Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

The things that Paul Pressler did in private changed the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) radically and irreversibly.

In private, in a French café in New Orleans in 1967, Pressler planned the takeover of the largest Protestant group in America with Baptist college president Paige Patterson. He came up with the political strategy for the “conservative resurgence.”

In private, in an airport hotel in Atlanta in 1978, Pressler and Patterson gathered a group of ministers and established an informal network. They instructed those men to organize messengers to go to the SBC’s annual meeting and elect a president committed to using the position’s appointive powers to wrest control of the convention away from leaders they considered too liberal, too bureaucratic, and insufficiently committed to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

When a reporter with the Baptist Standard asked the Texas appeals court judge at the time if he was meeting with groups of clergy as part of a hardball campaign to elect the next SBC president, Pressler adamantly denied it. Then he questioned what would even count as a “meeting,” given the many possible ways you could define that word.

Then he allowed he was, in fact, doing some things in private.

In private, in a sauna at a Houston country club in the late 1970s, Pressler touched a young man’s penis, according to sworn testimony given in a lawsuit that was settled last year.

And in private, around the same time, Pressler started to molest and rape a 14-year-old, telling the teenager he taught in his Southern Baptist youth group that he was “special” and their “relationship” was special but needed to be kept secret because “no one but God would understand,” according to the allegations in the lawsuit filed in 2017.

Eight men ultimately came forward to accuse Pressler of sexual misconduct. All of them did it publicly using their names: Gareld Duane Robbins, Toby Twining, Chris Davis, Peter Wilcox, David Stripling, Sam Tejas, Mason Tabor, and Brooks Schott. The allegations stretch over decades and range from unwanted invitations to join Pressler naked in a hot tub to sexual assault.

Pressler denied all the allegations and fought the lawsuit in every way he could.

The court proceedings prompted the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News to launch an investigation of sexual abuse in the SBC. Reporters found credible allegations against 380 church leaders in 20 states and an apparently denomination-wide pattern of dismissing, diminishing, and hiding abuse.

The publication of the investigation—including the allegations against one of the architects of the conservative resurgence—hit the SBC like “the judgment of God,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler, a captain in the conservative resurgence, wrote in 2018.

CT editor in chief Russell Moore, a former Southern Baptist leader who had long celebrated the triumph of the conservative resurgence, said crisis was too mild a word for the scandal. “It is an apocalypse,” he wrote.

The revelations about Pressler shattered an SBC legend that Moore and others had once eagerly believed:

Those outside the SBC world cannot imagine the power of the mythology of the Café Du Monde—the spot in the French Quarter of New Orleans where, over beignets and coffee, two men, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, mapped out on a napkin how the convention could restore a commitment to the truth of the Bible and to faithfulness to its confessional documents.

For Southern Baptists of a certain age, this story is the equivalent of the Wittenberg door for Lutherans or Aldersgate Street for Methodists. The convention was saved from liberalism by the courage of these two men who wouldn’t back down, we believed. In fact, I taught this story to my students.

Those two mythical leaders are now disgraced.

Pressler died on June 7 at the age of 94. His death was not publicly acknowledged at the SBC annual meeting held in Indianapolis a few days later. Multiple convention leaders later said they did not know he had died.

His death was first reported by Baptist News Global, an independent news outlet, after a Houston funeral home posted an online notice about his passing.

Pressler is survived by his wife, Nancy, daughters Jean Pressler Visy and Anne Pressler Csorba, and son Herman Paul Pressler IV. A memorial service was held in private.

He was born Herman Paul Pressler III on June 4, 1930. Pressler could trace his Baptist heritage back generations on both his father’s and mother’s sides. His father, Herman Paul Pressler Jr., was a lawyer who worked for the oil company Exxon. His mother, Elsie Townes Pressler, was a prominent leader in Houston’s social and civic affairs, serving on the city’s first municipal arts committee as well as the Junior League, the Women’s Auxiliary to the Houston Bar Association, the National Society of Colonial Dames, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Harris County Heritage Society. She was also a founding member of the family’s Baptist church and traced her ancestry to John Leigh Townes, a respected preacher known as “the Major” in northern Alabama in the early 1800s.

