Black Baptists Join Push for New Baptist Image

A prominent group of black Baptists announced plans to join thousands of other Baptists in seeking to cross differences and present an image of unity to the public.

The National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. – the largest African American religious organization in the country – will participate in a new broad effort called the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant in January to help espouse a new Baptist voice.

"We seek nothing more nor less than that for which Christ prayed, for no other reason that that which He gave: that ours will be a believable witness as to who Jesus is and why He came," said NBCUSA president the Rev. Dr. William J. Shaw.

The effort for cooperation comes as former president Jimmy Carter, who is spearheading the January convocation, expressed concern that the most common opinion about U.S. Baptists is that they cannot get along. Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University in Atlanta and one of the main organizers of the covenant, said that "North America desperately needs a true Baptist witness."

The push for a positive image will center on a collaboration around social causes such as poverty and HIV/AIDS and to fulfill the biblical mandate of promoting peace and caring for the less fortunate.

The New Baptist Covenant has been billed as the broadest Baptist meeting in America since Baptists divided over slavery before the Civil War. The covenant is being organized under the umbrella of the North American Baptist Fellowship – a division of the Baptist World Alliance. So far, the covenant claims more than 30 racially, geographically and racially diverse Baptist organizations from throughout North America representing more than 20 million members.

It is not an effort to form another Baptist entity, Carter has clarified, but a means to find commonality amid differences that have largely divided Baptists.

In July, the American Baptist Churches USA, one of the most ethnically diverse denominations, signed on to the New Baptist Covenant with a commitment to saving souls. Ahead of NBCUSA's public announcement of their participation, the black organization had gathered 30,000 members last month at their annual session and emphasized the message of unity across differences.

Southern Baptists had initially not received a formal invitation to the covenant celebration in January, although they were still welcome, but Carter recently extended the invite to the more conservative group of Baptists. Southern Baptist leaders, however, have criticized the covenant as a political move with a liberal agenda considering the celebration takes place during the presidential election year and also includes speakers such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Organizers have said the covenant is about the gospel and not politics.