Shaw, William J. 1934(?)–
William J. Shaw 1934(?)–
Minister, president of the National Baptist Convention
In 1999 Rev. William J. Shaw was elected president of the National Baptist Convention, USA (NBCUSA), the largest African-American religious organization in the nation. An umbrella organization for black Baptist churches across the country, the NBCUSA has more than an million members. Shaw replaced former president Rev. Henry Lyons, who resigned after being convicted of grand theft and racketeering. The charges against Lyons included misusing donations intended to help black churches, and swindling millions from corporations that wanted to market to NBCUSA’s members. Lyons was sentenced to five and a half years in prison.
Shaw, the pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was one of eleven candidates who sought to replace Lyons as president. During the bitter election campaign, deep divisions in the organization emerged. However, Shaw, described by John Blake of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as “a squeaky clean reformer” and “a soft-spoken pastor with a scholarly air,” vowed to heal these divisions, as well as reorder the group’s finances. “It is a point of beginning for us,” Shaw was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. “Be prayerful that God will give us the kind of bonding and healing that we need.”
In addition to his roles as a reformer and healer of the organization, Shaw pledged to re-ignite the group’s political activism, which had died out during Lyons’ tenure. During the 2000 presidential campaign, for example, Shaw criticized both Al Gore and George W. Bush for not taking the African-American vote seriously enough. “The ministry of Jesus is teaching, preaching and healing,” Shaw told Ron Goldwyn of the Philadelphia Daily News. “He did have encounters with the political authorities.”
Shaw, the youngest of six children, was born circa 1934 in Marshall, Texas. He was baptized at age seven, and just four years later delivered his first sermon. At fifteen, Shaw took the position of “supply pastor” at New Bethel Baptist Church in Marshall, Texas. By seventeen, he had become an ordained minister at Oak Hill Baptist Church in Harrison County, Texas.
Though Shaw dreamed of being a lawyer, he decided to follow the call to the ministry—a call he had felt since childhood. After graduating from high school as valedictorian,
At a Glance…
Born William J. Shaw in 1934(?), in Marshall, TX; married Camellia Shaw (a home economics teacher and dietitian), 1957; children: Tim. Education: Bishop College, Texas, B.A., summa cum laude, philosophy and religion,; Union Theological Seminary, New York, M.A.; Colgate Rochester Divinity School, Rochester, NY, doctor of ministry degree. Religion: Baptist.
Career: White Rock Baptist Church, Philadelphia, pastor, 1956-; Pennsylvania Baptist State Convention, president, 1978-82; Opportunities Industrialization Centers, executive director; National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., president, 1999-.
Memberships: Board member for the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, the Medical Center of the University of Pennsylvania, the Presbyterian Hospital Medical Center, and the Philadelphia Airport Advisory Board; member of the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition and the Martin Luther King Fellows in Black Studies.
he enrolled at Bishop College in Texas. At the age of nineteen, he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in philosophy and religion, and a minor in world history. Next, Shaw moved to New York City to pursue a masters degree at Union Theological Seminary.
In 1956, when he was just 22, Shaw was appointed pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia. The following year, he completed his graduate study, earning a masters of divinity with a major in Christian ethics. Also in 1957, he married his wife, Camellia, a home economics teacher and dietitian. The couple have one son, Tim.
Years later, Shaw returned to Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, New York to complete his education. He earned a doctor of ministry degree, with an emphasis on interpreting the Bible from a black perspective, in 1975. The congregation of White Rock Baptist Church includes a cross-section of the African American community in Philadelphia, including some of the most prominent blacks in the city. “With its grey-stone-and-stucco exterior and neatly manicured lawns, the church has been a solid anchor in West Philadelphia since Mr. Shaw took over,” Acel Moore wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It has remained a constant force through the street gang warfare and civil unrest of the 1960s, and the drug culture that has spawned more violent crime and dysfunctional families in the 1980s and 1990s.”