Pressler wrote in his autobiography that his favorite memories of growing up were duck and dove hunting with his family and riding horses on his grandfather’s ranch in the Texas Hill Country.

He grew up in the Baptist church and had a conversion experience at age 10. He bowed his head in a pew and accepted that he was a sinner.

“Jesus Christ shed His blood to pay for my sin,” Pressler wrote.

His family was not all overjoyed by his conversion, however. Pressler overheard his father telling his mother they should have become Episcopalian before their son came to identify so strongly with the Baptists. The elder Pressler had stopped going to Baptist services (though he still sometimes attended Sunday school) after a minister had “run off with a woman from the church.”

It was an early lesson for the younger Pressler about the long shadow cast by sexual scandals.

But Pressler came to believe that the real threat to Baptists was not the kind of sin and hypocrisy that hurt the faith of his father, but theological liberalism. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire at 16 and was offended when a local minister dismissed the idea of personal salvation as a backward cultural phenomenon peculiar to the South.

When Pressler went to Princeton University a few years later, he clashed with a chaplain who told him that large parts of the Bible were not relevant to modern life and with a professor who said some of the gospels were unreliable.

Pressler was not swayed in the slightest by these men. He graduated an avowed enemy of liberals, which he defined as anyone who thought the Bible contained errors or that it reflected, in any way, the time and culture in which it was written.

“Perhaps it was a good thing for me to be exposed to radical liberal theology,” he later said. “I promised God I would not sit back any longer.”

Despite his interest in theology and church politics, Pressler decided to go into law and politics. He attended law school at the University of Texas at Austin and ran for a seat in the state legislature while he was still a student and won.

Pressler took the lead on a number of legislative issues in the late 1950s, according to contemporary reports in Texas newspapers. He proposed giving cities the power to set curfews for people under 18. He tried to loosen regulations on drive-through banks. And he pushed to reduce the amount the state spent on old-age assistance, a welfare program that gave pensioners $5.25 per month.

At the time he was a member of Houston’s Second Baptist Church.

In 1970, he was appointed a judge. From that position, he believed he had the independence to lead an attack on the “liberals” in the Southern Baptist Convention.

“Because pastors in the churches were in sensitive positions, their identities would be protected as long as possible,” Patterson, the co-architect of the conservative resurgence, wrote in his book Anatomy of a Reformation. “Pressler, by then a judge, and I, as president of Criswell College and associate pastor at the First Baptist Church of Dallas, would draw whatever public attack might come.”

The key to the strategy, as Pressler laid it out for conservative ministers he met with privately in at least 15 states, was organizing a voting bloc at the annual conventions. The messengers needed to vote for Pressler and Patterson’s candidate of choice. That person would then appoint only conservatives to the boards of SBC entities. Over a period of about ten years, the conservatives would have control over every institution, completely taking power from the leaders that Pressler called “denomicrats.”

Pressler and Patterson also coached conservative ministers to stay focused on the issue of biblical inerrancy. Though there were important differences on other theological issues, the doctrine of the Bible was the best ground to fight on.

“We shouldn’t sit around and let the theological left-wing tail wag a conservative dog,” Pressler said. “I think it’s about time that basic Baptist theology flavors the boards of our institutions. If that gets anybody in trouble, so be it.”

Pressler liked to quote his ancestor, John Leigh Townes, who led a fight against the Stone-Campbell movement in the 1830s. Conservative Baptists needed to do their duty—“with meekness and mildness if you can, but forcibly if you must.”

Pressler and Patterson’s first candidate for the SBC presidency was Adrian Rogers, pastor of a Memphis megachurch. In 1979, he won on the first ballot, the first time that had happened in 120 years.

Pressler would later compare the convention fight to the pivotal Civil War battle at Gettysburg, when the Union Army stopped Robert E. Lee and forced the Confederates to retreat.

