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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. Athiest Bob

    Unless he's gay.... The NAACP should expel him since they hate God these days

    June 19, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      Evidence shows Jesus was most likely g a y.

      June 19, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  2. davecu

    I hope this unifier does a better job than Barry, the great divider!

    God be with you!

    June 19, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  3. Good News!

    About time! It has never been about the color of someone's skin in God's Kingdom ~ it's about who people are spiritually and what exists on the inside which matters. Everything else is pretty much irrelevant.

    June 19, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  4. Beam

    Great news! I am very glad to hear this. 🙂

    June 19, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  5. Lane Morrison

    It is often said in the South (if not in other areas of the country), that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. Here's hoping that Reverend Luter can help make some progress in this structural divide between white and black churches. It is and will be a tough job, but I'm cheering for him 100%. Seems like just the man to do it.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  6. WillieLove

    make sure he's not being used by the white SBC church. SBC has the highest divorce rate among all churches, and among non christian cults like the RCC, mormons, and JWitness. They need to apologize to every culture on this land in america. they have so many rich people who don't take the Bible seriously.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • davecu

      WHAT?

      June 19, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  7. Evelyn Connaway

    It's about time. All the other Southern Baptist of my race have been a bunch of hypocrites. I laugh about Criswell. A group of
    friends and I used to go to the Elk's Club on Greenville Avenue in Dallas, TX, as a friend played the piano with a small group. He used to play with one of the Dorsey's in the 40's & 50"s. Criswell had two sisters and they were there every friday night, doing the things their brother Rev. Criswell preached against in those days, dancing and drinking some strong drink. Half of the Baptist I know are a bunch of hypocrites and I have lots in my family. I can remember when a black person couldn't come into the church. Christians, not in my books, but that doesn't matter, God is the only Judge.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • WillieLove

      Yea, i hear ya. I use to work at a SBC camp in Glorieta conference center in New Mexico. half the college kids were partying with the locals in Pecos. Most of them were passed out the next morning in the dorm that summer. They dont take the bible seriously. They don't believe the bible to be God's words..They are the same as the RCC ....

      June 19, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  8. Recondo101

    What place dos this have in any real reporting:

    "after its founding as a pro-slavery church"

    Really? Was the Baptist Church founded as a pro slavery church? No it was not. No more than the Democratic Party was founded as a Pro Slavery Party. Remember, Lincoln was not a Democrat, he was a Republican. So is it the Democrats who are pro slavery? Where do you folks at CNN get these reporters anyway? Reminds me of the news makers over at NBC, what a disgrace.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      Sorry, but the Southern Baptists, like many of the Private "White Flight Schools" in the South were formed as a response to some issue relating to African American rights. They were and continue to be in many cases in the South, very anti African American. It has been a part of their unwritten heritage, and trust me I know.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Jamie

      At no point does this article say anything about the whole baptist religion as a whole but only Southern Baptist Convention which is one group within the baptist religion. Read the full article before you start complaining!

      June 19, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Tijah

      @thecollegeadmissionsguru you are so right. I live in Fayetteville, AR (by default) lol...and the Southern Baptist have not changed a bit. In the small towns they have there ways and are so far behind it's insane...the bigger more diverse churches should really reach out to the one in the small towns....

      June 19, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  9. smithdp

    Progress? Or just political cover for a history of racism? Hard to know.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  10. Sanity

    What next? The Democrats nominate a real black presidential candidate?

    June 19, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • John _Atlanta GA

      Next is the republicans get over having a black president.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      Nope, I think next the Republicans are going to nominate a Ken Doll with an empty head for president.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  11. Dee

    This is a major change folks, major change.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      I was married to a Southern Baptist Minister's daughter for 26 years, trust me this is cosmetic at BEST! Go to states like South Carolina and to the rural Southern Baptist Churches and see if African Americans are welcome.... good luck with that.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  12. GP

    It is such a shame that in this day and age our great country still has to identify people by their color and/or race. Identification and achievement should be color blind.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Dee

      As long as people look at themselves that way, nothing will change. The next generation will do better,.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  13. Dan

    I suspect we'll see a group of Baptists soon who demand to see his birth certificate. And then when they see it, they'll say it's a fake.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  14. Bob

    "Remember that? The Divine Plan. Long time ago, God made a Divine Plan. Gave it a lot of thought, decided it was a good plan, put it into practice. And for billions and billions of years, the Divine Plan has been doing just fine. Now, you come along, and pray for something. Well suppose the thing you want isn't in God's Divine Plan? What do you want Him to do? Change His plan? Just for you? Doesn't it seem a little arrogant? It's a Divine Plan. What's the use of being God if every run-down shmuck with a two-dollar prayerbook can come along and f*** up Your Plan?" – G Carlin

    June 19, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • vijay

      made my day!

