June 19th, 2012
02:47 PM ET
By Becky Perlow, CNN
(CNN) – More than 160 years after its founding as a pro-slavery church, the Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday elected a black pastor for the first time to lead the denomination.
The election of the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. of New Orleans comes 17 years after Southern Baptist leaders apologized for the denomination's onetime support of white supremacist and segregationist policies.
It also cements years of effort by the church to overcome that divisive heritage.
"Just as some have said that in America race is the original sin, that certainly has been the case among the Southern Baptists," said Curtis Freeman, the director of Duke University's Baptist House of Studies. "It's something that the convention has never been quite able to [get] beyond."
Luter, 55, was unopposed in the election, which occurred Tuesday afternoon at the denomination's annual meeting in New Orleans.
He comes to the presidency after serving one term as vice president of the 16 million member organization, the second-largest denomination in the United States - behind only the Catholic Church. He will replace the Rev. Bryant Wright, the senior pastor at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia.
In February, Luter told the Baptist Press that he felt called to help solve the church's divisive racial heritage.
"It was not on my bucket list, so to speak, but I think God ordained this because of the fact that what we're dealing with right now through the convention is trying to make the convention diverse," Luter said. "I think this will speak not only to our convention but to our country and throughout the world that this convention is serious about reaching all people."
The Southern Baptist Convention was founded by Southern slaveholders in 1845 after Northern Baptists opposed their desire to serve as missionaries. In recent years, the church has tried to shed that racist imprint, reaching out to minorities as both members and members of its clergy.
In a watershed moment in 1995, during its 150th anniversary, the church issued a formal apology for its onetime support of slavery.
Along with Luter's long journey to tear down the racial walls that plague his denomination, blacks have taken over the reigns of some state Baptist organizations while the church has encouraged racially diverse congregations to reach out to one another through missionary work.
In May, Luter told PBS that it is time to close the books on what the church once represented.
"I have a past, you have a past, everybody has a past," he told PBS. "This convention, unfortunately, has a past that we're trying to move forward from, and that's how I look at it. There was apology made, and so it's now time to move on."
Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a contributing editor at the online magazine Religion Dispatches said Luter's election was "inevitable."
"I mean, it's historic in one sense, but in another sense, it's pretty much par for the course because they were going after this all this time. They knew they had to come into the 20th, 21st century," said Butler.
Luter began as a street preacher in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward who later built the struggling Franklin Avenue Baptist Church from 65 members to more than 8,000 congregants.
He is known for delivering sermons at breakneck speed, said Franklin Avenue church administrator Larry Johnson.
"When you're preaching on the street, you have to be quick to get the attention of the people that are passing by 'cause if you talk slow, then the people just don't get the message," Johnson said.
He has refused to build barriers between himself and parishioners as have some pastors of large churches, and that has endeared him to members, Johnson said.
"He gives of himself to his congregation, and we love him for that. There's no fake about him. He's totally genuine."
Freeman said that Luter's first moves as president will likely be to find ways to bring the racially divided church together in hopes of increasing member loyalty, although this has proved difficult in recent months.
Following the February killing of African-American teen-ager Trayvon Martin by a Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida, and the racial debates that followed, the president of the SBC's ethnic and religious liberty commission chastised President Barack Obama for taking advantage of the situation.
"The president's aides claim he was showing compassion for the victim's family. In reality, he poured gasoline on the racialist fires," Richard Land said at the time.
Critics were outraged at Land's comments, which he later retracted and apologized for to the community.
Luter's election could help change the entire ethos of the denomination, including a potential increase in minority members, Freeman said.
"Anybody who thinks this is just a kind of a show to try to say, 'Well, it's time. We have a black president of the United States, we might as well have a black president of the Southern Baptists [will be] in for a surprise because Fred Luter is a man of conviction, a man who's not just going do what other people are suggesting," he said.
Among other powers, Luter will hold authority to appoint the nominating committee that will choose the denomination's governing board, Freeman said.
"If Fred Luter's leadership in the Southern Baptist could bring at least a step toward better relations between black and white Baptists in the South, then we would all be deeply in his debt," Freeman said.
The church's membership has declined in recent years, according to an annual profile gathered by LifeWay, a resource arm of SBC.
From 2010 to 2011, although the church gained additional churches, it lost almost 160,000, or about 1%, of its members.
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