September is traditionally the month when black Baptists from around the country travel and join other Baptists in meetings to lift spirits, hear reports and raise money for programs and projects. These "annual sessions" reflect a long and sometimes, complicated history. Benjamin Mays described the importance of the annual meetings:
"The great importance attached to the political maneuvering at a National Baptist Convention...can be explained in part by the fact the Negro is largely cut off from leadership in the body politic. The local churches, associations, conventions and conferences become the Negro's Democratic and Republican conventions, his Legislature, his Senate and House of Representatives." (1)
There is evidence that the, "very
first church built specifically for blacks in America was a Baptist church
built near Savannah, Georgia, around 1773," (2) It should be noted,
however, that in many instances dates vary from scholar to scholar as
to the inception of any church, convention or association. In January,
1988, the Chicago Defender observed the 200th anniversary celebration
of the first black church in the United States, The First Bryan
Baptist Church. (3) The church was established January 20, 1788
by Andrew Bryan, a slave and the first pastor. It was originally known
as the First Colored Baptist Church of Savannah. Bryan is said to have
been a pupil of the Rev. George Liele, another slave who purchased his
freedom and gained considerable attention for his ministry to the plantation
missions of the South. Liele is also credited with organizing a missionary
society in Jamaica in 1783. (4)
The missionary's role is significant to black Baptist church history. The mission movement is the source for the convention movement. Rev. Lott Carey traveled to Sierra Leone, West Africa in 1821 where he later established an African mission. In his book, A History of Black Baptists, Leroy Fitts states, "the evolution of an African mission was a strong motivating factor in the development of associations and conventions among black Baptists. The primary objective of most organized movements was to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to millions of Africa's sons and daughters groping in spiritual darkness. To this end, much of the economic strength of the associations and conventions went to the support of an African mission." (5)
The first attempt at organization beyond the local church occurred in 1836 with the Providence Baptist Association in Ohio. The second oldest attempt to consolidate the Baptist churches on the national level was the Wood River Baptist Association founded in 1838 in Illinois. In 1840, the American Baptist Missionary Convention came into existence.(6) With the Civil War's end in 1865, black Baptists began to establish programs and agencies to help the newly emancipated slaves. To do this in a more effective way, churches in several states began to organize into associations. In 1866, Baptists in North Carolina organized the first state convention. By 1870, every Southern state had formed a Baptist Convention and reports show that there were more than 500,000 Baptists. (7) The growth of the state conventions paved the way for the formation of a national organization.
"In 1867 the Consolidated American Baptist Convention was organized; it continued until 1880. Then, in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1880 a convocation representing various Southern Negro Baptist churches, associations, and state conventions established the Foreign Mission Baptist Convention of the USA." (8). Rev. W.H. McAlpine was elected the first president. The American National Baptist Convention was organized in 1886 and in 1893, the Baptist National Educational Convention was established.
In 1895, a meeting attended by more than 2000 clergy was held in Atlanta, Georgia. The three largest conventions of the day: the Baptist Foreign Missionary Convention, the American National Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Educational Convention merged to form the National Baptist Convention of the United States of America. This brought both northern and southern black Baptist churches together. Among the delegates was Rev. A.D. Williams, pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and grandfather of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.(9)
At the group's 1915 meeting in Chicago, internal problems arose. At issue was whether the National Baptist Publishing Board, the organization that printed nearly all of the Sunday school and Christian Education materials, was a part of the Convention or a separate entity, able to keep all of the monies received from the sale of Convention related materials. The Board, under the leadership of Rev. R. H. Boyd, had grown into a thriving enterprise. It sponsored the annual meeting of the National Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress. Boyd's decision to incorporate the Publishing Board caused a legal battle that culminated in a split from the National Baptist Convention, USA. On September 15, 1915, the National Baptist Convention of America was formed. (10) The first president was the Rev. Edward P. Jones. The National Baptist Convention of America was often referred to as the "Boyd" Convention because of its support for the founder of the Publishing Board. It was, for several years, also called the "unincorporated" convention.
