Editor’s note: Several months after this article was published, L. Venchael Booth passed away on November 16, 2002.
He is the man most responsible for founding the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC)—the denomination that provided a church base for Martin Luther King Jr. But you won't find his name noted in many history books. In fact, most black Baptists will credit King and New York preaching legend Gardner Taylor with starting the denomination. The credit, however, rightfully belongs to L. Venchael Booth, whose story is finally told in a recently released book about the PNBC.
In November 1961, Booth persuaded a cluster of disaffected members of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. to leave their massive denomination—then and now considered the mother of all black Baptist groups—and form the PNBC. The new entity they agreed to launch that chilly day at Booth's Cincinnati church has since become the second-largest black Baptist group in America.
Booth doesn't strike one as a maverick or a rebel. But 40 years ago, those were fitting descriptions for a man who decided to take on what was one of the black community's most powerful institutions. "It was not folly or a desire for power that propelled me to move ahead with calling for a new convention," says the 82-year-old preacher. "It was a belief that our convention should inspire us to do greater kingdom building."
The history of African American Protestantism is loaded with sensational stories—from AME founder Richard Allen's unceremonious departure from the white Methodist church to Church of God in Christ organizer Charles H. Mason's Pentecostal epiphany at the Azusa Street revival. In more recent times, the history has been less heroic and more political. Some of the liveliest episodes have taken place among black Baptists, who formed slews of denominations that, because of one internal squabble or another, wound up dividing like amoebas.
The Progressive National Baptists' break from the National Baptist Convention (NBC) was the result of a skirmish over tenure for the Convention president. The better-known history says the split was due to disagreement about the civil rights movement—whether the NBC should support the activism of Baptist native son Martin Luther King Jr. But the primary catalyst for the split was more mundane. Convention president J. H. Jackson (and his predecessors) had served without limit, and a younger movement of Baptists wanted to end that tradition.
"The [new] convention was organized to remove the sense of imperialism from the presidency and to lead our people to become more Christ-centered," says Venchael Booth.
According to church historian Edward Wheeler, the Progressive Baptist movement has helped the wider African American church embrace a more legitimate system of checks and balances. "The convention has set an example for other black denominations in its organizational structure and in establishing tenure for its presidents," he says. "Prior to the Progressive Baptists, many denominations didn't even question the issue of tenure for their national leaders."
Wheeler, who is president of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, adds that the PNBC also "reunited the black church to a movement for human justice."
Indeed, the PNBC's membership roll over the years reads like a lineup of civil rights All Stars: King, Benjamin Hooks, H. Beecher Hicks, Jesse Jackson. The group currently claims 2.5 million members (though, as we've recently learned, some black Baptist data is best approached with caution in this post-Henry Lyons era).