Paul Pressler, ex-Christian conservative leader accused of sexual abuse, dies at 94

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Paul Pressler, a former Texas judge who altered the Southern Baptist Convention twice, first when he led a fundamentalist takeover of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and second when he faced sexual abuse allegations, died June 7. He was 94.

His death was first reported by Baptist News Global, an independent site devoted to Southern Baptist news. It was later confirmed by an obituary posted by Geo. H. Lewis & Sons Funeral Directors in Houston.

Pressler was a symbol for both the Religious Right’s marriage with Republican politics, and then of that alliance’s vulnerability to scandal and criticism of hypocrisy. He ascended to influential ranks in national politics and within the Nashville-based SBC for decades until an abuse lawsuit colored his final chapter in life.

Pressler storied himself in an autobiography as an altruistic underdog who struggled to save the Nashville-based SBC from the wretches of liberalism. But critics see his legacy as harmful due to the hardline theology he promoted within America’s largest evangelical Christian group and for the trauma and depression he allegedly caused abuse victims.

A six-year-long civil case over Pressler’s alleged abuse of Gerald D. Rollins, through which similar allegations from seven other men emerged, inspired a news series about clergy abuse throughout the SBC and subsequently a third-party investigation into Southern Baptist leaders’ handling of the abuse crisis.

Rollins' case ended in 2023. As part of that, the SBC and SBC Executive Committee settled with Rollins, who sought to hold SBC leadership accountable for failing to prevent Pressler’s alleged abuse.

After mobilizing Southern Baptists in denominational politics, Pressler did the same with U.S. politics. Pressler was part of a coalition of influential Christian leaders who backed Ronald Reagan for U.S. president in the 1980 election to deny Jimmy Carter a second term, and a founding member of the secretive network of influential conservatives called the Council for National Policy.

Pressler’s death comes as younger generations of pastors are taking up the mantle of SBC leadership, some of whom are rethinking the legacy of Pressler and his allies. There’s both reverence for beliefs that Pressler’s movement championed but also disillusionment with the figures atop that movement.

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Pressler and the Conservative Resurgence

A 1967 meeting at Café du Monde in New Orleans with a seminary student named Paige Patterson was a turning point for Pressler and the entire SBC.

There, the duo first dreamed of the Conservative Resurgence, a movement to transform the convention. But their vision didn’t materialize until 13 years later after Patterson became a pastor and Pressler was serving as a judge for the Texas Court of Appeals, an appointment that followed an eight-year stint as a district court judge.

Pressler portrays the Conservative Resurgence in his 1999 autobiography, "A Hill on Which to Die," as a grassroots movement of underdogs who took drastic measures as a last resort.

“We knew no other way to seek the modifications which we believed were necessary,” Pressler said in the autobiography. “The conservative movement was not motivated by a desire for power or the promotion of the conservative leaders’ personalities.”

Their plan was to win SBC presidential elections at the convention’s annual meetings as part of a larger plan to control various SBC committees and boards of affiliated agencies. Biblical inerrancy, or the belief the Bible is without error, was the core issue driving the conservatives’ activism. By extension, however, the group held traditional views on gay marriage, abortion and women in leadership.

The movement — despite Pressler’s tale of the Conservative Resurgence as a rag-tag bunch that sought "a means to an end and the end being the evangelization of the world with the uncompromised gospel of Jesus Christ" — was siege warfare and it swiftly gained the upper hand. Its first major victory was in 1979 when Memphis pastor Adrian Rogers, a Conservative Resurgence-backed candidate for SBC president, won the election with 51% of the vote of delegates, called messengers.

"The battle was essentially over by 1985, but few outside the movement recognized it until 1988, when the committees appointed new members to the boards, and the boards in their turn made decisive changes in policy and personnel," said journalist and historian Francis FitzGerald in the 2017 book, "The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America." "They had the advantages of surprise and unity of purpose."

Key takeaways: Southern Baptists addressed women in ministry, IVF and abuse reform

'Believers must be responsible in their conduct'

Pressler characterizes himself in his autobiography as a devout church member driven by principle and his convictions.

"Believers must be responsible in their conduct. They must be responsible in their doctrine. They are responsible for being loyal to Christ," Pressler said in his autobiography. During his time as a member of Second Baptist Church Houston and later First Baptist Church Houston, Pressler served as a deacon and Sunday school teacher.

But it was also during this time, and sometimes in the same settings, that Pressler’s alleged abuse began. According to court filings and news articles from eight men alleging various kinds of sexual misconduct, Pressler’s alleged abuse occurred between 1976 to 2016.

The allegations range from inappropriate comments and soliciting sexual contact, to molestation and rape. Pressler denied any allegations of abuse, and Rollins’ civil case against Pressler ended in December 2023 before going to trial for a jury to adjudicate Pressler’s fate.

"Pressler was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the uniform he wore was emblazoned with the SBC," said Rollins’ complaint. "Rollins and others suffered severely not only because of the actions of this one man but because of those that empowered him, disguised him, concealed him."

Rollins attributes a long history of substance abuse and criminal history to the trauma of Pressler’s alleged abuse, and other alleged victims described feeling depressed and suicidal due to the alleged abuse, according to court filings.

Rollins’ case inspired a Houston Chronicle investigative series on clergy abuse throughout the SBC, which was the impetus for a historic third-party investigation into Southern Baptist leaders' handling of the abuse crisis.

Influence on national politics

Herman Paul Pressler, III, was born in Houston on June 4, 1930, to Herman P. Pressler, Jr. and Elsie Townes Pressler, according to his obituary. He was a sixth-generation Texan.

He attended The Kinkaid school, Phillips Exeter Academy and Princeton University. He served as in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and received his law degree from the University of Texas Law School, where his great-grandfather served as the first dean, according to his family obituary.

While in law school, he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives and represented Harris County for two years. In 1970, then-Texas Gov. Preston Smith appointed him a district court judge. Then-Gov. Dolph Briscoe appointed him a state court of appeals judge in 1978.

Due to his elevated status in the SBC, Pressler was quickly introduced to other Religious Right leaders, some of whom were Southern Baptists and others weren’t. He and others, such as Moral Majority founder the Rev. Jerry Falwell, mobilized support for Reagan’s candidacy for president and then for George H. W. Bush.

In 1989, Bush nominated Pressler to head the Office of Government Ethics. The president later withdrew the nomination following an FBI background check, the results of which have remained undisclosed.

Pressler described his political prestige as unintentional. "The conservative movement in the SBC was not motivated by secular politics, but as it turned out, it did have sociological and political ramifications," Pressler said in his autobiography.

Regardless of intent, journalist Anne Nelson describes the political prowess as inevitable in Nelson’s book about the Council for National Policy, the secretive network of conservative religious and political leaders. Pressler was a founding member of the group.

"The architects of the Conservative Resurgence, pastor Paige Patterson and Judge Paul Pressler, had developed tactics to take over the denomination and purge moderates, which would then be adopted, refreshed, and perfected by the Council for National Policy to apply to wider targets," Nelson said in her book, "The Shadow Network." "If the CNP was a tree and each new partner a branch, the Southern Baptists were the core."

Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Reach him at or on Twitter @liamsadams.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Paul Pressler dies at 94: Helped lead conservative SBC takeover