What is the historical significance of the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, an unprecedented gathering of diverse Baptists in America?
No one is better equipped to handle that question than Buddy Shurden, a prominent Baptist historian who was founding director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University. Asked to speak on the subject during a breakfast meeting Feb. 1, Shurden pointed to four reasons he believes the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant – which registered more than 16,000 African American and Anglo Baptists in the largest meeting of its kind ever held – is particularly significant.
Origins of the celebration — The origins of the meeting are significant, Shurden said, because it grew indirectly from a concern about Baptist education.
Shurden cited a conversation in early 2006 between Kirby Godsey, former president of Mercer University, incoming Mercer president Bill Underwood, and Jimmy Carter, former president of the United States.
The Georgia Baptist Convention had recently voted to end its historic relationship with Mercer, and Godsey wanted to develop broader Baptist ties for the university. He invited Carter to participate in a “Baptist summit” to discuss the university’s future relationships.
Carter, however, had a broader vision for building connections between Baptists. He asked Underwood to “become the point person for bringing Baptists of the nation together for a huge meeting.” That led to a meeting of Baptist leaders in April of 2006 and ultimately to the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant meeting.
Taking note of secular journalists who persist in suggesting political motivations for holding the meeting just before “Super Tuesday,” Shurden said “What they don’t know is that Jimmy Carter wanted to have this meeting in the fall of 2006,” but arrangements could not be made that quickly.
Nature of the meeting — Shurden said the nature of the meeting was also significant. No “super-convention” is planned and the celebration “is not an effort to form something together,” he said, “but to say something together about what we ought to be doing together: to say something to the nation and the world about what Baptist people ought to be.”
“I think if anything really substantive comes out of this it will be networking between people who have found common cause,” he said.
Reconciliation and recognition — Shurden also found significance in the hope that the celebration “could become – I pray that it becomes – a major step in racial reconciliation and gender recognition among Baptists in North America.”
For much of Baptist history, African Americans and women have not had a real voice, he said. But “I’ve never been to a Baptist meeting that has had the shades of color to it that this meeting has,” he said. “I’ve never been to one where I felt there was more equality as well as the presence of both whites and blacks.” There was also progress in acknowledging women, he said, noting that Julie Pennington-Russell was invited to preach.
Purpose and mission — The most important significance of the meeting, Shurden said, “is in the purpose and mission of the New Baptist Covenant, in why we are here.” The group of 18 leaders who first planned the meeting “affirmed their desire to speak with a prophetic Baptist voice in these complex times,” he said, and committed themselves to promoting peace with justice, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, welcoming the strangers, promoting religious liberty, and respecting diversity.
Those values reflect the spirit of Matthew 25, he said, and those who planned the meeting decided to focus on Luke 4, which connects the presence of God’s Spirit to the ministries of helping the poor, releasing the captives, giving sight to the blind, and liberating the oppressed.
“The purpose of the New Baptist Covenant is to hand out towels to every Baptist in North America and ask them to become a servant to the least and the last and the lost,” Shurden said.
“You ask what is the historical significance of this coming together?
“It is significant in a way no other has been,” he said, “because it’s an effort on behalf of 20 million Baptists to take seriously what Jesus took seriously.”