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On June 19, 2012, the Reverend Fred Luter was elected as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination. In many respects, his election was unremarkable: The convention was held in his hometown of New Orleans, where he is the pastor of the largest Baptist congregation in Louisiana. After Hurricane Katrina, his church became a model of renewal for the city. He is a visionary pastor, a charismatic preacher, and a skilled leader in Southern Baptist affairs, who has preached forcefully on the sanctity of life, the importance of traditional marriage, and religious freedom while leading a reformist ministry on behalf of the poor, the weak, and the marginalized.

And, as he likes to point out, his church is in the “hood.” Fred Luter is an African American—an African American who is the fifty-eighth president in succession to William B. Johnson, a slave owner who while still serving as president of the SBC purchased a fifty-year-old female slave named Grace. Johnson was a distinguished pastor, a gentleman theologian, respected in both the North and the South, but when mission leaders in the North refused to appoint slaveholders as missionaries, he sided with his fellow Southerners and in 1845 helped to form the Southern Baptist Convention.

In his “Address to the Public” defending the division, Johnson explained that Northern and Southern Baptists differed in no article of the faith. Despite aspersions cast by “ultra-Northern brethren,” the rupture did not extend to “foundation principles.” But as it turned out, and despite Johnson’s protestations to the contrary, slavery could not be a second-tier issue when it came to Christian fellowship.

The religious question was: Is slavery, in all circumstances, sinful? Most Baptists in the South did not think so. Some of their best minds published elaborate biblical arguments to explain why not. What Lincoln would say of the nation was also true of the denomination: It could not long endure half-slave and half-free.

It is important to recognize that Johnson and his peers of the time represented the best, not the worst, of Southern culture and religion. To fail to see this is to miss the tragic element in American history. Their concern for missionary endeavor was genuine, extending to “the four millions of half-stifled Red Men, our neighbors,” as well as to “the sons of Ethiopia among us, stretching forth their hands of supplication for the Gospel.” But the racism at the core of their spirituality had corroded their conscience, and they were blind to the most pressing moral issue of their time. As Blaise Pascal once observed, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

There is a tortuous and uneven trail leading from Billy to Fred. That path wends its way through the establishment of segregation and the rise of indigenous black-church movements after the Civil War when, for the most part, white Baptists in the South were silent, or at least acquiescent, in the legacy of the Lost Cause as it related to African Americans. Despite occasional SBC resolutions on lynching or the Ku Klux Klan, there was little protest against rampant bigotry or the fictitious policy of “separate but equal.”

Beginning at its founding meeting in 1845, the SBC has passed thirty-one resolutions on race. In 1845, the convention called for “the religious instruction of our colored population,” and four years later it encouraged pastors to inform the slaves in their congregations about the SBC’s mission work in Africa. In 1869, a committee reported on “Indian, German, and colored missions.”

Such outreach doubtless represented genuine concern and had some good effect, but it also reinforced the sacralizing of Southern apartheid, which made 11 a.m. on Sunday the most segregated hour of the week long before Martin Luther King Jr. called it that. In this era, white Baptist leaders would occasionally visit black churches, but traffic in the opposite direction was strictly taboo. Lynching was finally condemned by the SBC in 1933. A resolution denouncing the racial terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan was passed only in 1982.

But there were also SBC leaders who defied racism long before the Convention officially did. One of these was Victor I. Masters, a high official on the Convention’s Home Mission Board, who wrote in 1915: “The white man cannot go to heaven, while he leaves the black to journey toward the pit.” Men and women should know “that they cannot really follow Jesus, if they practice injustice toward Negroes. A church member who advocates or winks at lynchings or condones devices for cheating or in the courts imposing upon the least of these, is not fit to be in a church.”

After World War II, ethics leaders such as T. B. Maston and Foy Valentine (who had spent time with Clarence Jordan at Koinonia Farm) emerged as prophets of racial justice when such views were not popular in the SBC. Also pivotal in bringing about a changed ethos were Billy Graham’s crusades, which he integrated in the 1950s, and the turnaround of Baptist icon W. A. Criswell, who in 1968 publicly repudiated his fiery segregationist past. Perhaps even more important is the growing number of African-American and other ethnic congregations affiliated with the SBC—reckoned now at 20 percent of the Convention’s sixteen million members, up from 5 percent just two decades ago.

In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the Convention’s founding, the messengers denounced racism in all its forms as deplorable sin. They condemned not only the horrible evil of slavery in the past but contemporary racism, both individual and systemic. They also asked for forgiveness “from our African-American brothers and sisters” and pledged to “eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry.” What was new here was the recognition of the residual and long-term effects of slavery and the need for corporate as well as individual repentance.

Yet the question of whether one could repent for and forgive the past was hotly debated. “I have never owned slaves!” was a common refrain. One person argued that the only ones who should apologize to African Americans were those whose genealogy proved that they had slave owners among their ancestors. Others worried about defaming the Convention’s founders—like William B. Johnson. When the arguments were finished, though, the resolution was passed by 90 percent of the 20,000 messengers who gathered in Atlanta that year.

It is rare that any candidate for president of the Southern Baptist Convention is elected without opposition on the first ballot, as Luter was this summer. In part, this represents his proven leadership, winning personality, and preaching skills. But it demonstrates something more, I believe, about both demographics and theology.

The old Southern Baptist Zion, centered in the red states of the Confederacy, is no longer bound by geography or demography. On any given Sunday in any major American city, from Boston to San Diego, one can find Southern Baptist congregations, some of them mini-megachurches, representing diverse ethnic and cultural traditions. They may not exactly “do” church in the old Southern way, but they are glad to be affiliated with the Convention because they like its global mission work, educational resources, and conservative biblical theology. Luter’s election confirms and speeds up a process already well underway.

Some critics argue that Luter’s election, while historic, is largely symbolic. But this view underrates the power of persuasive proclamation—preaching has sacramental virtue for Baptists. This view also discounts the almost uninhibited power of the president to appoint, nominate, and delegate the next generation’s leaders. The so-called “conservative takeover” was brought about precisely through the exercise of these powers. It remains to be seen how Fred Luter will use his authority, but he has an opportunity to set in motion a revolution of reconciliation that could not have been imagined a generation ago.

But one election doth not a reformation make. There are still embarrassing episodes to confront, such as the Baptist congregation in Mississippi that just a few months ago refused to allow an African-American couple to be married in its church. There is also the plateauing and slight decline in baptism and membership statistics, nothing comparable to the mainlines but troubling nonetheless for a denomination often reminded that there is a book in the Bible called “Numbers.”

For Baptists, the symbol of a new life transformed by Jesus Christ is baptism by total immersion, the complete plunging of a repentant sinner under water. If Fred Luter’s election is to be about more than “sociology with a little Jesus sprinkled on top,” as Tony Evans puts it, then baptism, and the repentance it signifies, must be claimed as a lifelong process of renewal leading to both personal and corporate transformation. We must ever guard against what Schopenhauer called “an unscrupulous optimism.” But in a denominational culture fraught with sin and shadows, this is a season to rise above cynicism and reach for hope.

As it happens, I myself was a messenger from my local congregation at the Southern Baptist Convention’s meeting in New Orleans this summer. At the time of the presidential election, I was seated next to noted African-American scholar and preacher Robert Smith Jr. When we lifted our ballots to elect a successor to William B. Johnson, Robert Smith leaned over and whispered, in the words of the old spiritual, “It’s a mighty long journey, but we’re on the way.”

Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School and chairman of the board of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, as well as a member of First Things advisory council. With Robert Smith, he edited A Mighty Long Journey: Reflections on Racial Reconciliation.

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