Lyons may try to split Baptists

Two pastors join him in a plan that could lead to a new convention.

Published May 24, 2007

A month after the Rev. Henry J. Lyons lost his bid to again lead the Florida General Baptist Convention, the controversial preacher appears poised to start a new state convention of black Baptists.

Lyons and two South Florida pastors sent a letter to preachers around the state earlier this month noting "serious concerns" among some convention pastors and members "about the direction and integrity" of the state convention.

The group plans to meet Friday in West Palm Beach to discuss "issues affecting our convention."

Lyons ran the Florida convention from 1982 to 1995 when he became president of the National Baptist Convention USA. He resigned in 1999 and went to prison for nearly five years for swindling the convention's corporate partners out of about $5.2-million. He remains on probation and still owes more than $5.1-million in restitution.

Lyons' name appears as the first signatory on the May 4 letter, which listed the mailing address of his Tampa church, the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church.

Lyons, 65, did not return calls for comment. The letter's other signatories, both of West Palm Beach, also did not respond.

The Rev. Gilbert W. Stewart, one of the signers, expressed support for Lyons as he sought the state presidency during the annual convention in April.

"He was our president before and, out of over 100 years of the Florida Baptist Convention, he had the most outstanding record," Stewart said at the time.

According to the letter, a group of pastors and Christian workers met recently in Fort Pierce to explore options regarding the 400,000- to 500,000-member convention. The letter writers wrote that the group is "now in a period of prayer for direction from the Lord as to his will for us in regards to our convention."

The Rev. James B. Sampson, the Jacksonville pastor who bested Lyons last month in the state presidency race, did not return calls for comment.

Lyons' candidacy for state president threatened to split the state convention, with many pastors saying they could not again abide his leadership. When Lyons lost, many thought the issue of splintering had been quelled.

New word of a possible split displeased several pastors.

"What we need to do is line up behind the elected president, and keep our convention strong and viable," said the Rev. Fred Maeweathers Sr., pastor of the Shady Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Ocala. "That would be Christian way."

Religion scholars say splitting among Baptists -- black and white -- is common.

"It is not unusual if you have a strong pastor and a fairly strong support group around that pastor -- that is, other clergy who are willing to go along with that -- for them to sort of create their own denomination" or convention, said Lawrence H. Mamiya, a religion professor at Vassar College.

Sherri Day can be reached at (813) 226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.