NEW ORLEANS — The Southern Baptist Convention voted Tuesday to elect its first black president in one of its biggest steps yet to reconcile the 167-year-old denomination's troubled racial past and appeal to a more diverse group of Christians.
The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. was unopposed in being elected by thousands of enthusiastic delegates Tuesday at the annual meeting of the nation's largest Protestant denomination in his hometown of New Orleans.
The Rev. David Crosby of First Baptist New Orleans nominated Mr. Luter, calling him a "fire-breathing, miracle-working pastor" who "would likely be a candidate for sainthood if he were Catholic."
Mr. Crosby recalled how Mr. Luter built the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church from a tiny congregation to a megachurch of nearly 8,000 before the buildings were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Members of Mr. Luter's mostly black church came to worship at Mr. Crosby's mostly white church, and the pastors worked together for 2 1/2 years as Mr. Luter rebuilt Franklin Avenue. Today, with a Sunday attendance of 5,000, Mr. Luter's church is once again the largest Southern Baptist church by attendance in Louisiana.
"Fred Luter is the only megachurch pastor I know who had to do it twice," Mr. Crosby said.
Mr. Crosby said the SBC needs Mr. Luter at the head of the table as it increasingly focuses on diversifying its membership.
"Many leaders are convinced this nomination is happening now by the provenance of God," he said.
Delegates clapped and cheered when Mr. Luter's election was announced by current SBC President Bryant Wright, who told those gathered for the convention that they were "privileged to be here for this historic occasion."
Mr. Luter wiped tears from his eyes as he accepted the position.
The election comes as the denomination tries to expand its appeal beyond its traditional white Southern base. Membership and baptisms have been declining in recent years.
The Nashville, Tenn.-based denomination was formed before the Civil War in a split with northern Baptists over slavery and had a reputation over much of the past century for supporting segregation.
Seventeen years ago, Mr. Luter was one of the authors of an SBC resolution that apologized to blacks for its past support of racism and resolved to strive for racial reconciliation.
Since that gesture, the denomination has grown its nonwhite congregations from only 5 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2010, though its leadership has not diversified as rapidly as membership.