Southern Baptist Leaders Wrestle With Denomination’s Name, Connection To Slavery

Some senior members of the Southern Baptists, a Protestant denomination with some 50,000 congregations in the U.S., are wrestling with the organization’s name and its relationship to slavery, The Washington Post reported. The organization is allowing local congregations, and Christians within the denomination, to use an alternative name if they so choose.

The Southern Baptist Convention, or SBC as it’s officially known, dates back to 1845. At the time, a rift over whether or not missionaries could own enslaved people grew among Baptists, as the larger matter of slavery itself threatened to split the country in half. Eventually, the group split into the Northern and Southern denominations. Indeed, to this day some 80 percent of the group’s local congregations are in the southern United States.

However, convention president J.D. Greear says that the organization’s name and history could make it look as if the group is only for certain people.

“Our Lord Jesus was not a White Southerner but a brown-skinned Middle Eastern refugee. Every week we gather to worship a savior who died for the whole world, not one part of it. What we call ourselves should make that clear,” he said.

a wooden cross atop a church

He also noted that theology, not southern white culture, should shape the denomination’s identity.

“We as Baptists want to be defined by 2025, not by 1845,” he said.

He is particularly keen on the name “Great Commission Baptists,” in reference to a New Testament passage in which Jesus encourages his followers to go into all of the world to preach the gospel.

Already it’s catching on: hundreds of local churches have since adopted the name, and two prominent leaders in the movement — both presidents of theological seminaries within the denomination — have started unofficially referring to themselves and their flocks by the new name. However, the “Southern Baptist” moniker remains on the names of the schools.

Similarly, Ronnie Floyd, who heads the convention’s executive committee, has started referring to his flock by the new name.

Further, next year’s annual convention of the faithful will be held under the theme “We are Great Commission Baptists.”

The new name is not official, and members — and pastors — can still refer to themselves either by the old name or simply its initials, if they so choose.

Marshall Blalock, the pastor of South Carolina’s First Baptist Charleston, said that he warmed up to the new name after meeting with Black pastors in Mobile, Alabama, who made him realize that there’s a connection between his denomination’s name and slavery.

“We need to remove barriers,” he said.