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Karen Sue SmithJune 25, 2012

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.


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Thomas Farrell
11 years 3 months ago
Frankly, I do not expect news stories to provide the kind of information that you have mentioned.

The kind of information that you have mentioned might be covered in a news analysis piece or in a commentary piece or in a feature story, but not in a news story.
11 years 3 months ago
Karen, to your postscript: most of my white Catholic students at a Jesuit university are amazed to learn that there are 3 million black Catholics in the United States, more than some of the larger Protestant denominations. My students hail mostly, as I did growing up, from suburban white parishes with few to no black Catholics.

To carry your analysis and wonderfully pointed questions from the Baptist landscape into the Catholic fold: How do black Catholics from traditionally African American Catholic parishes feel when their disillusioned, suburban white Catholic brothers and sisters visit their urban parishes and—discovering a great deal more life and spirit in the liturgy and in lay leadership at all levels—desire to stick around? I have often wondered at the generosity of black Catholics in this regard, but I imagine it is not always easy to welcome the (white Catholic) stranger, given the less-than-edifying history of racism in the Church, which so many black Catholics, and their ancestors, have known directly.
ed gleason
11 years 3 months ago
My inner city parish is made up of four language groups. Vietnamese, Tagalog, Spanish and English. each about 25% with their own language Mass. . The English Mass and community is led by the 50% of African Americans who transfered from a closed African American parish. They are graciously welcoming to all. . The Franciscan pastor is trying to integrate all four language communities more and more. The various leaderships are fully engaged but the all important comfort level of the immigrants in the pews is the stumbling block. My wife says that this is what heaven must be like .... the culture differences make the usual traditional/progressive differences a non issue.  
Barbara Ann Fields
11 years 3 months ago
     As the NBCC approaches I wonder how many of my White Catholic brothers and sisters know about our struggles for survival and conclusion in this Catholic Church of our?  Are they interested in joining us in worship or learning of our unique spirituality?  I am fortunate enough to live in a city that used to offer a program at the local Seminary on Ministry to African American Catholics but very few of our Caucasion Catholics attended including Seminarians.  We are a rich people of faith who have held onto our beliefs inspite of our lack of inclusion.
      It would be a blessing to our church to embrace our brothers and sisters who have been marginalized before all of our predominately Black Catholic Churches are gone.
     You still wonder why our sons and daughters are not coming forward to commit their lives in service to the church?  Check out the number of Black priest and Bishops.  Philadelphia, a city of many black Catholics, and more and more of our ethnic churches closing, has NEVER had a Black Bishop.....
      It is statistics like these that lets me know that although I am in the truth there is lacking a true sense of the meaning of CATHOLIC.

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