In 1961, several members of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., withdrew and formed the Progressive National Baptist Convention (go to Black Church section of BlackandChristian.com).
The three Conventions: the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. (NBC), the National Baptist Convention of America (NBCA) and the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC), continued to meet as separate entities, each boasting large memberships of African American Christians. In 1988, hopes of unifying the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., and the National Baptist Convention of America were raised when a historic meeting took place. On Thursday, September 8, 1988, both groups met in Texas--one in Dallas (NBC), the other in Fort Worth (NBCA). Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak of South Africa was the keynote speaker. Both Rev. T. J. Jemison, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA and Rev. E. Edward Jones, National Baptist Convention of America president, addressed the huge crowd talking of unity among the two groups. (11) But while conversations were taking place regarding a possible merger of the two national religious entities, problems arose inside the National Baptist Convention of America. The historic promise was lost as an old issue resurfaced.
Attendance at the Sunday School Congress of the National Baptist Publishing Board was growing and profits were increasing. When Rev. Dr. E. Edward Jones was elected president of the "Boyd" convention in 1985, there was hope that the Convention would move forward with a progressive agenda. Jones oversaw the incorporation of the group into the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., in 1987. His predecessor, Rev. Dr. James Carl Sams had served as president for nearly twenty years. Sams' leadership was marked with frustration, particularly among younger ministers and pastors. Jones, better educated and younger than Sams, had fresh ideas and his election was seen as a bright spot in the future of the organization. Yet, the controversy surrounding the Publishing Board's relationship with the Parent Body of the NBCA resulted in the establishment of yet another group of African American Baptists.
One convention delegate explained it this way. "A conflict developed between those ministers and churches who supported Boyd (Dr. T. B. Boyd III) and the Sunday School Congress and those who supported Jones' effort to bring the Publishing Board completely under the tent of the National organization." (12) The Boyd family is credited with helping many ministers and churches during their early years. Thus with strong ties and allegiances at stake those who wanted Boyd to keep his position as head of the Sunday School Board and for the Board to manage its own budget and profits, left the Convention.
On November 14-15, 1988, at a meeting in Dallas, Texas, the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America was formed. Prominent pastors and churches from Texas, California, Illinois and Florida joined the new group. The Rev. S.M. Lockridge of San Diego was elected president. In 1989, the first official assembly of the newly formed Convention met in Chicago, Illinois with Rev. W.N. Daniel, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church, serving as host pastor. Daniel was also elected to serve as the organization's Treasurer. One significant factor in the National Missionary's founding was that many of the presidents of the various boards and auxiliaries of the National Baptist Convention of America, left to join with the new organization. This move significantly decreased the membership of the Jones's convention.
While the Convention movement of the African American Baptist Church has undergone several changes, the individual organizations remain important to African American religious life.
In the next installment of this article, we will talk about the formation of the Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship by Bishop Paul Morton in 1993.
(1) Benjamin E. Mays and Joseph W. Nicholson,
The Negro's Church, (New York: Arno Press, 1969), p. 9.
(2) C. Eric Lincoln, Race, Religion and the Continuing American Dilemma (New York: Hill & Wang, 1984), p. 80.
(3) "Nation's Oldest Black Church Marks Bicentennial," Chicago Defender, 23 January 1988, p. 13.
(4) Leroy Fitts, A History of Black Baptists (Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1985), p. 24.
(5) Fitts, p. 111-12.
(6) Fitts, p. 67
(7) William L. Banks, The Black Church in the US: Its Origin, Growth, Contribution and Outlook (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute, 1972), p. 36.
(8) Banks, p. 37.
(9) Fitts, p. 85
(10) Fitts, p. 89
(11) "History in the Making," Program of the Joint Session, NBC and NBCA, September 8, 1988.
(12) Interview with L. Alexander, NBCA delegate, May 3, 1991.