As well as ministering to more than 1200 active members, Shaw also oversaw the church’s services to the community. By the 1990s, these included an after-school math and science tutoring program for children, a drug and alcohol abuse program, an adult learning program, and a library specializing in books on African American history. Shaw also helped initiate the church’s “Exodus to Excellence” program, which encouraged students to pursue a college education. “He attempts, whether through sermons or through general conversation, to make us reach higher, not to accept something that is less than what we are capable of doing,” Oteria G. Trapp, head of the church’s trustee board, told Adelle M. Banks of the Washington Post.
As pastor of White Rock, and in his work for other organizations, Shaw established a reputation for scrupulous honesty and responsibility. From 1978 to 1982, when he served as president of the Pennsylvania Baptist State Convention, Shaw implemented a centralized accounting and budgeting system that increased financial accountability and moved the organization from a deficit to a surplus. Shaw achieved similar results when he was executive director of the Opportunities Industrialization Centers, a jobs training program in Philadelphia.
The National Baptist Convention traces its roots back to 1895, when three separate black Baptist groups— the Foreign Mission Convention, the American Baptist Missionary Convention, and the African Mission Convention—joined forces in Atlanta. Their goal was to promote Christian missions abroad, as well as to provide opportunities for leadership and spiritual growth for African Americans.
While the group’s beliefs are identical to mainline Baptist and other Christian denominations, the National Baptists place a great deal of emphasis on activism. The group’s official platform on civil rights states this clearly: “Protest has its place under the supreme law of the land and will and must continue as long as there is one vestige of racial discrimination and segregation in this fair land of ours” (quoted in A Story of Christian Activism, by J. H. Jackson).
In 1994 Shaw declared himself a candidate for the presidency of NBCUSA. Despite a spirited campaign, he finished third, behind Lyons of St. Petersburg, Florida, and W. Franklyn Richardson of Mount Vernon, New York. By 1997, however, it had become clear that Lyons’ leadership was causing problems for the organization: state and federal prosecutors were investigating him on charges of theft. At the convention’s contentious annual meeting in Denver, Colorado, Shaw and Richardson were two of the most prominent ministers to call for his resignation. “The convention has suffered from a failure to center itself on Christ and from a lack of accountability,” Shaw was quoted as saying in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
However, Lyons was able to hold onto his position until 1999, when a Florida jury convicted him of grand theft and racketeering. Later, Lyons pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion and fraud charges in connection with stealing $4 million—including $250,000 donated to help rebuild burned black churches in the South. With the stolen funds, Lyons enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle, complete with a waterfront mansion, expensive cars, and a mistress.
After Lyons’s resignation, a record number of church leaders—eleven—declared themselves candidates for president, including Shaw and Richardson; two candidates later dropped out, throwing their support to others. During the aggressive, emotional campaign, Shaw and Richardson emerged as reformist front-runners. According to D. Aileen Dodd, writing in the Miami Herald, “the two waged a virtual civil war, splitting the allegiances of churches in their region.”
In his campaign, Shaw adopted the acronym VISA, standing for “vision, integrity, structure and accountability.” He promised that if elected, he would not draw a salary; instead, he would take the $500,000 budgeted for a five-year term and endow five scholarships. According to Ron Goldwyn, writing in the Philadelphia Daily News, it was “a campaign pledge that helped Shaw win a tough, nine-candidate race.” Nearly 60,000 people—of whom 13,500 eligible to vote— came to NBCUSA’s convention in Tampa, Florida, to witness the presidential election.
