The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) at its annual meeting has decisively repudiated the use of the Confederate flag.
An ovewhelming majority of 'messengers' or delegates voted in favour of a resolution that urged a resolution that urged "brothers and sisters in Christ to discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag as a sign of solidarity of the whole body of Christ, including our African American brothers and sisters".
The move marks further progress toward racial reconciliation in the denomination, which was established in 1845, partly in support of slaveholding missionaries, before America's Civil War.
The action came four years after the denomination elected its first black president, Fred Luter, a pastor and civic leader from New Orleans.
In 1995, a Southern Baptist committee issued a resolution apologizing to African-Americans for condoning slavery and racism during the early years of the denomination's 171-year history.
"This denomination was founded by people who wrongly defended the sin of human slavery," said Russell Moore, head of the convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "Today the nation's largest Protestant denomination voted to repudiate the Confederate battle flag, and it's time and well past time."
The original resolution brought to the meeting called for "sensitivity and unity" regarding displays of the flag, reported Baptist Press. It also said the flag "serves for some not as a symbol of hatred, bigotry, and racism, but as a memorial to their loved ones who died in the Civil War, and an emblem to honor their loved ones' valor". However, this sentence was deleted after an intervention by former SBC president James Merritt, who also called for a halt to displaying the flag altogether.
Merritt, who said two of his great-great-grandfathers had fought for the Confederacy, said no one could deny that the Confederate battle flag is "a stumbling block" for many African Americans to the witness of Southern Baptists.
Some messengers stood to applaud him when he said that "all the Confederate flags in the world are not worth one soul of any race". "This is not a matter of political correctness," he continued. "It is a matter of spiritual conviction and biblical compassion. We have a golden opportunity to say to every person of every race, ethnicity and nationality that Southern Baptists are not a people of any flag. We march under the banner of the cross of Jesus and the grace of God."
The flag carried by the South's pro-slavery Confederate forces during the 1861-65 US Civil War re-emerged as a flashpoint in America's troubled race relations after the massacre of nine blacks by a white gunman at an historic church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. The assailant was seen afterward in photographs posing with the flag.
Additional reporting by Reuters.