Two Churches in Atlanta: African American Baptist History

Today America celebrates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the late Baptist minister, Civil Right’s leader, and one of the greatest Americans of the twentieth century.

David Gibson, Religious Reporter for Politics Daily, published an editorial over the weekend in which he highlighted the differences between today’s Ebenezer Baptist Church (Martin Luther King’s home congregation) and the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church (a prosperity gospel megachurch pastored by the controversial Bishop Eddie Long). Both churches are in Atlanta, but in Gibson’s words, “Ebenezer Baptist is 20 miles away from New Birth Missionary Baptist, and light years distant in terms of black history and a lot of contemporary black Christianity.”

A historic congregation founded in 1886 in the wake of the Civil War and in the era of Jim Crow laws under which blacks in the South were harshly persecuted, Ebenezer Baptist Church preached a gospel of freedom and community uplift, while fighting against injustice and poverty. The congregation’s long history of faithfulness to the gospel message reached a pinnacle in the work of native son Martin Luther King, Jr., whose vision for racial unity forever changed America.

Yet other than on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, African American Baptists in today’s Atlanta are much more likely to be found on the sprawling campus of Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist megaplex, than anywhere near Ebenezer Baptist. New Birth’s 25,000 members have propelled Bishop Long into one of the most succesful – and richest – preachers in America. In turn, Long preaches a gospel of individual prosperity, “winner-take-all, capitalist mentality that Dr. King struggled against in the name of social justice.”

The contrast between the two Atlanta congregations represent a larger struggle for the future of African American Baptists, and black Christians at large in America. At a time when the povery rate in America is staggerlingly high and the wealth gap equivalent to that of third world nations, a 21st century gospel of materialistic, individual prosperity threatens to overwhelm the legacy of Dr. King and the historic emphases of African American Christianity.

The struggle between social justice and individualistic materialism in the religious world is not unique to the black Christianity, but is nonetheless remarkable. A year ago, Eddie Glaude, Jr., professor of religion at Princeton University, declared that “The Black Church is Dead.” It is Glaude’s controversial piece that led to Gibson’s musings this past weekend, and Glaude ends his obituary with these words:

The death of the black church as we have known it occasions an opportunity to breathe new life into what it means to be black and Christian. Black churches and preachers must find their prophetic voices in this momentous present. And in doing so, black churches will rise again and insist that we all assert ourselves on the national stage not as sycophants to a glorious past, but as witnesses to the ongoing revelation of God’s love in the here and now as we work on behalf of those who suffer most.

The knowledge of history helps us as Christians and Baptists to “breathe new life” again and again into the present and future, and compels us to honestly evaluate who we are and where we are going. We ignore or rewrite history (i.e, the myth of America founded as a Christian nation, or the myth of slavery not being the reason for the American Civil War) to the peril of soul and society. The story of Ebenezer Baptist Church and of Martin Luther King, Jr., can help all Christians rise again, and again, to the timeless challenge of the gospel of Christ.

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