      June 19, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  15. Bob

    Yeah, 40 years too late, sorry Baptists. If you want to impress now, elect a LBGT, then I'll really believe you are all sorry for being such hateful people for so many years.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • clifthethird

      Being black is not a sin, being gay is, there is a difference.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Bob

      So why on earth would they found an anti-black church in the first place? Speaking of 'sin', gluttony is a sin, as is eating pork. (you don't get to pick and choose if you want to be a literalist, sorry) I bet half that congregation in the picture is more of a 'sinner' than most gays.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  16. DC

    CNN, home to nihilist trolls all over the world...

    June 19, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      pretty much, I agree

      June 19, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      "walking a path of self destruction
      not affected by the repercussions
      lady on the billboard offer me a drink
      said not right now i need time to think
      nihilistic feelings are moving
      if i try real hard i'll see right through them"
      – Rancid

      June 19, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  17. HeavenSent

    How nice they voted for a ni ger prez.

    Amen.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      Very Christian of you

      June 19, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • non-believers have killed millions upon millions

      very atheist of you

      June 19, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      Because I don't believe in your delusional babblling Jesus doesn't mean I am an Atheist. lol

      June 19, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • zacharye

      Deep down in everyone there is a part of you that can think rationaly. This rational part of your brain is trying to help you. everytime you talk about demons and angels, bigfoots and toothfairies, your rational thought center is screaming at you that this is all make believe. Whipe away your emotional brainwashing and see the world for what it is, all natural.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • non-believers have killed millions upon millions

      not talking to you

      June 19, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      Oh I think you were

      June 19, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • non-believers have killed millions upon millions

      nope actually i was talking to the fake heavensent who is most likely an atheist pretending to be a Christian

      June 19, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      Fake? From what I have seen that could be her. Never seen somebody so judgemental and paranoid in my life. LOL That post is not a far stretch from her personality.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      Wow do you pray with that mind? Nice show of your Christian Pride!

      To the one who claims that atheists are responsible for so many deaths: PROVE IT! I on the other hand am ready to defend my statement that Christianity has killed literally billions of people in the world. Care to debate it?

      June 19, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • non-believers have killed millions upon millions

      and yet in the past century alone atheists indeed have killed the most?

      June 19, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      Again, PROVE IT... what is your evidence? Name names, give dates, etc...

      June 19, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • A. Goodwin

      Athiests kill? Do you even realize that most wars are based on religious beliefs? You're pretty ignorant.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • non-believers have killed millions upon millions

      Mao and Stalin just to name a few.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      Atheists do not deny contraception to African Nations where the AIDS epidemic is rampant! Atheists were not responsible for the deaths of nearly four billion humans in Europe alone during the Dark Ages! Try selling your trash talk to the indegenous people of the Americas and Australia, just to name two. Let's discuss the idea and practice of slavery of Africans in the US, backed up, I might add by your Bible and the Christian church. Want More?

      June 19, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      Stalin was a Protestant Christian. Hitler was Catholic/Christian. Shall we go on?

      June 19, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      Neither Mao nor Stalin killed anyone because they were atheists, they were atheists (which is a matter of debate) who happened to kill people.

      EVERY person in prison who has killed someone is a confessed Christian, none go to Jail and say, "I've decided to turn away from Jesus."

      June 19, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Dan

      You sound like a big white ni ger. Must be a slow day in the trailer park today, huh? Or is your cousin out on a date with somebody else today?

      June 19, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • non-believers have killed millions upon millions

      they were religious eh? lies.If they were they couldnt banned religion from their country.

      current nation like this? North Korea

      June 19, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      Each banned religion for a logical reason. Religion has traditionally been the cause of social upheaval. It is the opiate of the masses, I do believe.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • non-believers have killed millions upon millions

      you proved me right

      atheists killed the most

      dont lie

      June 19, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      And again.............................>>>>Stalin was a Protestant Christian. Hitler was Catholic/Christian. If Prison is a reflection of our society and most are Christian in prison...that tells a lot about Christians.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      Let me ask you a question, then. Have you EVER read a single book on the history of religions of the world? Do you understand anything at all about how the human psyche works and why ancient men created religion in the first place? Or, do you like so many, simply spout off the rhetoric you are taught in church. Do you believe the world is 6,000 years old?

