Southern Baptist Convention Architect Paul Pressler Dies Amid Controversy

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The grave shadows of evening have descended upon the controversial and intriguing life of Paul Pressler, an esteemed figurehead of the Southern Baptist Convention, as he passed away at age 94 on June 7th. His demise was officially announced via an obituary posted by Geo. H. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home in Houston where a memorial service in remembrance of Pressler was held the subsequent Saturday, though the cause of death remains undisclosed. Baptist News Global was the first to break the news of his death to the public.

In the lifetime that Pressler spent weaving his tale, he emerged as one of the principal architects behind the Southern Baptist Convention’s “conservative resurgence”. This powerful initiative in the 1980s decisively reoriented the course of America’s most populous Protestant denomination. Pressler, in alliance with contemporaries, unsettled liberal leaders and skillfully constructed a bridge between white evangelicals and Republican conservatism, leading to a focus on electing GOP candidates to public office.

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With an expansive congregation that includes over 47,000 churches and close to 13 million devotees, the Southern Baptist Convention dominates the American Protestant landscape. While some 200 of these establishments qualify as ‘mega-churches’, most consist of fewer than 200 members congregating weekly for worship. The organization’s churches are primarily clustered in the southern regions of the United States, with the executive committee administering from its headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee.

In a 2015 video endorsement of U.S. senator Ted Cruz’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, Pressler boldly proclaimed his dedication to the conservative values that he believed to be the foundation of the United States. Asserting that the nation’s direction deeply disturbed citizens, he emphasized the necessity of virtuous leadership in Washington for the country’s salvation.

However, Pressler’s esteemed religious legacy was tarnished by allegations of sexual assault made by former assistant Gareld Duane Rollins. In a 2017 lawsuit filed in Harris County, where Houston is located, Rollins claimed that Pressler had raped him at the tender age of 14, after the two had become acquainted at a bible study group helmed by Pressler. According to court records, Rollins alleged the sexual attacks continued intermittently over a span of 24 years.

This lawsuit against Pressler ignited a full-scale investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News into the allegations of sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention. The revelations gave birth to major reforms as it was discovered that the top leaders within the Protestant denomination had consciously downplayed or blatantly ignored warnings concerning a sexual abuse crisis. In December, Pressler, along with the Southern Baptist Convention and other implicated parties entered into a confidential agreement to resolve the lawsuit.

Throughout these tribulations, Pressler fervently denied all accusations. Notwithstanding the grim allegations, he was never criminally charged. The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in the week preceding Pressler’s death passed without acknowledgment of his passing. Official comment from the Southern Baptist Convention, despite attempts to reach them, remained unavailable over the weekend.

Pressler’s diverse career included a term in the Texas House, where he represented the Houston area in the late 1950s, a stint as a state district judge beginning in 1970, and an appointment as a state appeals court judge in 1978. He retired in 1993 from his judicial role, as stated in the obituary posted online.