A preacher who went to prison for stealing millions of dollars from the National Baptist Convention USA lost a bid Thursday to once again lead the group.
Delegates at the convention’s annual meeting in Memphis 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.
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. Lyons was eventually convicted and served nearly five years in prison.
Some National Baptists said his re-emergence now has reflected badly on the convention, which has roughly 7.5 million worshippers. About 40,000 of them were in Memphis for the convention’s annual meeting. Delegates lined up Thursday morning to cast their votes.
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.
Thomas went to theology school with Scruggs, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala., and former vice president-at-large for the Nashville-based National Baptist Convention.
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,” Thomas said.
Lyons’ supporters point to significant good done during his presidency. The Rev. Darin Freeman, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Charleston, W.Va., praised Lyons 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, pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, Fla., to stop the election. He contends the voting process is unfair.
Lyons couldn’t be reached by The Associated Press on Thursday. He has previously acknowledged damaging the convention’s reputation but said he’s a changed man who deserves a second chance as president.
Scruggs shied away from discussing Lyons’ candidacy this week but called the lawsuit “unnecessary and disruptive.”
Following his farewell sermon on Thursday, current president the Rev. Dr. William J. Shaw told reporters that he also thought the lawsuit was “groundless.”
Shaw couldn’t seek a third five-year term under convention rules. He has acknowledged “mixed feelings” about Lyons’ candidacy, but he said the former president had a right to run again under church rules.
As the new president, Scruggs said he plans to unite and grow convention membership and to increase revenue to support church mission work.
Lyons’ downfall came after his wife Deborah set fire to a $700,000 waterfront home he co-owned with a mistress, and the resulting investigation revealed he’d stolen money from the organization. The Lyonses have since divorced.
Lyons was convicted of racketeering and grand theft in 1999. He resigned as president and pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax evasion, fraud and making false statements.
Many in the denomination are willing to forgive Lyons but they can’t forget what he did.
“God forgives, but he’s scarred my mind,” Thelma Peake, 54, of Philadelphia said of Lyons. “I can forgive him, but I don’t trust him.”
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