“But this time,” the judge said, “the right side won.”

Rogers’s victory was followed by the elections of fellow conservatives Bailey Smith, Jimmy Draper, Charles Stanley, Rogers again, Jerry Vines, and Morris Chapman, who won with 57 percent of the vote in 1990.

Some conservatives had qualms about Pressler’s political tactics. He was quoted as saying he was “going for the jugular” of the SBC and that he was more than willing to attack people who were conservatives themselves if they did anything to protect liberals. He plied a seminary student who worked as one of his opponent’s drivers for information and secretly recorded the conversations.

When questioned about the ethics of that, he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram it was routine to tape conversations in American politics.

“This Paul Pressler has caused more trouble than anybody I’ve ever heard of,” a pastor from North Carolina said at the time. “Everywhere there is suspicion.”

The conservative resurgence kept racking up victories, though, and opposition to Pressler faded away. As his political strategy moved from triumph to triumph, however, allegations about his private sexual misconduct kept threatening to come out.

While he was organizing the vote for Rogers, he was fired from a youth ministry position at an independent Presbyterian church (where he worked while maintaining his membership with the Southern Baptists). An 18-year-old had told the pastor that Pressler assaulted him in a sauna.

“I was absolutely not aroused,” the man later said in a sworn deposition. “I froze. … I was naked and trapped—miles from home—and I needed to get to safety.”

Then, in 1989, Pressler was nominated by President George H. W. Bush to head his administration’s Office of Government Ethics. Before he could be confirmed, Pressler withdrew.

He told Baptist Press he declined because of family obligations and his commitment to serving the SBC. Senior officials in the FBI told a different story. They said they uncovered “ethics problems” during the required background check. Patterson quietly assured allies that the issue was spurious accusations of homosexuality, which he claimed were completely unfounded gossip and slander.

No one in the conservative resurgence or SBC leadership appears to have investigated any further.

In 2004, the dark allegations threatened to come out again. A student in Pressler’s youth ministry at Houston’s First Baptist Church reported that Pressler pressured him to strip and spend time with him naked in a hot tub. A church committee reprimanded Pressler, telling him that a “vast majority” of the congregation would consider “naked behavior” to be “morally and spiritually inappropriate.” However, the church leadership also promised to protect “the cause of Christ and your reputation by not disclosing our conversation or other information pertaining to this matter outside of our committee.”

Pressler left First Baptist a short time later and returned to Second. The one church said it did not inform the other of the allegations.

That same year, Gareld Duane Rollins threatened to expose Pressler and go public with allegations of abuse stretching back decades. Pressler arranged a legal settlement, giving the man $1,500 a month for 25 years in exchange for a confidentiality agreement.

Rollins accepted, and the allegations were not made public. In 2017, however, after discussions with a prison psychiatrist, he changed his mind and filed a civil suit seeking more than $1 million in damages.

A Southern Baptist lawyer close to Pressler said the charges were made up “to extort money from the Southern Baptist Convention.” A total of eight men filed affidavits with allegations of sexual misconduct, though, and even those conservatives who had long praised Pressler as a hero of the faith recoiled.

The scandal has left the Southern Baptists deeply divided. Some see abuse reform as a pressing, urgent issue. Others consider it a distraction or camouflage for efforts to fundamentally change the polity of the SBC.

Current Baptist leaders and those who carry the flag of the conservative resurgence today were mostly silent at the news of Pressler’s death. Several of the men who accused him of sexual abuse, however, expressed relief.

Chris Davis, who is now a pastor, said he was on vacation at the beach and “joyfully overwhelmed by the outpouring of texts, calls, and posts from #SBCToo survivors, SBC pastors who care about abuse reform, and leaders driven from the SBC because of their principled stand.”

When Rollins heard the news, he started talking about the muscle car he had wanted as a kid. He told a Texas Tribune reporter that for the first time since he was abused at 14, he felt like better days were ahead.

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