INDIANAPOLIS, June 12 (BP)–Citing progress in minority representation and optimism towards racial inclusiveness, speakers at the annual African American Southern Baptist History Project June 12 said God is continuing to work among Southern Baptists.
Chronicling the growth of racial inclusiveness in the 16-million-member denomination, several speakers pointed to new growth since Southern Baptists have proactively sought change. The meeting at Gabriel Missionary Baptist Church was held prior to the Southern Baptist Convention’s June 15-16 annual meeting in Indianapolis.
“The SBC’s racial image is becoming more Christian as churches increasingly reflect the values of Christ toward other people groups,” said Sid Smith, director of the Florida Baptist Convention’s African American ministries division, during his presentation on “Southern Baptists Reaching African Americans,” an article from Volume II of The Journal of African American Southern Baptist History, which was released at the history gathering.
“The absence of major backlash along with increased acceptance of minorities in mainline leadership are significant factors pointing to the dawning of a bright day of progress,” Smith continued. “The modern SBC is bigger, better and more Christian because of embracing inclusiveness…. As the maturation process continues, the potential of doing even more is great.”
In addition to the presentation of journal articles, Naomi Williams, a professor at Pellissippi State Technical Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., delivered a paper on “The Challenge of Southern Baptists Meeting the Needs of African American Women.”
The day’s events also included a roast beef dinner hosted by Gabriel Missionary Baptist Church; music led by Leo Day, professor of voice at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; and a message by Mark Croston, pastor of East End Baptist Church in Suffolk, Va.
T. Vaughn Walker, professor of black church studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., delivered a presentation on “Cooperative Ministries: A History of Racial Reconciliation.”
“Life as a slave was a blend of labor exploitation, sexual exploitation, illiteracy, limited diet and primitive living conditions,” Walker said. “Only in their private time of leisure in the evening or on Sundays and holidays could slaves find respite from the relentless demands of bondage…. Essentially, slave culture revolved around three elements: family, music and religion.”
Skipping forward in his talk a hundred years or more, Walker said G.K. Offult, a 1948 Southern Seminary graduate, because of a Kentucky law, was not allowed to sit in classrooms with white students nor participate in graduation ceremonies but was tutored by seminary professors in their offices. Later, J.V. Bottoms, B.J. Miller and Claude Taylor, 1952 Southern Seminary graduates, sat in hallways to listen to professors’ lectures.
“It appears that certain Southern Seminary professors as well as other individuals affiliated with the convention became the leaders for the SBC in the area of racial reconciliation long before the convention proper assumed any significant leadership role,” Walker said.
“If the Christian community — black, white, brown, red — cannot model authentic racial reconciliation, there is little or no hope for our society’s survival,” he said. “… Racial reconciliation will be realized when each of us decides that racial bias and prejudice has no place in our walk with God, has no place in our individual congregations, and no place in our homes.”
By 1972, cooperative ministries was an official component of the Home Mission Board, precursor to today’s North American Mission Board, Walker said. He cited the work of Sid Smith with the Sunday School Board — known today as LifeWay Christian Resources — and Emmanuel McCall at the Home Mission Board (now NAMB), as pivotal in the development of racial reconciliation in the SBC.
“Many in the SBC, black and white, reviewed the 1995 SBC statement of apology for the ‘demonic’ institution of American Slavery as a significant step toward true racial reconciliation,” Walker said.
David Cornelius, mobilization specialist in church services at the SBC’s International Mission Board, addressed the topic of “African American Historical Involvement in International Missions.”
George Liele, a freed slave and preacher from South Carolina, left the United States in 1783 under persecution and within a year had started the First Baptist Church of Kingston, Jamaica, Cornelius said. Another freed slave from South Carolina, Prince Williams, was the first African American Baptist missionary to the Bahama Islands. In about 1790, he organized in Nassau what became Bethel Baptist Mission. Lott Carey in 1815 led in organizing the African Baptist Foreign Missionary Society, the first organization for international missions founded by African Americans in the United States.
Despite the fact the SBC was founded in part over the issue of slavery, a year after the founding in 1845 of its Foreign Mission Board — known today as the International Mission Board — the new SBC had appointed two African Americans as missionaries, John Day and A.L. Jones, Cornelius reported. “Over the next 40 years, the board either appointed or gave support to more than 40 black missionaries.”
But in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves, coupled with Jim Crow laws that intensified discrimination, “the vision for world evangelization that many of the early black Christian leaders had exhibited became blurred,” Cornelius said. “[D]uring the 19th century, African American missionaries serving under appointment of white-administered missionary-sending agencies most often had to have white supervisors available before being sent to the field. It was well past the mid-20th century before most white-administered sending agencies, especially those that are denominationally based, would accept African American candidates. These hindrances no longer exist.”
Bill Sumners, director of the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives in Nashville, spoke on “Bridge Builders: Baptist Women and Race Relations at the Turn of the 20th Century.”
Annie Armstrong, memorialized in NAMB’s annual Easter offering for North American missions, “more than any other Southern Baptist leader of her time, took action to cross racial barriers,” Sumners said. That was in the late 1800s.
“[A]n immense amount of good can be done — not only in developing the colored women here at home, but in doing work in Africa — if we can get the colored women organized as missionary workers,” Armstrong wrote in 1897 to R.J. Willingham, then-secretary of the Foreign Mission Board.
Nannie Helen Burroughs, daughter of skilled slaves, was Armstrong’s counterpart in the black community, Sumners said. She worked to develop summer training opportunities for black youth. Una Roberts, who wrote extensively in WMU and HMB publications in the early 1900s, “championed improved race relations among black and whites and was active in the Commission for Inter-racial Cooperation.
“The efforts of these three women spanned more than three decades of the early 20th century,” Sumners said. “Their cause was not primarily improved race relations, but … it was this spirit of cooperation and inclusiveness on behalf of the Gospel that drove these women to challenge the racial code of America.”
Other articles in the second volume of The Journal of African American Southern Baptist History include “Race, Class and Gender in Early Progressive National Baptist Convention Rhetoric” by Kevin L. Smith, church history Ph.D. student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and “How Community Baptist Church, Santa Rosa, Calif., Integrated the Southern Baptist Convention” by Rodrick K. Durst, professor of historical theology and vice president of academic affairs at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif.
The journal, published by the Black Southern Baptist Denominational Servant’s Network, is available through the network. For more information, contact Sid Smith, executive director, at 1-800-226-8584.