The national media have noted the unprecedented election in June of the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., 55, who is the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention. His election has been hailed as a historic turnabout in a denomination that once defended slavery. And it is a marked reversal. The precise concern of Baptists in 1845 was whether slaveholders could become missionaries. Baptists from the south said yes, while those in the north said no. The yeses split off and organized in Augusta, Ga., as a collection of autonomous churches called the Southern Baptist Convention. Over the years, the Southern Baptist Convention has grown into the largest Protestant denomination in the country, with 16 million members. Their membership is still overwhelmingly white (94 percent). In recent years, however, it has consciously reached out to other racial groups, including African-Americans, with some success; their membership now includes a million nonwhite members (about 6 percent).
One can read all about Rev. Luter, however, but never realize that there are currently more than 15 million black Baptists in the United States—almost the size of the Southern Baptist denomination. Yet because these black Baptists are not united into a single convention, their story is seldom told and their perspective seldom sought. Think of it this way: How might these 15 million black Baptists see a group of white Baptists working to attract blacks? How might they feel about a Christian welcome for blacks that seems roughly 100 years late, or to be generous 50 years after the civil rights movement? And while a black president occupies the White House?
The opinions of black Baptists ought to be sought as we consider the rise of the Rev. Luter. For the Southern Baptist story is the story of a white church moving toward integration. Alongside it, however, runs a very different story of black Baptists creating their own churches, schools and seminaries.
A Wider Perspective
I have tried to sketch some of that story here. After the 1845 split, the Northern Baptists who banned the ordination of slave-owning missionaries already allowed African-Americans as members. During reconstruction when thousands of blacks moved north, some joined these integrated Baptist congregations, known today as the American Baptist Churches, USA. Given this history, it is no irony that a black, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., happens to be the most famous American Baptist minister these days. Even though King was from Georgia and succeeded his father as pastor of an American Baptist church in Atlanta, he attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where American Baptists of his day were often sent.
Some of the black Baptists who remained in the south after Emancipation founded their own Baptist churches rather than worship with the whites who had fought for slavery. Currently there are four Baptist conventions, with 15 million members among them. The largest of the four is the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., (with 8 million members). It is currently led by Dr. Julius R. Scruggs. The issue I'm raising can be summed up in a question: Have yu read anywhere what Dr. Scruggs, for example, thinks of the rise of the Rev. Luter? I haven't.
The question is not one of competition between the two groups: the Southern Baptists vs. the various black Baptists. Not at all. Rather, what seems missing in the Luter story is the black perspective and experience, and it is deep and wide. If it is factored in the story seems immediately different.
Here is how it looks to me now: While Southern Baptists are finally taking steps to surmount their history of racism, as seen in the election of the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., for more than a century black Baptists throughout the United States have not only worshiped but led American Baptist churches and entire Baptist conventions of their own making. And they are still going strong.
Postscript: By way of comparison, Catholics might want to recall these estimates from CARA: there are currently 3 million black Catholics in the U.S. (2 to 3 percent); 250 black priests and 16 black bishops.