The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has approved an alternative name that will allow churches to distance themselves from the organization’s past ties to slavery and racism.
Great Commission Baptists, the alternative name, was endorsed by 53 percent the 4,800 ballots cast at the convention’s annual meeting in New Orleans, officials announced Wednesday.
The change marks another step in the predominantly white denomination’s efforts to become more inclusive. A day earlier, convention delegates elected the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. of New Orleans as the first black president in the denomination’s 167-year history.
“In regions outside of the South, ‘Southern’ may conjure up a regional stereotype that becomes a hindrance to the Gospel,” said Roger S. “Sing” Oldham, a spokesman for the group. “Our brothers and sisters in Christ who are of other race and language groups can now identify themselves with something that does not hearken back to a Southern past.”
Slavery was at the heart of the split between Northern and Southern Baptists in 1845. In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized to African-Americans for perpetuating racism and failing to support civil rights efforts.
Allowing changes to the Southern Baptist Convention name has been discussed for more than 100 years, but was not finalized until outgoing President Bryant Wright took on the issue. He formed an exploratory committee, which found that people in some parts of the country were turned off by the word “Southern.”
“It will be helpful, very helpful,” said K. Marshall Williams, chairman of the Southern Baptist African American Advisory Council, in a video on the Southern Baptist Convention website. He said he would put the new name on his website and stationery as “an identifier of who we are, whose we are and what we’re about.”
More than 4 in 10 Americans said in a recent poll that knowing a church was Southern Baptist would negatively affect their decision to visit or join. Southern Baptist membership, now at 16 million, has declined 2 percent since 2007. The executive committee does not know whether an alternative name will make a difference in recruiting, Oldham said.
Local churches have complete autonomy, the convention’s constitution says. That includes how they refer to the denomination. But many Baptist churches have aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention to feel included in its community, Oldham said.
Those who voted against the alternative name said they believed that the Southern Baptist Convention has a long history and strong brand recognition for a certain theology.
The phrase “Great Commission” refers to Jesus’ command to the apostles to spread his teachings and make disciples around the world.
The convention’s legal name will stay the same.