Influential New York pastor, Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, has died at 73, the church announced on Friday. Butts was the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he presided for more than 40 years.
Butts died after a second bout with cancer, according to a parishioner. Earlier this year, he brought his medical team from New York City’s famed Sloan Kettering Medical Center into the church and revealed that he was battling cancer.
“He knew where he was going because he knew with his diagnosis it could go either way, but he fought a good fight,” says Ruth D. Hunt, a retired health administrator and genealogist who has been an Abyssinian Baptist Church parishioner since 1988.
Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia who is currently running for reelection to U.S. Senate, was the youth and assistant pastor at Abyssinian for a decade. Like Warnock, Butts was also a graduate of Morehouse College.
Abyssinian Baptist Church has been a stalwart in the Black community since the early 1900s. It was founded in response to segregation in an established white church and named after a group of Ethiopian seamen and businessmen who were among the founders. (They were then called Abyssinians).
In 1908, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. moved the growing church to Harlem where it found enormous success. His son, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., succeeded him as pastor, going on to become a city councilman and then a U.S. congressman.
Throughout the Powell years, the church became renowned for its activism and community involvement, hosting public figures, politicians, and celebrities. Powell, Jr. was succeeded by Rev. Samuel Dewitt Proctor, who formed the Abyssian Housing Development Fund, which purchased properties for affordable-income residents and helped advocate for home ownership in an increasingly lucrative Harlem housing market.
By the time Butts took over in 1990, the church was well established but he brought it even more attention by continuing to embrace community projects, including a campaign to paint over cigarette and alcohol advertising in Harlem. In 1993, Butts drew some fire from the hip-hop community when he attempted to steamroll rap records he said were misogynistic, singling out The Geto Boys, NWA, and 2 Live Crew. When met with resistance from some rap fans, he instead dumped the CDs outside of Sony Music’s Manhattan offices.
Contrary to popular belief at the time, Butts was not against rap music overall. He told The Source magazine that it was an important art form but that he was against “those who prostitute the music and send negative and filthy messages to our children and adults.”
He expanded on that activism in other ways, establishing a prison ministry and other community-based initiatives during his tenure.
“Rev. Butts brought something else to the congregation because he was young, but he was concerned about the political state of our people. I can remember when he was very active before he became the senior pastor,” Hunt says. “He was going into the Harlem community and painting over billboards with cigarettes and alcohol ads because he said we don’t want that advertising in our community. He took a stand for the Harlem community and the Black community at large, not just in the pulpit but in the community for our advancement.”
Rev. Al Sharpton, who sometimes clashed with the outspoken preacher, issued a statement after Butts’ passing was announced.
“Rev. Butts was a major pillar in the Harlem community and is irreplaceable. He was a dominant faith and academic leader for decades. We knew each other for more than 40 years and while we did not always agree, we always came back together,” Sharpton’s statement read, in part.
Butts was born on July 19, 1949, in Bridgeport, Connecticut but raised in Queens, N.Y. The Morehouse graduate received a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Drew University. After being promoted to senior pastor at Abyssinian, he also became the president of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Old Westbury from 1999-2020. Per his Abyssinian bio, he also helped develop the Thurgood Marshall Academy of Learning and Social Change high school and the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School.
Butts is survived by his wife, Patricia, three children, and seven grandchildren.