Beliefnet Who's Who:The Most Influential Black Spiritual Leaders

Beliefnet's guide to the most prominent and powerful African-American religious leadership.

BY: Halimah Abdullah


In African-American communities, religious leaders have historically occupied a powerful position: Gurus. Advocates. Stewards. Preachers. Whether inspiring their congregations to stand up against social injustice or urging a focus on God-centered family values, African-American religious leaders are a crucial component of a rich and diverse spiritual landscape. In honor of Black History Month, Beliefnet has compiled a list of some of the nation’s most influential African-American spiritual leaders. While by no means comprehensive, the list represents some of today’s most prominent--and controversial--spiritual figures, as well as those whose lifelong efforts have earned them a place in history, and up-and-coming figures of note.

Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III
Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III

This pastor of the legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and president of SUNY College at Old Westbury has been a prominent voice in headlining social issues for over 15 years. At times considered a firebrand for his outspoken criticism of New York civil institutions, Butts has managed to balance his dual roles as a pastor and a social activist. Perennially included in lists of likely mayoral candidates, he has focused his energies on a laundry list of social concerns: racism, education, images of women and minorities in the media, and, most of all, care for the poor. Butts helped establish the Abyssinian Development Corporation, which has overseen new and improved affordable housing.


The Abyssinian Baptist Church

The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell
Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell

The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell is pastor of one of the nation’s largest Methodist congregations, the 15,000-member Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston. Caldwell’s position as President George W. Bush's friend and spiritual advisor has been marked with some controversy—his somewhat less than religiously inclusive benediction during the 2001 inauguration drew sharp criticism. Still, as a leader with direct access to the president in matters religious, Caldwell is seen as a powerful national religious figure.


A Good and Faithful Confidence-Keeper


Kingdom Builders

The Rev. Johnnie Colemon
Rev. Colemon

As founder and pastor of Christ Universal Temple in Chicago, the Rev. Johnnie Colemon is a leader in the growing prosperity-gospel movement. Dubbed by followers “the first lady of New Thought” (the belief that your mind creates your reality), her message incorporates teachings designed to help people change their lives through thought, behavior, and their relationship to God.


Christ Universal Temple


Talk About New Thought

Dr. Creflo A. Dollar
Dr. Creflo A. Dollar

Best-known for preaching the "prosperity gospel," whereby material success accompanies spiritual well-being, Dr. Creflo A. Dollar leads a media empire that includes a 25,000-member megachurch, television broadcasts, and a magazine. In addition, Dollar's World Changers Church International, which is based in metropolitan Atlanta, boasts over 60 programs that offer social services, including training people for the workforce and helping them get out of debt, in diverse communities worldwide. In 1986, he began his church with a membership of only eight. Dollar's lavish lifestyle, which includes a multi-million dollar apartment in Manhattan, has evoked strong criticism. For his followers, however, it serves as inspiration that his theology of prosperity is effective.


Creflo Dollar Ministries

Minister Louis Farrakhan

Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan’s career as a galvanizing orator and controversial religious and political figure brought him to national attention. He earned notoriety for anti-Semitic comments, but in recent years moved from the NOI’s early black separatist message to the unifying themes of the Million Man March. He has also embraced a more mainstream version of Islam--a shift that has brought him support from American Muslim leader W.D. Muhammad. In 2000 the two announced a reconciliation to strengthen the black community.


Nation of Islam


Farrakhan Urges Blacks to Shun Bush Plan


Is Louis Farrakhan Going Mainstream?

The Rev. Floyd Flake
Rev. Floyd Flake

The Rev. Floyd Flake’s message of self-help and community responsibility is perhaps best exemplified by the success of Allen A.M.E. Church, a more than 25,000-member congregation in Jamaica, Queens. Flake, a former U.S. congressman, has been instrumental in netting government grants to revitalize his church's neighborhood and build affordable housing. As president of Wilberforce College, historically the first black Christian college in the nation, he has also used his political savvy to help pull the school out of debt.


The Greater Allen Cathedral of New York

The Rev. James Forbes, Jr.
James Forbes

The Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Jr. is Senior Minister of the famed Riverside Church in New York City, a prominent liberal, interdenominational congregation. Forbes spoke out in favor of the election of John Kerry during the last presidential campaign and addressed the Democratic National Convention in July 2004. Forbes’ message of social justice, exemplified in such efforts as a 1998 rally on Capitol Hill to call for an end to poverty and racism, has helped secure his position as one of the nation’s foremost liberal religious thinkers.


The Moral Urgency of Electing John Kerry



The Riverside Church

Archbishop Wilton Gregory
Bishop Wilton Gregory

The first African American to head the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Gregory took the lead in reforming church policies in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandals. Though he is no longer president of the organization, Gregory made headlines as a religious leader willing to take the hard line in considering sex abuse a crime and calling for the ouster of predatory priests. Gregory, who is now Atlanta’s archbishop, has worked to help restore public confidence in the church.


A Good Guy


U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops


Archdiocese of Atlanta

The Rev. Jesse Jackson
Jesse Jackson

An ordained Baptist minister, political activist, and acolyte of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson established himself nationally and internationally as a champion for human rights. Over the course of his career he has advocated for civil rights, organized boycotts, mounted failed presidential bids, served as President Bill Clinton’s spiritual adviser, and negotiated the release of hostages, all the while serving as head of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.


RainbowPUSH Coalition

Bishop T.D. Jakes
TD Jakes

Bishop T.D. Jakes’s electrifying blend of gospel and tell-it-like-it-is sermonizing resonates with a national and international following. In just over five years, Jakes transformed his ministry from a storefront operation to the Potter’s House, a more than 30,000-member Dallas-based congregation that is one of the largest  churches in the nation. He is a best-selling author, a conference and crusade speaker, a Grammy and Dove-nominated music artist, an entrepreneur, and a filmmaker. With a new biography in print and a recent PBS appearance, he is reaching broader audiences with his message of God-inspired self-empowerment.


Serving His Generation


Jakes' Columns


The Potter's Touch

Elder Bernice King
Elder Bernice King

King, the youngest daughter of the slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., was thrust into the national spotlight in February 2006 when she poignantly eulogized her mother, Coretta Scott King. King has built a career around many of the values that her parents lived for, and as an ordained elder at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, she has also followed her father into the ministry. A lawyer with a degree from Emory University, King worked at one time as a law clerk in a juvenile detention center. Her family's trademark organizing and activism skills are apparent in her own work--as when she fought to close a pornography shop that was opening near a high school--and in the many nonviolent conflict resolution workshops she has led and lectures she has delivered. Her 1996 book "

Hard Questions, Heart Answers

," landed her on talk shows from Oprah to BET.


New Birth Missionary Baptist Church

The Rev. Vashti M. McKenzie
Vashti M. McKenzie

The Rev. Vashti M. McKenzie shattered “the stained glass ceiling” when she became the first female African Methodist Episcopal bishop in 2000. She comes from a family of firsts—her family founded a Baltimore-based black newspaper and her grandmother was a founding member of Delta Sigma Theta, a predominantly African-American sorority started at Howard University. But McKenzie has created her own modern-day legacy through her work as a nationally renowned clergywoman, a social advocate who has done extensive work in southern Africa, a former journalist, and an author.


The African Methodist Episcopal Church

Continued on page 2: A Run-DMC rapper turned Pentecostal preacher »

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