The National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., founded on September 24, 1895, constitutes the largest body of organized African-American Christians in the world. With over 7.5 million members, this influential body’s roots go deep into the early religious and cooperative efforts of free blacks and slaves in antebellum America.
As early as 1834, African Americans in Ohio organized the Providence Baptist Association to strengthen the work of local Baptist churches. The formation of this association established a trend for other local churches, resulting in the organization of other associations, state conventions, regional conventions, and national bodies. The first significant trend toward a national body was the organization in 1894 of the Tripartite Union, consisting of the New England Baptist Foreign Missionary Convention, the African Foreign Mission Convention, and the Foreign Mission Convention of America. Although this Tripartite Union attempt failed by 1895, the spirit of national cooperation eventually prevailed.
In 1895, Reverends S. E. Griggs, L. M. Luke, and A. W. Pegues, former leaders of the Tripartite Union movement, led another attempt at national unity among African-American Baptists. They successfully encouraged the Foreign Mission Convention, the National Baptist Educational Convention, and the American National Baptist Convention to merge into the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A.
The purpose of the newly formed national convention was multipartite. The former work of the National Baptist Educational Convention was increased through the new convention’s aggressive involvement in the education of the race. Local churches were encouraged to increase their support of secondary schools and colleges throughout the southern region of the United States. Internationally, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. advanced foreign missionary projects in Africa, Central America, and the West Indies. Schools, churches, and medical institutions were expanded in various mission stations on these foreign fields. A large number of the leaders among Africans on the developing continent, as well as Africans of the diaspora, were trained by these institutions.
In order to facilitate practical operations in the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., the leadership was careful to develop comprehensive plans for a viable structure. The basic strategy was to organize the work of the convention through specialized boards. The leadership organized a Foreign Mission Board, Home Mission Board, Educational Board, Baptist Young People’s Union, and Publishing Board. These were designed to carry out the mandates of the convention as articulated by Reverend Elias Camp Morris, the organization’s first president. The pattern of specialized boards was continued by the subsequent leadership of the convention, but it proved problematic in practice.
Problem areas developed within two of the strongest boards, Foreign Mission and Publishing. By 1897 there was enough internal disturbance in the convention to threaten the unity of the denomination. When the annual session was convened at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Boston, a group of ministers of national prominence led a debate over several key emotion-laden issues, namely: (1) the advisability of moving the Foreign Mission Board from Richmond to Louisville; (2) the use of American Baptist literature and cooperation with white Baptists in general; and (3) a greater emphasis on foreign missions as a primary policy of the convention. The leadership was not able to resolve these points, especially the last. Consequently, several clergymen from Virginia and North Carolina who were in favor of stronger foreign missions issued a call to like-minded ministers to meet at Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., on December 11, 1897, for the purpose of developing a new convention strategy. Out of this movement emerged the Lott Carey Baptist Home and Foreign Mission Convention, specializing in foreign missions.
The second problem area was the Publishing Board. The National Baptist Publishing Board, under the leadership of Reverends Henry Allen Boyd and C. H. Clark, was given the exclusive right to publish all church and Sunday-school literature for local Baptist churches. With a significant increase in its financial holdings, the National Baptist Publishing Board tended to act independently of the general leadership of the convention. This resulted in a split within the leadership and the formation of the National Baptist Convention of America in 1915.
The National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., emerged from these splits, however, as the majority convention among African-American Baptists. Its scheme of organizational structure through major boards remained intact. Morris, the national president, was careful to require responsibility and accountability from the specialized boards’ leadership. This policy facilitated unity within the convention until the middle of the twentieth century.
In 1956, a serious debate erupted over the question of tenure. Reverend Joseph H. Jackson, president of the convention, had risen to a position of such power and prestige that a majority of the convention’s leaders and delegates desired the continuation of his leadership beyond the tenure limits of the constitution. Tensions increased, resulting in a strong challenge to Jackson’s leadership by a group favoring the election of Reverend Gardner C. Taylor of Brooklyn to the presidency. The 1961 presidential election became a crisis that resulted in a civil court battle between Jackson and “the Taylor team.” Jackson’s position was confirmed by the court.
The Jackson victory did not calm the troubled waters, however. On September 11, 1961, a national call was issued for the organization of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. The rationale for creating a new convention was a protest against Jackson’s policy of “gradualism” in civil rights issues, as well as a demonstration of support for Taylor’s election bid for the presidency. Moreover, the new convention rallied to give stronger support to the civil rightsmovement under the leadership of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The National Baptist Convention remained the largest convention of African-American Baptists. But the advance of the civil rights movement and the growth in power and influence of Martin Luther King Jr. seriously challenged the moral and racial leadership of the majority convention. This trend continued until King’s assassination and the rise of the Reverend T. J. Jemison to the presidency of the convention. The new president, a veteran civil rights leader, made efforts to restore the convention to its previous leadership role.
In 1994, Dr. Henry Lyons was elected president of the convention. In 1999, however, Lyons was convicted of racketeering and stealing more than $4 million from the convention. In September of that year, the Reverend William Shaw succeeded Lyons as president.
Fitts, Leroy. A History of Black Baptists. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman, 1985.
Gilbreath, Edward. “Redeeming Fire.” Christianity Today 43 (December 1999): 38.
Washington, James M. Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1986.
leroy fitts (1996)
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