Rev. Calvin Butts of Harlem’s famed Abyssinian Baptist Church, former SUNY president, dead at 73

A prominent figure in Harlem of New York City, who served as the pastor of a historic black church and as president of a major university, has reportedly passed away.

Rev. Calvin Butts III, head of Harlem’s landmark Abyssinian Baptist Church and former president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury in Long Island, was 73 years old, the Associated Press reported.

Butts had first joined Abyssinian as a youth minister in 1972 but ultimately served as the senior pastor of the church for over 30 years. His tenure as president of SUNY-Old Westbury began in 1999 and concluded in 2020.

Death announced by his church

“It is with profound sadness, we announce the passing of our beloved pastor, Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, who peacefully transitioned in the early morning of October 28, 2022,” the church said on its website. “The Butts Family and entire Abyssinian Baptist Church membership solicit your prayers for us in our bereavement.”

The AP noted that Abyssinian Baptist Church, which was first founded in 1808 by black worshippers unsupportive of segregation in other churches in NYC, is considered to be one of the most “prominent pulpits” in the nation, and it was rebuilt in its current location in 1923 and designated as a city landmark in 1993.

A controversial figure, worked to improve the local community

The AP further reported that Butts, though predominately aligned with the Democratic Party, was not always constrained by partisanship or ideology, as evidenced by the fact that he worked with Gov. George Pataki (R) and served on state boards that oversaw economic development but had also, at the same time, provided his pulpit as a platform for communist Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Nor was he afraid of provoking controversy, such as when he endorsed Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, or when he took on the rap music industry in the 1990s by preaching against its misogynistic and violent lyrical content and even engaging in a debate over the form of art with then-prominent rapper, now TV star, Ice T.

Butts was also heralded for the work he did to help improve his community, including the establishment of a non-profit organization known as the Abyssinian Development Corp. that helped fund and construct housing, retail businesses, schools, and other projects in the neighborhoods that surrounded his church.

He also kept an eye on guarding the health of his community, such as by mobilizing support for AIDS patients or, more recently, instituting COVID-19 mitigation measures at his church and encouraging his congregants and community members to get vaccinated against the virus.

Cancer is the likely but unconfirmed cause of death

According to the AP, Butts had been born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, grew up in Queens, New York, and graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, but returned to NYC and earned ministerial degrees from the Union Theological Seminary and Drew University, during which time he began his career in ministry at Abyssinian.

NYC’s Gothamist reported that Butts had previously been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, though the cause of his death has not yet been revealed. He is survived by his wife, Patricia, and their three children plus six grandchildren.