When the votes were tallied, Shaw beat Richardson, his nearest competitor, by just 243 votes. Rows of convention delegates stood up, clenched their fists and shouted “Yes!” when Shaw’s victory was announced, and an organist broke into a gospel tune as Shaw took the podium. “I’m humbled,” Shaw was quoted as saying in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
As president, Shaw called for the convention’s membership to dedicate themselves to a 40-day period of prayer and fasting. Meanwhile, he promised to freeze unnecessary spending and to bring in an outside agency to audit the organization. An equally important pledge was to resolve differences among individuals and factions in the denomination—beginning with the other presidential candidates. At the board meeting where Shaw was installed as president, he chose the two losing front-runners to give the opening and closing sermons. “He sought to undo for us that painful culture of political rivalry and destruction,” convention member Rev. Riggins Earl told Adelle M. Banks of the Washington Post. “He was big enough of a man to practice reconciliation, not just to preach it,” he continued. “When asked whether he can do the job, I give a resounding yes,” Acel Moore wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “He is a smart, well-educated, independent but reserved and disciplined religious and civic leader respected by his peers.”
In contrast to Lyons’ spendthrift lifestyle, Shaw has attempted to run his presidency as modestly as possible. Rather than moving into a new office, for example, he simply added a full-time and a part-time assistant to handle convention business. During his five-year term as convention president, Shaw has promised to pay off the substantial debt on the church’s headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee; foster better relations between young and old clergy; and make improvements at a church-owned college. “But perhaps his most public task will be to remove the cloud of suspicion that has hung over the denomination since Lyons’s resignation,” Adelle M. Banks wrote in the Washington Post.
In addition, Shaw has vowed that NBCUSA will become more vocal in political matters. According to the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer, this was a smart move: “Convention presidents have a tradition of helping form America’s conscience, going back to the denomination’s founding in 1895. A new emphasis by the National Baptist Convention’s role as a strong voice in the national dialogue can only be welcomed.”
At NBCUSA’s 2000 convention in Los Angeles, Shaw and other leaders formally announced the group’s new activist platform, which would focus on education, civil rights, housing, health care, and political and economic empowerment for African Americans. The group’s reawakened militancy was evident when U.S. presidential hopefuls Al Gore and George W. Bush chose to address the convention via satellite, rather than holding a live forum, as Shaw had requested. “While Vice President Gore and Governor Bush may choose to act as if black voters do not count, we refuse to be counted out on Election Day or any other time,” Shaw told the attendees, who responded “Amen” (quoted as saying in the Philadelphia Tribune).
Similarly, after Bush’s election, Shaw spoke out against his nomination of the controversial John Ashcroft as attorney general. Ashcroft demonstrated “an apparent insensitivity to civil rights and other issues affecting the African-American community,” Shaw told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We see little about his nomination that is consistent with President Bush’s public statements about uniting the nation and healing its wounds.”
While Shaw’s election as NBCUSA president has brought him to national prominence, he considered being pastor of the White Rock to be his highest calling, he told Adelle M. Banks of the Washington Post. He travels frequently, but he tries to be in Philadelphia for services every Sunday: “If I had to choose between being president and being pastor, I’d be pastor,” he was quoted as saying. In addition to his demanding roles as pastor and NBCUSA president, Shaw finds time to volunteer for numerous religious and community-based organizations. He is a board member of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, the Medical Center of the University of Pennsylvania, Presbyterian Hospital Medical Center, and the Philadelphia Airport Advisory Board. In addition, he is a member of the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, Philadelphia and Martin Luther King Fellows in Black Studies.
Shaw’s five-year term expires in 2004, and he plans to run for a re-election. He told Adelle M. Banks of the Washington Post it will take at least a decade to put necessary changes in place. “It really is going to take time to institutionalize and change a culture,” Shaw was quoted as saying. “… It is a lot of work, but the work is not a burden.”
A Story of Christian Activism: The History of the National Baptist Convention, USA, by J. H. Jackson, 1980.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sept. 10, 1999; Sept. 11, 1999.
Charlotte Observer (North Carolina), Sept. 10, 2000.
Miami Herald, Sept. 10, 1999; Sept. 22, 1999.
Philadelphia Daily News, March 3, 2000; May 31, 2000.
Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 13, 1999; Sept. 14, 1999.
Philadelphia Tribune, September 15, 2000.
Tampa Tribune (Florida), Sept. 10, 1999.
Washington Post, August 5, 2000; Sept. 10, 1999.
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