Leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention are increasingly dropping the “Southern” part of their Baptist name, calling it a potentially painful reminder of the convention’s historic role in support of slavery.

The 50,000 Baptist churches in the convention are autonomous and can still choose to refer to themselves as “Southern Baptist” or “SBC.” But in his first interview on the topic, convention president J.D. Greear said momentum has been building to adopt the name “Great Commission Baptists,” both because of the racial reckoning underway in the United States and because many have long seen the “Southern Baptist” name as too regional for a global group of believers.

“Our Lord Jesus was not a White Southerner but a brown-skinned Middle Eastern refugee,” said Greear, who this summer used the phrase “Black lives matter” in a presidential address and announced that he would retire a historic gavel named for an enslaver. “Every week we gather to worship a savior who died for the whole world, not one part of it. What we call ourselves should make that clear.”

The shift takes place at the end of a summer of racial unrest, when Confederate monuments have been removed, schools have been renamed and the Washington football team has dropped its moniker and is looking for a new one. For Southern Baptists, the change also reflects a long-standing desire to remove confusion when the convention launches churches in the Northern United States and overseas.

The convention formed in 1845, splitting from Northern Baptists over Southern support for missionaries who owned enslaved people; despite a historic drop in membership last year, it is considered the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with 14.5 million members. The convention will continue to legally operate as the SBC, officials said, citing the hefty cost and complexity of a legal name change. But since August, the its website has declared “We Are Great Commission Baptists,” an alternative moniker that refers to the verses in the New Testament when Jesus commands his disciples to baptize believers in all nations.

Ronnie Floyd, who heads the convention’s executive committee and was on President Trump’s evangelical advisory council during the 2016 campaign, addressed fellow Baptists in a recent letter as “Great Commission Baptists.” Greear says hundreds of church leaders in several Southern states have committed to using the alternate name. And Greear announced Monday that his church will use it as well, and that the theme of next year’s annual gathering for the denomination will be “We are Great Commission Baptists.”

Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, and Albert Mohler Jr., president of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said they both support using “Great Commission Baptist” as a description, though they won’t legally change the names of their schools.

About 80 percent of churches in the convention are located in Southern states, according to the 2019 SBC Annual Church Profile. But Greear said that moving forward, Baptists’ shared evangelistic mission — not Southern culture — should help shape their identity. He said 20 percent of churches in the convention are led by pastors of color, and 63 percent of churches that were “planted,” or launched, last year were led by people of color.

While theology hasn’t changed, he said, what does need to change is the culture of the convention: “We as Baptists want to be defined by 2025, not by 1845.”

A long time coming

Southern Baptists debated changing their name for decades, but church leaders concluded that legally doing so would be too expensive for their huge network of churches, seminaries, colleges and other institutions.

A recommendation allowing Southern Baptist institutions to call themselves “Great Commission Baptists” was narrowly approved by the convention in 2012, but most leaders chose not to do so.

Marshal Ausberry, president of the convention’s National African American Fellowship, said all 13 pastors on his board were in favor of adopting “Great Commission Baptists.”

“You’ll have skeptics, with people who say, ‘You’re only doing it because you’re trying to whitewash history,' ” said Ausberry, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Fairfax Station, Va., and first vice president of the convention. “But it’s a good time to do it. There’s a sincerity.”

Marshall Blalock, the White pastor of South Carolina’s First Baptist Charleston, which is believed to be one of the earliest Baptist churches in the South, said he decided to adopt the name “Great Commission Baptist” after he met with Black pastors in Mobile, Ala., in July in an effort to build bridges.

“I would say, ‘I’m Southern Baptist,’ and they’d look at me like, ‘I think I could like you, but I’m not sure,’ ” Blalock said. He said he didn’t realize before that meeting just how many Black Christians outside Baptist circles associate the name with the support of slavery and racial segregation.

Blalock and others are wary of being perceived as part of a broader politically liberal movement, or taking actions that could be seen as aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement or the Democratic Party. Still, Blalock said, he thinks using a different name is the best way for the convention to move forward from its past.

“Anybody who knows why we’re trying to do this knows we’re not trying to be woke, and we’re not trying to cover up the past,” Blalock said. “We need to remove barriers.”

Blalock was on the 2012 convention committee that proposed adding “Great Commission Baptist” as a DBA, short for “doing business as,” which allows organizations to legally do business using a particular name without having to create a new entity. The committee’s report focused on geography and did not discuss whether the “Southern Baptist” name draws a connection to the convention’s historic support for slavery and segregation.

How 'Southern Baptists’ started

At its inaugural meeting in Augusta, Ga., in 1845, the convention considered naming itself the “Southern and South Western Baptist Convention,” according to Nathan Finn, a Southern Baptist historian who is provost of North Greenville University in South Carolina. Southern Baptists disagreed with Northern believers over several issues, but the final straw was whether missionaries could be enslavers.

The Northern Baptists, now formally called the American Baptist Churches USA, started calling themselves the “American Baptist Convention” in 1950, which caused resentment and provoked competition among Southern Baptists, Finn said. That denomination is now viewed as more liberal in its theology and culture.

Finn said he was ambivalent about using a different name for years until this summer, when he jumped on board. “I’m not embarrassed to be a Southerner,” he said. “It’s about what that word conjures up for people, especially people of color. They’re saying: ‘That name is a hang-up. When my people hear that name, they think slavery.’ God forbid we keep a name that evokes that.”

In 1995, the convention issued a formal apology for its complicity in slavery and racism. Gary Frost, a Black pastor who is director of missions for the Steel Valley Baptist Association in Ohio, stood on the stage of the convention and accepted the apology. Frost said he has no problem identifying as a Southern Baptist now, but he also thinks the convention is changing. More people of color have positions of leadership than 25 years ago.

“We’re not holding on to symbols of the past. That’s painful for some people. That’s part of their heritage,” he said. “When you learn that it’s hurtful and hurt the spread of the gospel, you have to be willing to let go of them.”

John Onwuchekwa, an Atlanta-based pastor, left the convention this summer, disgusted by the heavy support for Trump among Southern Baptists. He said changing the name forces the convention to talk about why it identified as “Southern” in the first place.

“It was never about geography,” he said. “The convention was one bad marketing meeting away from being the ‘Confederate Baptist Convention.’ ”

But Jemar Tisby, author of “The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism,” said using a different name could be seen as duplicitous or misleading. “I don’t know the denomination as a whole has done a good job of teaching its sordid history,” he said. “Changing the name now might make that even harder.”

Jerry Vines, a retired pastor and past president of the convention, said he is “an old-school guy” and wants to be explicit about his Baptist identity. “I do like truth in advertising,” said Vines, who led the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla. “I like upfront to let people who you are. Not, once you get someone in, you slip it to them.”

Some Baptists say they couldn’t care less about the name, including Robert Jeffress, pastor of the historic First Baptist Church in Dallas. Many churches have already dropped the name Baptist entirely, including megachurches like Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California and David Platt’s McLean Bible Church in Virginia.

“I think we live in a post-denominational age,” Jeffress said. “Churches are less and less concerned about being defined by a group they can’t control.”