Leaders from 40 Baptist organizations are joining forces with former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to hold a gathering next January that will emphasize their common goals.
The “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant” was announced Tuesday at The Carter Center in Atlanta during a meeting between the presidents — who were both raised Southern Baptist — and dozens of leaders who together represent 20 million Baptists in North America.
“This has been what may turn out to be one of the most historic events, at least in the history of Baptists in this country, and perhaps Christianity,” said Carter, who left the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000. “We believe it will bear fruits.”
The gathering, planned for Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2008, most likely in Atlanta, is expected to bring together more than 20,000 Baptist participants, including Carter and possibly Clinton, who called himself a “cheerleader” for the efforts.
“Those of you who don’t follow the ins and outs of various denominations in America, or did not have both the privilege and the burden to be raised in the Baptist church, cannot possibly appreciate how different this meeting is from what has gone on in our denomination the last 30 years,” Clinton said at the news conference.
The initiative stems from the adoption of the “North American Baptist Covenant” last April, in which leaders reaffirmed their commitment to Baptist values including evangelism, helping the needy and promoting religious liberty.
“We decided that day in April that the most important things were things that we agreed on, and we also decided that we could accomplish more on these imperatives working together than any one of us could alone,” said Bill Underwood, president of the Baptist-affiliated Mercer University in Macon, Ga., who worked with Carter to bring the disparate groups together.
Two years ago, four historic black Baptist denominations met in Nashville, Tenn., to move beyond old divisions over leadership and civil rights. Now, the 2008 gathering aims to draw together an even larger coalition of Baptists from the North and South, the U.S. and Canada, and predominantly black and predominantly white conventions and fellowships. Underwood said the groups also include theological perspectives ranging from conservative to moderate to progressive.
Underwood said individual Southern Baptists, including himself, were involved in Tuesday’s announcement but not current leaders of the 16 million-member denomination.
Most participants at the Atlanta meeting are members of the North American Baptist Fellowship, a regional group that belongs to the Baptist World Alliance. The Southern Baptist Convention pulled out of the global body in 2004.
Underwood said he hopes the 2008 gathering will launch other collaborative ventures such as evangelism, disaster relief and “many other tangible projects that these organizations will work on together.”
He expects the support of Carter and Clinton, two of the country’s best-known Baptists, can only aid the plans.
“They are two lifelong Baptists,” Underwood said of the presidents. “It’s critically important that they be involved.”
While Carter has made several efforts to build bridges between Baptists, Clinton’s participation is more novel.
“I think, certainly, President Carter has invited President Clinton to be a part of this at the urging of a number of the Baptist organizations who are participating,” Underwood said.
He added that Republican Baptists “who also happen to be public servants” are expected to attend next year’s gathering as well.
“We will be addressing issues in nonpartisan ways but in prophetic ways,” said the Rev. William J. Shaw, president of the predominantly black National Baptist Convention, USA.
Carter recently reiterated his commitment to building denominational relations when he spoke at the Jan. 3 funeral of former President Gerald Ford, an Episcopalian, in East Grand Rapids, Mich.
“We both felt that Episcopalians, Baptists and others should live together in harmony, within the adequate and common belief that we are saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ,” Carter said.