      June 19, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Most morals come from religion.Atheists lie

      DO YOU UNDERSTAND it was caused by humans right?

      big logic fail

      June 19, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      Wow you have such an eloquent way with the English(?) Language. Your point is well taken, taken over to the toilet and flushed where it belongs.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      you proved me right

      atheists killed the most

      dont lie

      --–

      Is this HeavenSent? You have the amazing ability to ignore reality around you. lol For starters In the US Christians kill the most and commit the most crimes. You do realize this.???? lol

      June 19, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Most morals come from religion.Atheists lie

      not religion.man kills.The book doesnt

      June 19, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      You know, it's a lot like arguing with your own a.s.s. hole... all you will ever get is a lot of stinky hot air and and a pile of cr..ap

      June 19, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      @Morals – Please give me ONE moral that comes from religion that could come from NO other source? Just one.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      Most morals come from religion.Atheists lie

      not religion.man kills.The book doesnt

      >
      First sentence has nothing to do with what we are talking about and simply not true. So you are saying the "belief" does not kill, rather the man. Stop and think about what you are saying. lol

      June 19, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Most morals come from religion.Atheists lie

      you like the blame religion because it ticks people off.

      you atheists are pathetic

      June 19, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      Morals come from man.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      You must be an atheist trying to pose as a Christian, lol good one

      June 19, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      @Jesus loves A n a l, you are correct. Morals come for man and he uses "Morals" as a way to define and often protect his society. That is why the concept of Morals differ from one society to another. The problem is the Faith Heads don't have the intellect to read or think outside of the nonsense they learn in church. It's sad actually.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      Considering most people that commit crimes in USA are Christian, one could be led to believe that Christianity is in fact a danger to our society.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      Look at the divorce rates...and guess what...most are Christian. Huh?????????

      June 19, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      Lets look at vehicle fatalities/DUI's etc.......and guess what...most are Christian... they are even a danger in our daily lives.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      Christians represent majority of our immoral acts and criminal activity in our country. It does not appear Christianity is the answer to our woes. In fact the evidence shows Christianity perpetuates ill behavior and criminal activity in our country. Christ is clearly not the answer.

      June 19, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Phony heavensent, keep your perverted filth under your own blog ... coward.

      June 19, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      Calling BS
      Not a phoney in fact I have seen your other posts. You are a judgemental, paranoid, skitzo ego maniac. GET HELP

      June 19, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Bet

      Why HeavyStench, what's the matter? Didn't your soothing spa make you all sweet and mellow? Does your god teach using the n-word in the bible?

      Be sure to ask me about the pea soup again. Like I give a sh!t what a bigot who hides behind a bible thinks of me.

      June 19, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      So says the disgusting heathen.

      Amen.

      June 19, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Sorry black people are what they are in the bible. They are to serve not lead.

      Amen.

      June 19, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • Bet

      HeavyStench, did someone put pea soup in your soothing spa?

      June 19, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
  18. Doc Vestibule

    When the American south was forced to rescind Jim Crow laws and accept racial integration, it was Baptists who most strongly opposed equality.
    Wallie Criswell, an extremely popular and influential Southern Baptist Minister famously said "Let them integrate! Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up."
    Scarcely half a century later, the zeitgeist has shifted so radically that such open racism is considered abhorrent to the very same Christian sect that spouted scripture to justify insti.tutionalized bigotry.
    I fervently hope that the prevailing Baptist condemnation of ho.mose.xuality will soon be viewed with the same sense of shame that the memory of segregation elicits.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  19. Atheism is a religion

    i figured it out! Atheism is actually a religion!

    the case has been closed folks!

    June 19, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Huebert

      I figured it out! You are an instigating troll!

      Back to your bridge!

      June 19, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Atheism is a religion

      me? no way!

      June 19, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      WRONG again troll..... case reopened!

      June 19, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • non-believers have killed millions upon millions

      its a religion

      the case is closed.Sorry you lost

      June 19, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Kyle Dasan

      Atheism is a religion like Bald is a hair color...

      June 19, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • QS

      Typical religious mindset – anybody who thinks and believes differently must be made to seem just like them anyway. Seems it's the only way they can even relate to any other human anymore.

      June 19, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Jesus Loves A N A L

      Sorry bud you lost before you even tried to think.

      Christians represent majority of our immoral acts and criminal activity in our country. It does not appear Christianity is the answer to our woes. In fact the evidence shows Christianity perpetuates ill behavior and criminal activity in our country. Christ is clearly not the answer.

      June 19, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  20. Bet

    It's about time they put some action behind their words. Now if they'll just shut up about GLBT marriage.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • clifthethird

      Being black and being gay are two very different things. Being black is not a sin, being gay is.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • WillieLove

      cannot change what the God of the bible feels about sodmite marriage.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • QS

      I was thinking the exact same thing! Ahh, but it's all very easily explainable according to the other responses to your post....sin, was it?

      Leave it to bigoted religious folk to claim they've realized their mistake from persecuting one group, while in the same breath claiming their pride in persecuting another.

      June 19, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Bet

      You're born black. You're born gay. You're born hetero. You're born caucasian. It's not a choice either way.

      I don't expect religious bigots to agree. Fifty years ago your grandaddy was probably saying blacks are born inferior and used the bible to support it. You've just switched your bigotry to a new group.

      June 19, 2012 at 7:33 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.