The Southern Baptist Convention, born of a North-South split over slavery, on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a resolution lamenting its pro-slave-owner roots and repenting for lingering racism.
The resolution was approved by a show of hands at the denomination’s annual meeting in Atlanta, a gathering of nearly 15,000 voting clergy and lay people. It is the largest mass expression of regret and repentance so far in a wave of contrition for historical wrongs voiced by church leaders from the Pope to evangelical Christian groups.
The 15.6-million-member denomination--the largest in U.S. Protestantism--has made strides in racial and ethnic diversity in recent years. The 39,000 Southern Baptist churches include about 1,900 black congregations and, in California, many Latino and Asian American churches.
But the resolution “to repudiate historic acts of evil, such as slavery, from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest” was deemed a needed prerequisite to improved relations with African Americans. The Southern Baptist Convention broke with Baptists in the North in 1845, in part, over whether slaveholders could serve as missionaries.
“We apologize to all African Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime, and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously,” said the statement, which also asked for forgiveness from African Americans.
Richard Land, director of the denomination’s Christian Life Commission, whose biracial task force drafted the statement, said Tuesday that while he cannot repent for his great-great-great-grandfather, who was a slave owner, he is “eager to apologize and express remorse for that.”
In November, Pope John Paul II declared that the Roman Catholic Church cannot enter the third Christian millennium without purifying itself through repentance of past errors. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America last year confessed that its founder, Martin Luther, engaged in anti-Jewish diatribes, which in turn were employed by anti-Semites over the centuries.
At the Georgia Dome on Tuesday, the Southern Baptists stood and applauded when the resolution passed after only 12 minutes of discussion and little dissension. The Rev. Gary Frost of Youngstown, Ohio, the denomination’s second vice president and the first African American to reach that post, accepted the apology on behalf “of my black brothers and sisters.”