Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, the longtime pastor of New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church and former president of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, died Oct. 28. He was 73. New York officials said Butts died of cancer.
Abyssinian, founded in 1808, is still considered the largest and most prominent African American congregation in New York, and Butts was the third pastor behind former Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
“It is with profound sadness we announce the passing of our beloved pastor, Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, all, who peacefully transitioned in the early morning of October 28, 2022,” the Harlem church announced in a Twitter post. “The Butts Family and entire Abyssinian Baptist Church membership solicit your prayers.”
While Powell, who followed in his father’s steps to the pulpit, Butts blazed his own trail to pastoral leadership. He will be eulogized this Friday, Nov. 4 at 2 pm. On Thursday, Nov. 3rd a viewing will take place at the church from 9 am to 7 pm.
On Sunday, Abyssinian was packed with church members who offered tributes to Butts, who led the church for more than three decades.
Calvin Butts IV, the preacher’s eldest son, thanked people on Sunday for the outpouring of support. “On behalf of my family, thank you,” he said. “We are OK.”
Butts was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1949 and moved to Queens, New York, with his family. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Morehouse College in Atlanta, a Master of Divinity degree from New York’s Union Theological Seminary in 1975, and a Doctorate of Ministry in church and public policy from Drew University. Butts joined Abyssinian during his seminary years, eventually becoming a youth minister and, in 1989, assistant pastor.
Butts founded the non-profit Abyssinian Development Corporation, which grew into a multimillion-dollar economic advocacy organization for the Harlem community, with more than $37 million in total revenue.
Butts also taught urban affairs and African studies as an adjunct professor at City College of New York, as well as Black Church history at Fordham University in the Bronx.
Butts was one the most outspoken critics of policing tactics in Black communities in the 1990s. He was particularly critical of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s handling of the killing of Amadou Diallo at the hands of New York Police.
In a statement Friday, New York Mayor Eric Adams said Butts mentored him during some of the city’s most challenging moments. “The City has lost a real giant,” Adams said.
Rev. Al Sharpton, the Founder and President of the National Action Network (NAN) issued the following statement on the death of Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III. shortly after his death.
“Rev. Butts was a major pillar in the Harlem community and is irreplaceable. He was a dominant faith and academic leader for decades,” Sharpton said. “We knew each other for more than 40 years, and while we did not always agree, we always came back together. Over the last three years, he and I worked closely as co-chairs of the Choose Healthy Life national campaign to help the Black community fight COVID. We spoke as late as a couple of weeks ago about this work, as he was still fighting cancer. He will be tremendously missed.”
Derrick Harkins, former Senior Vice President of Union Theological Seminary, is now Director of the Center for Faith/Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Harkins, former pastor of D.C.’s Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, who used to work for Butts, was also a student under him. “He epitomizes the power of the gospel to change lives and to challenge the power structure,” Harkins told the Informer in an interview.
“Church members knew him as their pastor, and the community knew him as a voice for what was right and justice and fairness for everyone,” Harkins said. “Calvin Butts was always anchored in his faith.”
Rev. Butts is survived by Patricia, his wife, three children, and six grandchildren.