From the start, Baptist freedom, polity and heart religion proved a good religious fit for African Americans. Today, more than one out of three African-American Christians is a Baptist.
Before emancipation, most African-American Baptists belonged to churches and denominational structures managed by whites. After the Civil War, African-American Baptist congregations grew in number.
Regional associations and national convention structures by African-American Baptists came along more slowly, but their impact on the status quo was significant. For example, in 1902 African-American churches left the Maryland Baptist Union Association, affiliate of the mostly white Southern Baptist Convention. The exodus meant that the mainly white state convention lost one-third of its member churches.
African-American Baptists first reached national autonomy on Sept. 28, 1895, in Atlanta with the formation of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. (NBC, U.S.A.) More than 10 national African-American Baptist conventions have been formed since then, but the NBC, U.S.A., Inc. (incorporated in 1915) remains by far the largest.
In 2000, it reported a membership of 8.5 million or about 25 percent of the entire African-American population of the United States.
The president, a 15-member board of directors and a nine-member executive committee govern the overall NBC, U.S.A., Inc. Missions, education and social justice ministries are supported nationally and internationally.
Unfortunately, in recent years most publicity surrounding the NBC, U.S.A., Inc., has resulted from the imprisonment of then-president Henry Lyons for financial fraud using convention funds for personal gain.
The earliest schism in the NBC, U.S.A. came in 1897. The Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, named after a famous African-American missionary from Virginia, formed from churches wishing to cooperate with white Baptist conventions. Today it has about 1 million members.
In 1915, a second schism resulted in the creation of the National Baptist Convention of America (NBCA), the second largest African-American Baptist convention. Prompted by complaints from the SBC, the northern, white-managed American Baptist Publication Board stopped asking African-American Baptist leaders to write articles in one of its publications.
In response, the NBC, U.S.A. began its own publishing board under pastor Ronald Boyd. Boyd and convention president Edmond Morris vied for control of the successful venture. Boyd’s faction won in Tennessee’s courts because the publishing arm was incorporated in his name. The Morris faction soon followed suit to avoid this kind of difficulty in their future—thus the “Inc.” in NBC, U.S.A., Inc.
Similar in structure, theology and activities to the NBC, U.S.A., Inc., the NBCA has headquarters in Nashville, though the home church of the president is the center of governance. In 2000, the NBCA listed about 3.1 million members.
In 1988, conflict over the Boyd family’s control of the publishing house split the NBCA. About 25 percent of the membership under the leadership of the Boyd faction formed the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America (NMBCA), which listed about 400,000 members in 2000.
The third largest African-American Baptist national convention, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. (PNBC), split from the NBC, U.S.A. in 1961. This schism, too, has an interesting story.
In 1957, NBC, U.S.A., Inc. president Joseph Jackson ran for a second term in spite of a four-year term limit agreed upon in 1952, the year before the convention first elected him. Jackson won the 1957 election and won a suit in federal court brought against him by his challengers.
Jackson’s conservatism complicated the controversy. He held “law and order, anticommunist, pro-Vietnam war, and procapitalist positions,” according to the Encyclopedia of African American Religions. More importantly, Jackson’s advocacy of extreme gradualism in civil rights clashed with the civil disobedience and non-violent protest strategies of the younger black ministerial leadership.
Believing Jackson’s autocratic rule restricted strategies for social change, a coalition including Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Benjamin Mays backed Gardner Taylor’s candidacy for president in 1960 and 1961. Taylor lost to Jackson in a political battle that included dubious parliamentary procedures, sit-in protests, physical confrontations and a court-supervised election.
The PNBC emerged out of the fray to become a major force for involving African-American Baptists in the civil rights movement and subsequent social justice issues. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., and administered by a full-time, salaried general secretary, the PNBC recorded 2.5 million members in 2000.
Loyd Allen is professor of church history and spiritual formation at the McAfee School of Theology.