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Fri, 08.01.1845

Black History and the Southern Baptist Convention in America, a story

*Black history and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are examined on this date in 1845. That summer in Nashville, TN, at the Southern Baptist Convention’s founding, approximately 1 in 3 Southern Baptist church members were black.

By 1900, there were virtually no black Southern Baptists. About 1 in 5 Southern Baptist churches are predominantly non-white, including some 3,400 predominately African American congregations.  The story behind those numbers, historians say, is a narrative of slavery, sin, emancipation, struggle, and God’s grace — and a challenge for the SBC to do more in terms of racial reconciliation.

The American roots of Southern Baptist history go back to the Reformation in England in the sixteenth century. Reformists of the time called for a return to the New Testament example of Christian purity. Likewise, they called for strict accountability in covenant with God. One prominent reformer in the early seventeenth century, John Smyth, was a strong promoter of adult baptism. In 1609 he re-baptized himself and others. As Baptists began to organize and expand in the late 1700s and early 1800s, they formed missionary societies to spread the Christian lifestyle to others.

These mission societies led to other organizational structures that would eventually define the denomination of Southern Baptists. By the 1830s, racial tension began to mount between Northern and Southern Baptists. One issue that severely divided the Baptists was slavery. Northern Baptists believed God would not condone treating one race as superior to another, while Southerners said that God intended for races to be separate. Southern state Baptists began complaining that they weren’t receiving money for missions’ work. The Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in America and are known for not only backing slavery but also racial segregation.

During the 20th century American Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, the SBC took no active role and, in some locales, strongly opposed racial equality. “The SBC today is at a crossroads,” said Gateway Seminary professor Leroy Gainey, one of the first African Americans to join an SBC seminary faculty in the mid-1980s. Although race relationships are strained, “I do believe in our convention,” Gainey told Baptist Press, “and I do believe we can do the right thing.” In June 1995, the Southern Baptists apologized for supporting racial injustice. At its yearly meeting in Atlanta, the Southern Baptists passed a resolution “to repudiate historic acts of evil, such as slavery, from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest.”

The group also specifically apologized to African Americans “for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime, and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously.” In June 2012, the Southern Baptist Convention garnered headlines for making racial progress after electing a black pastor, Fred Luter Jr., its president. On June 14, 2017, The Southern Baptist Convention voted to formally “denounce and repudiate” white nationalism and the alt-right movement at the church’s annual meeting, but only after the denomination’s leadership was criticized for initially bypassing the proposal. The resolution decries “every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as of the devil.” There was a standing ovation in the crowded convention room in Phoenix after the resolution was passed.

Conversely, in 2019, in their statement, the presidents said critical race theory and a new framework called “intersectionality” are “antithetical to the Bible and the only Gospel that can save.” A statement from Adam Greenway, the white president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that he and the other seminary presidents accept that structural racism is a modern-day problem and think critical race theory does “rightly decry racism and injustice,” but that they reject the theory as a comprehensive way of understanding race-related problems.

W. Seth Martin, the Minneapolis pastor, and other more established pastors with larger churches decided to part ways with the convention. Among them is Chicago pastor Charlie Dates and Houston pastor Ralph West. “The reaction has been like a bomb exploded,” said Dwight McKissic, a Black pastor in Arlington, Texas, who said he’s still deciding his status within the SBC. In 2020 Willie McLaurin was named the interim president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, the first African American to lead one of the denomination’s ministry entities in its more than 175-year history.

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