Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Search Committee Unanimously Nominates Braxton to Succeed Forbes at Riverside Church

I am not very fond of mega-churches as a phenomenon.  I belong to a small church on purpose: It is better able to be community for the members, better able to resist the heresy of hyper-individualized notions of salvation, etc.  And, most mega-churches are very rightwing in theology and politics. (Even if not, they have to have small groups that become the de facto church-within-the-church for members, which is less than ideal from my view.)

Nevertheless, one mega-church that I have long admired for its strong stands for peace and justice in its 75 year history is Riverside Church in the City of New York.  An ecumenical congregation which grew out of Park Avenue Baptist Church, NYC, Riverside was the ecumenical and liberal dream of Baptist pastor, Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), who was Senior Minister from 1925 to 1946.  Riverside was a center of the Social Gospel and the struggle for Civil Rights as well as opposition to the Vietnam War. (Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others helped launch Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam at Riverside Church on 04 April 1967 when King gave his, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech–one year to the day before he was assassinated.) Riverside has also led in opposing both wars with Iraq and has been strong on immigrants rights, women’s rights, changing U.S. policy in Central and South America and much else.  There has long been a very strong connection between Riverside and the ecumenical Union Theological Seminary, just across the street.

Riverside Church is  a church where membership is open to Christians of all denominations and the ministerial staff comes from many theological traditions.  The congregation is officially affiliated with two denominations, the American Baptist Churches, USA and the United Church of Christ.  Last year, at 71, Dr. James Forbes, Jr. retired as Senior Minister of Riverside Church. He had also served as Fosdick Professor of Homiletics at Union Seminary. Dr. Forbes, an American Baptist minister with a black Pentecostal background, had been the first African-American Senior Minister.  Some members had accused him of not concentrating enough on the church’s peace and justice heritage. Others had accused him of attracting more African-Americans and Latino/as at the expense of white members–and it is true that when I last visited Riverside it had moved from a white church with a black pastor to a more thoroughly multi-ethnic congregation. No doubt, such changes involved adjustments that were culturally painful.

Now the search committee has unanimously recommended Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton as the next Senior Pastor. The congregation has yet to confirm the selection. Braxton currently teaches New Testament and Homiletics at Vanderbilt University Divinity School (and Vanderbilt’s Graduate Department of Religion) and previously taught at Wake Forest University Divinity School. The son of a Baptist minister and an ordained National Baptist minister, Braxton had been Senior Pastor at Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, MD while finishing his Ph.D. in NT at Emory University. He had also studied at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship.  He is the author of three books and is on the editorial board of The African American Pulpit.

Married to the former Lazetta Rainey, the Braxtons are the proud parents of Karis, a 2 year old daughter.

If elected by the congregation, Braxton, who is 39, is young enough to follow in the tradition of long-serving Senior Ministers at Riverside. (There have only been 5 Senior Ministers to date in Riverside’s history: Harry Emerson Fosdick, Robert McCracken (a Scottish Baptist who had taught theology in Canada), Ernest T. Campbell, William Sloan Coffin, Jr. (a United Church of Christ minister and former chaplain of Yale University), and James Forbes, Jr.) He would be the 2nd African-American Senior Minister in a row and would complement Forbes’ excellence in preaching with a more exegetical style as a biblical scholar.  His experience in ecumenical ministry and his Baptist roots would keep Riverside connected to both parts of its history.

Thanks to Melissa Rogers for this news. (Note: Melissa is an attorney specializing in church-state matters. Previously she worked for the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty and now is Visiting Professor of Religion and Public Policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School–she is a former colleague of Dr. Braxton’s.  At WFU, Melissa founded and heads the Center for Religion and Public Affairs. She runs the best blog on church-state issues in the U.S. context available.)

I would never give advice to another congregation on whom to call for any ministry position. I trust they will follow the leading of God’s Spirit. But, if the congregation follows the recommendation of the Search Committee, I join others in offering my congratulations to Riverside and to Dr. Braxton. I think they will be a good match. Alas, I cannot think this can be anything other than bad news for Vanderbilt, which, like WFU beforehand, will lose the talents and gifts that Braxton brought to the school.

UPDATE: Riverside’s website confirms the Search Committee’s unanimous selection.  Dr. Braxton is now scheduled to deliver a guest sermon at Riverside on 10 September and the congregation will vote on his call on 14 September.

August 4, 2008 - Posted by | Baptists, church, liberal theology


  1. I do hope if Braxton does go to Riverside, that he also follows some of the previous ministers other leads as well, right into a professorship at Union.

    Comment by d. w. horstkoetter | August 4, 2008

  2. Michael
    Thanks for posting this fantastic news. Brad and I have been in touch about this possibility for months now, and it is great to hear the news (so quickly!!).

    Comment by sean | August 4, 2008

  3. D.W., I think Union would do well to hire Braxton as an adjunct N.T. and/or homiletics prof, as they did with Fosdick (homiletics), McCracken (theology), Coffin (ethics), and Forbes (homiletics). But I don’t think a Union post goes with the job automatically! Too bad you’ll be far away in Marquette!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 7, 2008

  4. […] Former WFUDS professor Brad Braxton is going to be the new senior minister at Riverside Church in […]

    Pingback by Will Blog For Food & Links For The Clicking | Homebrewed Christianity | August 8, 2008

  5. Why is no one reporting on Braxton’s November 9th sermon about god being “open and affirming” and “All Flesh” including “lesbians, gay men, transexuals, bisexuals, queer and heterosexual people”. This is an incredibly important advance for Riverside Church, maybe the first step to reuniting the divided factions of the church and being a truly inter-racial, inter-sexual, and open congregation. Taking Riverside back to its root without eliminating the advances we have made. Braxton is looking really promising right now, lets talk about that!

    Comment by Chelsea | November 15, 2008

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