Thousands of Baptists – black, white, theologically conservative, moderate, Republican and Democrat – opened on Wednesday a historic meeting that former president Jimmy Carter called "the most momentous event" of his religious life.
The gathering is billed as the broadest of its kind among Baptists across North America since they split over slavery in 1845. The cause is unity across racial, theological and political lines and an end to their internal divisions.
"For the first time in more than 160 years, we are convening a major gathering of Baptists throughout an entire continent, without any threat to our unity caused by differences of our race or politics or geography or the legalistic interpretation of Scripture," said Carter, 84, who spearheaded the new movement.
Up to 20,000 Baptists are expected to attend the three-day gathering, called the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, in Atlanta. Over 30 organizations representing 20 million Baptists are making the unity effort on the common platform of the gospel – salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ – and biblical mandates such as helping the poor.
It's an assembly that has never happened before, the Baptists emphasize.
"This night and these days, we do a bold and glorious thing: We attempt to express the oneness which was our Lord's desire for his people," declared William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, one of the four prominent African-American Baptists conventions participating in the meeting.
What will mark this convocation as a success is the attendance number as well as "the fact that we want to avoid anything other than harmony, cooperation [and] a positive attitude as a group of Christians," Carter said at a press conference Wednesday just before the meeting began.
Carter, a longtime Bible teacher and a Baptist since he was a child, described animosity among Christians as "a cancer metastasizing in the body of Christ" and it's that divisive image of Christians that is prevailing today, he said.
Issues that have divided Baptists include the role of women in ministry and marriage, legalized abortion, civil rights for gays, and the separation of church and state, among many others, Carter listed during the opening of the meeting.
He's hoping an image of unity will emerge over the three days in Atlanta.
Dispelling early rumors that the convocation may be a Democratic rally considering it takes place just ahead of primaries on Super Tuesday and involves former president Bill Clinton and former vice president Al Gore, Carter stressed to the media, "We are doing everything we can and have for the last two years to avoid any sort of racial division, philosophical division, theological division, geographical division or political division here at this assembly."
Also clarifying that they are not trying to exclude anyone, including the conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Carter said he and SBC President Frank Page exchanged positive letters recently and hopes they can work together.
Carter and many other Baptists had severed ties with the SBC after the conservative resurgence when conservatives took control of the denomination in the 1970s and 1980s. SBC remains the largest U.S. Baptist and largest Protestant denomination in the country.
While SBC head Page and other top leaders from the conservative group are not participating in the Atlanta meeting this week over concerns of a possible political slant, pastors and lay members from Southern Baptist churches are attending, Carter affirmed.
And after the assembly, Carter said he will be reaching out personally to Page with a report.
"It would be my hope and prayer that we can cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention," Carter said.
During the Jan. 30-Feb. 1 convocation, Baptists will explore ways they can work together long-term. Carter stressed this is not just a meeting, but an initiative to form "permanent commitments" with one another.