A preacher who went to prison for stealing millions of dollars from one of the country’s largest Baptist denominations lost an election Thursday to lead the group again.
Delegates at the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention USA voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Rev. Julius R. Scruggs for president over the Rev. Henry Lyons, who unsuccessfully tried to challenge the fairness of the election in court. Scruggs received 4,108 votes to Lyons’ 924.
“I do not take your trust lightly,” Scruggs told a convention crowd Thursday night after the vote tally. “I will do everything in my power to live up to your trust.”
Scruggs is pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala., and a former vice president-at-large for the denomination.
The Nashville-based National Baptist Convention USA is the nation’s largest and oldest predominantly black denomination with roughly 7.5 million worshipers.
Lyons was forced out as president in 1999 after an investigation revealed he abused his power and stole about $4 million from the denomination. He used the money to buy luxury homes and jewelry and support his mistresses. He served almost five years in prison.
Some National Baptists said his re-emergence has reflected badly on the convention.
The Rev. James Thomas of Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville is a member of another national Baptist group, but planned to be in Memphis to support Scruggs, his classmate from theology school.
If Lyons had won, “every black Baptist will be looked down on in America because of the low standards that Lyons has had in the past,” said the Rev. James Thomas, who is a member of a different Baptist group but said he went to Memphis to support his former classmate Scruggs.
“God forgives, but he’s scarred my mind,” said Thelma Peake, 54, of Philadelphia. “I can forgive him, but I don’t trust him.”
Lyons’ supporters pointed to the significant good work during his presidency.
The Rev. Darin Freeman, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Charleston, W.Va., praised him for reducing the convention’s debt by two-thirds in four years and said he was an effective mentor to the group’s young ministers — including himself.
“I believe in reconciliation,” another supporter, the Rev. Jesse Shaver, 49 of Sacramento, Calif., said Wednesday. “I believe in giving a person a chance and that we should restore that person. He (Lyons) just got caught up. All of us get caught up sometimes.”
A District of Columbia court Wednesday rejected a petition from Lyons, currently pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, Fla., to stop the election. He contended that a new voting process was unfair.
Lyons has previously acknowledged damaging the convention’s reputation but said he’s a changed man who deserves a second chance as president.
After the election, he said he and his supporters knew that Scruggs “would win by a serious landslide” after their court motions were rejected the day before.
He would not say whether he planned to end his legal fight with the denomination.
“We don’t want to get into some long, protracted kind of situation. I’ll look at all the options and weigh them.” Lyons said.
Scruggs shied away from discussing Lyons’ candidacy this week but called the lawsuit “unnecessary and disruptive.”
As the new president, Scruggs said he plans to unite and grow convention membership and to increase revenue to support church mission work.