Southern Baptists have a unique role to play in America’s race relations following a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer in the shooting death of an 18-year-old African American in Ferguson, Mo.
A key reason: Southern Baptists have firsthand experience of the only lasting solution to racial tension: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Of course, many other groups believe and preach the gospel as well, and it has the same reconciling power among all Christian denominations. But Southern Baptists have witnessed a unique transformation – from a convention that began out of a desire to defend slavery and later was known for upholding legalized racial segregation to what church growth expert C. Peter Wagner called in a 1970 book the most diverse religious denomination in America.
The gospel’s transformative work in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) lends credence to Christians’ claim that believing and obeying the message of Jesus can bring healing in communities where racial minorities feel oppressed by police, where certain ethnic groups feel they cannot receive justice and where blacks are incarcerated at alarmingly high rates compared with whites.
In 1995 the SBC adopted a resolution apologizing for its racist past, asking African Americans for forgiveness. SBC second vice president Gary Frost (left), Resolutions Committee chairman Charles Carter (center) and Christian Life Commission executive director Richard Land discuss the resolution at a press conference.
Consider some of the ways God has worked among Southern Baptists:
In 1995 the SBC adopted a resolution apologizing for its racist past, asking African Americans for forgiveness. The resolution “lament[ed] and repudiate[d] historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest.” It went on to say, “We apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
Some black Baptists expressed “a sense of surprise at the frankness of the verbiage in the resolution,” Baptist Press reported in 1995.
In 2011 the convention adopted a 10-part recommendation from an Ethnic Study Committee that sought to help ethnic churches and leaders better partner with fellow Southern Baptists in missions and ministry.
Convention messengers asked entities annually to provide “a descriptive report of participation of ethnic churches and church leaders in the life and ministry of the respective SBC entity;” the SBC president to “give special attention to appointing individuals who represent the diversity within the Convention” to committees under his purview; and a subcommittee of the SBC Executive Committee to provide a report each year in February with an update on how each of the recommendations has been addressed.
In 2012 the convention elected by acclamation Fred Luter of New Orleans as its first black president to a standing ovation.
As of November 2014, at least 24 state Baptist conventions that cooperate with the SBC had elected non-Anglos as their presidents.
More than 10,000 of the SBC’s 50,500 churches and church-type missions are non-Anglo, comprised of a broad diversity of racial and ethnic members. About 15 percent of presidential appointments to committees were from non-Anglo ethnic and racial groups over the past two years, and nearly 100 members of racial and ethnic minority groups have served in SBC leadership positions as elected officers, entity trustees and staff members and seminary faculty, according to data compiled by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
About 400 North American Mission Board missionaries identify themselves as non-Anglo. Approximately half of SBC church plants are classified as non-Anglo, and nearly 15 percent of churches registered to assist in the Send North America church planting emphasis are from various racial and ethnic subsets of American culture.
SBC presidents like W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, and Owen Cooper, a layman from Mississippi, experienced remarkable episodes of personal repentance from racist beliefs during the latter half of the 20th century.
All six SBC seminaries accepted black students before doing so was required by law. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, both admitted black students in the 1940s, with Garland Offutt becoming the first black graduate of any SBC seminary in 1944 when Southern awarded him a master of theology degree.
Martin Luther King Jr. preached in Southern Seminary chapel in 1961 to a warm reception by faculty and students – despite objections from some Southern Baptists that elicited an apology from trustees at the time for “any offense caused by the visit of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to the campus of the Seminary.”
In 1965, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary students and faculty donated funds to help a student travel from the seminary’s California campus to a civil rights march in Selma, Ala. The student body also sent pro-civil rights telegrams to King and Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
There have been missteps along the way, as when an SBC president in the 1980s said without accompanying theological clarification that God does not hear the prayers of Jews and when a convention leader apologized for comments that harmed “specific individuals, the cause of racial reconciliation, and the gospel of Jesus Christ” following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Still, Southern Baptists’ record of repentance, change and inclusion over the past several decades is undeniable evidence that “through the cross,” Jesus Christ has killed “the hostility” between races and “broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16). With this record buttressing their preaching, Southern Baptists are in a unique position to tell hurting Americans in Ferguson and elsewhere that trusting Christ as Lord and Savior will allow them to be reconciled not only to God but to one another as well.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP editor Art Toalston contributed to this article.)