Commentary: What a Difference 167 Years Makes

Former pro-slavery Southern Baptist church gets its very first African-American president.

Posted: 06/21/2012 08:58 AM EDT
Rev. Fred Luter Jr. and the Southern Baptist Convention

When adherents to the Baptist faith first came to and settled in the United States, they, like many Americans at the time, ended up being divided on the issue of slavery. In 1844, after going back and forth on the issue for some time, the Baptist General Convention for Foreign Missions refused to appoint a Georgia slaveholder as a missionary. The Baptists in the south couldn’t understand such treatment, as many of them believed that slavery was ordained by God. In 1823, for instance, Richard Furman, a South Carolina Baptist leader, told the governor of his state, “The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”


Indeed, while the Bible does seem to condone slavery in certain passages, many Baptists in the northern states still found it against what they believed. In 1845, the tensions caused a split: Much as the Southern states would eventually do, the Southern Baptists declared themselves the Southern Baptist Convention, a completely separate entity that would keep slaves.

After more than 160 years since its founding, a new development in the Southern Baptist timeline has arisen that would make Furman and his original flock surely spin in their confederate tombs: On Tuesday afternoon, the Southern Baptist Convention elected Rev. Fred Luter Jr. to be its first Black president.

It’s quite a shocking turnaround for the Southern Baptists. After being created out of the desire to hold slaves, and then operating for years as a mouthpiece for pro-segregationist and pro-Jim Crow policies, they now have a Black man as the head of the whole operation. Still, as wild as it may seem to outsiders, Luter himself seems unfazed. He only says he hopes this is the first step in a long line of people of color ascending into the upper echelons of the Southern Baptist religion. “If we stop appointing African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics to leadership positions after this, we’ve failed,” Luter told a press conference earlier this week. “... I promise you I’m going to do all that I can to make sure this is not just a one-and-done deal.”

Beyond their ugly racial history, Southern Baptists often find themselves facing tough questions about some other issues of oppression within their ranks, namely how they treat gays and how they treat women. For instance, in the Baptist Faith and Message doctrine, what is essentially a constitution for the church, it reads, “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.”

To Luter’s credit, however, his election in and of itself proves what time and patience can achieve when it comes to overcoming hatred. Luter also says that while he doesn’t intend to make Southern Baptism any less political, he wants those politics to be expressed “in a way that won’t offend other people.”

There’s not much to say to that but we wish him luck in what will certainly be a difficult task.


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(Photo: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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