The National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. is one of the nation's oldest and largest independent African American organizations. Founded in Atlanta in 1895, the convention has influenced cultural and social policy in the United States and abroad. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of the convention, the African American church—once described by Albert Raboteau as the “invisible institution” among the enslaved in the antebellum era—overcame interracial strife and internal conflicts to emerge as a powerful voice for African American freedom and rights.Birth.The formation of the...
The National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. is one of the nation's oldest and largest independent African American organizations. Founded in Atlanta in 1895, the convention has influenced cultural and social policy in the United States and abroad. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of the convention, the African American church—once described by Albert Raboteau as the “invisible institution” among the enslaved in the antebellum era—overcame interracial strife and internal conflicts to emerge as a powerful voice for African American freedom and rights.Birth.The formation of the National Baptist Convention can be viewed as part of on ongoing movement by African American Christians to exercise greater control over their public and private affairs and, when necessary, to form associations that would spearhead group efforts to implement proposed policies and programs. Evidence of concerted efforts to achieve these ends can be found in the nineteenth-century histories of African American Baptist groups in the North and the South. In 1834, for example, Robert Townsend helped found Ohio's Providence Baptist Association. By 1837, Elders Reuben Malvin and Charles B. Satchel held leadership positions in the Union Association, Ohio's second African American Baptist group, and by 1850 African American Baptist associations also existed in Illinois and Michigan. New York's Abyssinian Baptist Church helped organize the American Baptist Missionary Convention in 1840.These early activities in the North were not insignificant, but in the nineteenth century the overwhelming majority of African American Baptists—enslaved and free—resided in the South. Many of them sought to emulate the activities of their northern brethren by forming separate African American Baptist churches and Baptist associations. Even in the climate of racial intimidation that frequently limited this kind of autonomous action in the nineteenth-century South, there are several examples of success. Among these successes are those associated with the history of the Western Colored Baptist Convention. Organized in 1853 to serve African American Baptists in the trans-Mississippi region, it met regularly until 1859 when its activities were suspended because of intersectional strife and the Civil War.After the war the Western Convention joined other African Americans in addressing the urgent religious and social needs of the freedmen during Reconstruction. African American Baptists also received assistance with this work from white groups, including the American Baptist Home Mission Society. Debates about cooperation with or complete separation from white Baptists continued among African American Baptists beyond 1877, the formal end of the federal government's failed Reconstruction effort. By the final decade of the nineteenth century, however, African American organizational victories at the state and regional levels helped fuel the desire to establish a unified national body made up of the members of existing groups.The National Baptist Convention, USA, was the result of the merger of three African American Baptist conventions: the Foreign Mission Baptist Convention, the American National Baptist Convention, and the Baptist National Education Convention. The Foreign Mission Baptist Convention was founded in 1880 in Montgomery, Alabama. Elias Camp Morris helped found this convention and later helped with the merger and became the first president of the National Baptist Convention, USA. The American National Baptist Convention was founded in 1886, and controversy over a proposed national university for the training of African Americans inspired the launching of the Baptist National Education Convention in 1893.These three conventions agreed to host a joint meeting in Atlanta in September 1895 to consider the possibility of forming one unified body. The proposed unification became a reality when on 24 September the more than five hundred delegates at the meeting approved the creation of the National Baptist Convention, USA.Coming of Age.From the outset, the self-help philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who was also a member of the Baptist Church, did much to shape the history of the National Baptist Convention. The convention's founding gathering took place in the same month as the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, at which Washington was the only African American invited to speak. During his speech on 18 September 1895, Washington took full advantage of the opportunity to reassure southern segregationists that “in all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”Some critics accused Washington of pandering to southern segregationists. Others, however, including members of the Baptist Church, joined him in promoting the establishment of separate African American institutions. This was certainly the case with the National Baptist Publishing Board. Richard H. Boyd, an influential Baptist leader from Texas, approached the leadership of the newly formed National Baptist Convention with a proposal for securing control of both the publication and the distribution of Sunday school literature and other Christian educational materials for member congregations, rather than allowing the white-controlled publishing houses to provide these. At the 1896 meeting of the National Baptist Convention, Boyd and Elias Camp Morris facilitated the creation of the convention's National Baptist Publishing Board, based in Nashville, Tennessee.The convention's independent work did not escape the notice of early-twentieth-century writers. W. E. B. Du Bois—a scholar, educator, and, by 1903, one of Booker T. Washington's staunchest critics on matters related to liberal arts education and civil rights—acknowledged the importance of sustaining independent African American churches and other organizations. In The Negro Church (1903), Du Bois suggested that African American church congregations were the “real units of race life,” and he was pleased that, after many difficulties, the Baptists had succeeded in organizing a national convention—even if the churches had not yet been able to rid themselves of clergy who, to his mind, lacked the requisite education for race leadership.Multiplying by Dividing.The first century of the convention's work is replete with examples of cooperation and controversy. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham explains in Righteous Discontent that even before 1895, Baptist women found their own voices and spoke out on gender issues that were of concern to them. In 1900 they succeeded in organizing a Women's Convention that worked within the larger National Baptist Convention. Like many of her Baptist female colleagues, the first president of the Women's Convention, Sarah Willie Layten, was an outspoken advocate for the rights of African Americans and women, and she was concerned about home and foreign mission work. As a longtime activist in the women's club movement, Layten was involved in both secular and religious organizations that focused on racial uplift and social reform.Disagreements among the convention's members and leaders resulted in several notable rifts within the parent body and the subsequent creation of new groups. In 1897 concerns about the operation of the foreign mission led a number of ministers to establish the independent Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention. In 1915 concerns about the autonomy and reporting responsibilities of the National Baptist Publishing Board led Richard Henry Boyd and his supporters to launch the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc. Another major split occurred when a group of prominent ministers raised questions about the perceived lack of convention support for the civil rights movement and the activist agenda of Martin Luther King Jr. As a result the Progressive National Baptist Convention was formed in 1961.In spite of these schisms the National Baptist Convention, USA, continued to grow and prosper. In September 1924 the convention opened its seminary, the American Baptist Theological Seminary, on fifty-three acres in Nashville. In 1971 this institution became an accredited four-year college, American Baptist College. In the late 1980s, on land adjacent to the college, the convention developed the Baptist World Center, which housed the convention's world headquarters. In the 1980s and 1990s the convention worked to reorganize its finances and retire its debt. As the twenty-first century began, the convention had an estimated membership of 7.5 million in some 30,000 congregations.
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