SBC renounces racist past – Southern Baptist Convention

THE SOUTHERN Baptist Convention voted June 20 to adopt a resolution renouncing its racist roots and apologizing for its past defense of slavery. On its opening day the convention altered its planned order of business in order to consider the statement of repudiation and repentance, prior to a celebration of the SBC’s 150th anniversary the same evening. More than 20,000 Southern Baptists registered for the June 20-22 meeting at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.

The resolution declared that messengers, as SBC delegates are called, “unwaveringly denounce racism, in all its forms, as deplorable sin” and “lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest.” It offered an apology to all African-Americans for “condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime” and repentance for “racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously.” Although Southern Baptists have condemned racism in the past, this was the first time the predominantly white convention had dealt specifically with the issue of slavery.

The statement sought forgiveness “from our African-American brothers and sisters” and pledged to “eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry.” The SBC was founded in 1845 in Augusta, Georgia, by Baptists in the South seceding from the national Triennial Convention of Baptists after that body decreed it would not appoint slaveholders as missionaries. Currently about 500,000 members of the 15.6-million-member denomination are African-Americans and another 300,000 are ethnic minorities. Since 1980 most of the growth in Southern Baptist churches has been among racial and ethnic minorities. The racism resolution marked the denomination’s first formal acknowledgment that racism played a role in its founding.

The resolution acknowledges that because of the SBC’s links to slavery, “our relationship to African-Americans has been hindered from the beginning,” and that in more recent history Southern Baptists “failed in many cases to support and in some cases opposed legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans.” Many Southern Baptist congregations have “intentionally and/or unintentionally excluded” blacks from worship, the resolution added.

Messengers debated the resolution only briefly before voting overwhelmingly in favor of it. Gary Frost, SBC second vice-president and the first African-American to serve as an SBC officer, urged messengers to adopt the resolution. “Our nation is being ripped apart by hatred,” Frost said. “I believe it’s up to the church of Jesus Christ to begin the process of true reconciliation.”

Three messengers spoke against the resolution. Two said it was inappropriate to apologize only to African-Americans for acts of racism. The third, Carey Kimbrell of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said the resolution imposed too broad a condemnation on the “great men who founded this convention.” He proposed that the resolution be referred to the SBC Historical Commission for more study.

After the vote SBC President James B. Henry remarked, “The body has spoken clearly and definitively on this very important issue.” Henry then embraced Frost. “On behalf of my black brothers and sisters, we accept your apology and we extend to you our forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ,” Frost responded. “We pray that the genuineness of your repentance will be demonstrated in your attitude and your action.”

The resolution emerged from a grass-roots movement begun last year. A group of urban directors of missions tried to place a resolution before last year’s convention but failed. A number of Baptist state conventions passed statements of repentance last fall. In May the SBC Historical Commission adopted a “Declaration of Repentance and Rededication,” acknowledging the sin of racism.

During the Atlanta meeting the SBC also approved a massive overhaul of the denomination intended to “streamline the structure and to maximize the ministry.” The reorganization plan was approved 9,950-to-5,357 in a ballot vote. The first since 1959, the reorganization commits the SBC to reduce the number of denominational agencies from 19 to 12. It includes a first-ever overarching mission statement and arranges the convention’s work under five broad ministry groupings–missions, church enrichment, facilitating ministries, theological education and Christian ethics/religious liberty. It combines the resources of three existing entities–the Home Mission Board, the Brotherhood Commission and the Radio and Television Commission–into the North American Mission Board, an agency to be based at the HMB’s new facility in suburban Atlanta. The work of the SBC’s other mission agency, the Foreign Mission Board, will continue basically unchanged, though it will be renamed the International Mission Board.

In other actions messengers:

* Added a statement to the restructuring plan noting that the SBC “welcomes the continued role of WMU [Woman’s Missionary Union, a 107-year-old auxiliary] in supporting missions.” The amendment helped defuse controversy over the report, which critics said was intended to snub the WMU. Some SBC fundamentalists have expressed displeasure with the WMU’s continued friendly relationship with more moderate Baptist groups such as the Atlanta-based Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Both the blue-ribbon committee which developed the restructuring recommendation and the SBC Executive Committee which brought it to messengers had declined to amend the report to affirm the WMU’s role in missions support.

* Adopted a resolution opposing the confirmation of U.S. surgeon general nominee Henry Foster. In doing so it ignored a warning by one messenger that the statement “could be perceived as racist,” since Foster is an African-American. Gary Frost told reporters that race is not the issue in the convention’s opposition to Foster. “There’s a clear distinction between racial issues and moral issues,” Frost said.

* Voted in favor of a resolution calling on Congress to adopt a constitutional amendment to protect religious exercises, including voluntary prayer and religious speech by public school students.

In the convention’s closing address evangelist Billy Graham, the SBC’s best-known preacher, praised the action on racism and urged his fellow Baptists to “pull down the barriers which divide.” He also remarked, “Thank God that you put your arms around the WMU.”

Graham’s presence electrified the gathering. Participants interrupted a hymn to give Graham a standing ovation as he stepped onto the convention platform several minutes after he was scheduled to arrive. Graham, who has preached at the SBC 15 times since 1951, recently was hospitalized in Toronto due to gastrointestinal bleeding. Despite his illness, Graham assured SBC President Henry he would address the convention “if it’s the last breath I’ve got.”

COPYRIGHT 1995 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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