Several thousand Southern Baptist pastors, church workers, laymen and their wives, most of them elected representatives (“messengers”) from their local churches, witnessed history being made Tuesday in the New Orleans convention center.
With overwhelming affirmation, sustained applause and no verbal opposition, the Rev. Fred Luter, Jr., pastor of Franklin Ave. Baptist Church in New Orleans, was elected as the first African American president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, paraphrasing the abolitionist Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Those in attendance at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual session witnessed a significant bend toward that justice.
The Southern Baptist Convention, born in 1845 over the slavery controversy (the refusal of the national Convention of Baptists to appoint a slaveholder as a missionary to Native Americans), and in large measure defensive of Jim Crow and segregation through at least the middle of the 20th century, elected an African American as president. I’m certain that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is smiling down with delight that such an event has taken place.
The Southern Baptist Convention has gone from being virtually an all-white domination as late as 1970 to being one of the most ethnically diverse denominations. Approximately 22 percent of Southern Baptists are non-Anglo. Of the approximately 45,000 local congregations of Southern Baptists in the United States, 10 percent are now African American in their membership. Hundreds of others are Hispanic-American, Asian-American and Native-American. In fact, virtually all growth in Southern Baptist membership in the last decade has been ethnic.
A tremendously significant step was taken at the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention when, in 1995, the convention passed a resolution apologizing to African Americans for having supported slavery and racism and asked for the forgiveness of their African American brothers and sisters. The convention had passed numerous resolutions between 1946 and 1995 condemning racism, but had never accepted responsibility for its own participation in the evil of human bondage and racial discrimination. This apology led to a significant upsurge in African Americans feeling welcome in the Southern Baptist Convention. Luter’s election as president (not an honorific office, but a position of real power) is another giant step in the Southern Baptist Convention achieving its stated goal of having a membership that reflects the demographic makeup of the country.
Millions of Southern Baptists of every ethnicity are praying that God will use them and their convention to lead the way to the fulfillment of King’s dream of a nation where people, “Will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”