Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, longtime pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, dies at 73

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III and guests attend the André Leon Talley Celebration of Life at The Abyssinian Baptist Church on April 29, 2022, in New York City.
The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III and guests attend the André Leon Talley Celebration of Life at The Abyssinian Baptist Church on April 29, 2022, in New York City. | Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for the Estate of André Leon Talley

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, a prominent African American pastor at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church of New York City, who was known for his social activism, has died from cancer. He was 73. 

Abyssinian Baptist Church announced Butts' passing on its Facebook page Friday, explaining that the longtime pastor died peacefully earlier this morning.

“It is with profound sadness, we announce the passing of our beloved pastor, Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, who peacefully transitioned in the early morning of October 28, 2022,” the church stated.

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“The Butts Family and entire Abyssinian Baptist Church membership solicit your prayers for us in our bereavement.”

Cornel West, a noted African American scholar and left-wing political activist, took to Twitter on Friday to offer his condolences, describing Butts as “my deep friend of over 40 years.”

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of my very dear brother the great Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts lll,” West tweeted. “My love and respect for him are forever! God bless his precious wife Patricia and his family!”

Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a statement in response to the news, calling Butts “a man of God, an academic committed to shepherding the next generation of New York leaders, a humanitarian devoted to improving the lives of his fellow man, and also a friend.”

“I will always value his counsel and his friendship to me, as well as my father, over the last 40 years and greatly mourn his passing,” Cuomo added. “My thoughts are with Mrs. Butts, his family, his congregation, and the many New Yorkers mourning him during this difficult time.”

Born in 1949 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the son of a butcher and a welfare department supervisor, Butts graduated from the historic Morehouse College of Atlanta in 1972 and later graduated from Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan and Drew University of Madison, New Jersey.

Butts held various ministerial positions at Abyssinian Baptist before becoming their church's pastor in 1989, serving in the position until his death. He became known for pushing for social improvements in New York City. This included his work in the 1980s when he founded the Abyssinian Development Corp. to "rebuild Harlem, brick by brick, block by block," NBC News affiliate WNBC reported Friday. 

In the early 1990s, the pastor made headlines for drawing attention to what he saw as the harms of rap music, particularly how women were depicted in the lyrics. "In 1993, he famously had a steamroller crush hundreds of rap CDs outside the church," WNBC added. 

The famous Harlem pastor also served as president of the State University of New York College of Old Westbury on Long Island from 1999-2020, having seen the school expand and gain accreditation under his watch.

Other positions he held included president of the Council of Churches of the City of New York, chairman of the Harlem YMCA, the president of Africare NYC and being a member of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS.

He received several awards for his work, including the United Negro College Fund’s Shirley Chisholm Community Service Award, the Medal for Distinguished Service from Teachers College of Columbia University, and Man of the Year, courtesy of the Morehouse College Alumni Association.

In 2007, the prominent religious website Beliefnet named him among the "most influential black spiritual leaders" in the United States at the time.

His political activism and associations sometimes garnered controversy, such as in the 1980s when several members of the New York Philharmonic boycotted a concert at his church because he refused to distance himself from anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

For his part, Butts said he had disagreements with Farrakhan on his views of Judaism, but he also found common ground with Farrakhan on social and economic issues.

“All I’m saying to the Jewish community is, don’t dictate to me,” Butts said at the time, as quoted by the New York Times. “I understand your anger. I’m not a fool. I don’t hate Jewish people. In fact, I quite respect what the Jewish people have done. But please don’t make me a boy and tell me what to do.”

In early 2020, during the Democratic presidential primary season, Butts garnered controversy for throwing his public support to then-candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

At the time, Butts had been one of about 20 black pastors who had met with Bloomberg, with the former mayor apologizing for his past support of the controversial stop-and-frisk policy.

“We accept your apology at one level, but we want to let you know that we’ll be looking for more concrete expressions of your apology in terms of the African American community,” Butts explained after the meeting.

Butts is survived by his wife, Patricia Reed Butts, three children, and six grandchildren.

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