Church historian Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest Divinity School, just gave me his perspective on the historical significance of this Baptist Celebration.
“It is the largest gathering of Anglo- and African-American Baptists in this country ever,” said Leonard.
And he believes many of those coming together for this unprecedented event are aware of the history they are helping to make.
Last night’s opening session, with messages by National Baptist leader Dr. William Shaw and former President Jimmy Carter, raised that awareness he added.
“It was a tangible illustration of the historic nature of this meeting,” said Leonard, describing his personal participation as “a wonderful gift.”
Leonard said it is important to understand what the gathering is not about, as well, namely:
1. The Southern Baptist Convention which has insulated itself from other Baptists groups.
2. Partisan politics, though many might think so because “religion has become such a divisive issue in American politics” and the event falls in the heat of the election season.
“But to see last night was to illustrate we couldn’t wait another year,” said Leonard. “So what if it’s in the middle of the election year?”
3. Starting a new organization. “The last thing we need in America is a new convention,” he said.
Leonard said this historic and significant occasion also helps former Southern Baptists, like himself, to continue moving forward with new possibilities.
“It is a sense that I don’t have to go back to that,” he said. “You just let it go and channel your energies into something like this.”
Most significantly, Leonard said, Baptists who have been divided by race and other distinctions are able to listen to one another.
“We’ve not even been with each other to hear each other, let alone to do ministry together.”
The New Baptist Covenant allows for growing relationships and new cooperative ministry, he said, without creating a “new organic union,” that is a new denominational body.
Such is a gift, indeed.