It could go down as a landmark event in church history, similar to Luther's protest at Wittenberg or King Henry VIII's headstrong decision to pull England out of the Roman church. When Deborah Lyons, in a moment of Waiting to Exhale-style rage, trashed and set fire to a $700,000 waterfront home in Florida that she discovered her husband, Henry, owned with his alleged mistress, Bernice Edwards, the stage was set for a very public reformation in the National Baptist Convention USA.

The National Baptist Convention (NBC) is the nation's largest African-American denomination, with more than 30,000 churches. But its influence is even more widespread. As Robert M. Franklin, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta, wrote in Emergemagazine: "[The NBC] has had a major impact on every dimension of African-American Christianity, including our music, preaching, political activism and basic sense of autonomy." Martin Luther King Jr. preached his first sermon in a National Baptist church; Aretha Franklin sang her first solo in one. Politicians flock to NBC meetings when they want to reach the black community.

Henry J. Lyons, of course, is the former NBC president whose administration was cut short by a surreal chain of scandalous events involving money, sex, politics, race, and a justifiably ticked-off spouse who later recanted her grievance, blamed it on her own alcoholism, and faithfully stood by her husband despite the compelling evidence against him.

In July 1997, after Deborah Lyons's fiery outburst, authorities began unearthing secret bank accounts kept by her husband and a disturbing pattern of misdeeds in which he used his clout as NBC president to underwrite a surreptitious life of excess with other ...

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