June 19th, 2012
02:47 PM ET

Southern Baptists elect first black president

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Baptist • Belief • United States

soundoff (379 Responses)
  1. dailybhaskar

    Nice post.Hi i have read your topic.I remember being asked by a lovely Swiss young man if I believed in God.this is an informative and interesting post for I think it is very useful and knowledgeable. for more detail visit@http://www.daily.bhaskar.com

    February 3, 2014 at 8:12 am |
  2. Rhany

    id save my allowance for a week or two or three and use it to buy lunch/dinner for the fmialy during his birthday and other special occassions like ofcourse, father's day . it was a big deal for me since i was still in GS and hs at that time and my allowance isnt that big either. so what i usually do is i buy a stick of bbq or 2 pcs of siomai and half a cup of from the school cafe and that’s what ill eat while im saving my allowance:)

    November 10, 2012 at 3:03 am |
  3. bismarket

    How long before the Anti-Gay apology & the 1st OPENLY (Because it's probably already happened) Gay leader? Oh & the Guy/Girl/Other who keeps posting "Prayer changes things" is an obvious troll & i can prove Prayer doesn't work as the same spam keeps appearing, lol. Peace.

    June 24, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  4. ElreyJones

    Support of segregationist policies? Blacks live like animals. There are millions of white people whose children were ruined in integregrated oppressive anti-white schools. There were no moral codes, violence, taunting, and harrassment against them by black students. Many whites self segregate to protect their most prized possession – their children. Integration has proven out to be what the "segregationists" said it would be – a failed endeavour.

    June 22, 2012 at 6:04 am |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    June 21, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      June 22, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Vivek

      see...i recently moved to Louisville, where poplee dodge raindrops and snowflakes while driving, and while we got MERE inches of snow, they're freaking out like they had to shovel for nine hours to get to the store.it's insane. and i'm with lusty reader. every time i hear the word blizzard i think of LIW's The Long Winter where Pa had to go out and save the cows who's own breath froze around their face. ew.

      November 10, 2012 at 2:22 am |
  6. ms jackson

    Whohoo! The Blind Greeding the Dumb, part 2012

    June 21, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  7. kindness

    This is my experience... Thank you.

    MY personal testimony.
    A thought to consider without an ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Follow me".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing (to change) The Holy spirit (within) will convict you beyond what you think you can do by yourself. Grace is given to those who renounce the world. That are" in" the world but not "of " the world.

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome and It's just between you and Jesus

    my testimony

    Romans 10:9

    "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved

    June 21, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • bismarket

      NOPE, sorry but it just sounds like a lot of (Well written) Mumbo-Jumbo. It's you brain playing tricks on you, i've read Corinthians & the rest of "That old book" several times & find NOTHING worthwhile in it, not really. Now YOU watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiPR74AiGdU with the same dispassion you expect from me. Peace

      June 24, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  8. hippypoet

    Awakened Desire

    I dream of a night where i can blink eye and put out the light.
    It's obvious to me now to get to sleep is held by slits allow.
    When it came time for shut-eye and goodbye.
    My spirit was set free for great depravity.
    I bit my lip and clenched my fist,
    But these tainted desires, these thoughts persist.
    At the reach of each arm lay a tangible temptation.
    Through the act of sin i find i love this abomination.
    I caress her legs and run my fingers down her skin.
    The warmth of her body, like a blanket I wrap myself in.
    I @ssume her throne and bathe in her power.
    I rock her earth and debase her flower.
    Shy the sigh and give to scream instead.
    Don't hold back, Lay with three in the artists bed.
    One for me and one for you,
    Lets find out what an extra four lips can do.
    You have your toy and I have mine.
    How fast can you make those eyes shine?
    I make you my own and show you my cure.
    You'll never walk right again, that you can be sure.
    So I pull out and set my loin free.
    I see in friends eye desire my specter be.
    She charges hell's inferno and makes me her own.
    But little does this wretch know there is no room for her on my throne.
    Know if others fire burns in my eye, there will be no sleep for me.
    For I find I have a grave gift of deplorable debauchery.

    June 20, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • Prathamesh

      Hi Shyne,I didn't so much fade away as just got extremely busy. I'm now mhntos behind in things that I mean to do, including answering email, but although busy things are going well.Also glad that your still enjoying the thoughts, even though they've been gone for a while.I haven't had the chance to read any of the Dark Tower books, though probably because when I was first a King fan, they were next to impossible to find/read. I was intrigued enough by references in Talisman' and Hearts In Atlantis' that I've considered picking them up more than once. So perhaps it's time to check them out. (or listen to them, I'm really getting hooked on Audible.com content).

      November 8, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  9. Peggy Munro

    @ A dose of reality-

    Thank you for a wonderful post. There is a lot of truth in what you say and intelligence in how you say it. I printed it and have read it at least three times and plan to share it with my friends and family. It is true that if one were to examine the lives of Christians, they may be turned off from God altogether. Just imagine attending a church to find out that members of the KKK are sitting in the front row singing hymns as though they themselves wrote the words.
    I remember being asked by a lovely Swiss young man if I believed in God. I asked him why the question. He explained the he did not. I told him I did. He asked me why. I answered. He then asked me if I thought he should believe too. I told him that it was up to him but that if he chose to, he must decide which god to believe in, as there are many to choose from. He then asked me which ones I believed in. I told him I find them all to be similar but that I best relate to one and Jesus. The conversation ended and was never raised again, even though he lived in my home for three more months.
    It is good to question everything. For instance, I question that man actually landed on the moon or any other planet for that matter. I do not know for sure where they actually went but I take their word as possibly true. I don’t quite know much for sure but I do know that I choose to believe in God because my God exists in ways that are very clear to me but I have little interest in proving that to others. We must be able to have pragmatic conversations about God. Please keep expressing your thoughts. Everyone should have a clear idea as to why they believe/not believe in God.

    June 20, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  10. Colin

    First the KKK gets politically correct, now the Southern Baptists. Who's next, American Nazis?

    June 20, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • ms jackson

      There's nothing politically, socially or intellectually correct about Southern Baptists.

      June 21, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.