Leaders and planners of the New Baptist Covenant celebration held Jan. 31-Feb. 2 recently announced that another large event will be held in 2011, “in the historic Baptist pattern of triennial meetings.”

Historic is right — as in way back in the early 1800s. A periodic meeting of Baptists in America, gathered mainly in support of missions, began meeting in 1814. Meetings were held every three years. Though some called it the “Triennial Meeting of the Baptist General Convention of the United States,” it’s generally referred to as the “Triennial Convention” because representatives met every three years.

The Triennial Convention lasted just 40 years: in 1845 many Baptists in the south split from their northern brethren and formed the Southern Baptist Convention, leaving the remainder to form the Northern Baptist Convention, now known as the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. Acceptance of slavery was not the only issue leading to the split, but it was unquestionably the major issue. Since then, a number of other denominational groups have formed, many of them among African American Baptists.

The New Baptist Covenant was inspired, in large part, by an effort to bring white and black Baptists together again for fellowship and perhaps coordination of efforts toward much-needed social ministries. Spearheaded by former president Jimmy Carter and coordinated under the umbrella of the North American Baptist Fellowship, the meeting generated lots of excitement among the 15,000 or so who attended.

As we left, one of the top questions in many minds was “When will we do this again?” It was widely agreed that an annual meeting was probably too much, and five-year meetings might be too far apart. So, it was no surprise that organizers would hark back to the Triennial Convention and opt for a three-year plan, while calling for continued cooperation and local relationship-building in the meantime.

In the history books of future years, much will be written about Baptist life during the past 30 years, and much of that will speak of dissension and division. Being a part of the New Baptist Covenant movement gives us a chance to contribute positively toward efforts at greater Baptist unity.

Following a historic three-year meeting pattern is one thing: making history is another.

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