WASHINGTON (ABP) — West Virginia Baptists are mourning the passing of one of their most famous members — longtime Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va) — and a Virginia Baptist congregation will host his memorial service July 6.
Byrd — the longest-serving member of the United States Senate in the institution’s history and one of its most powerful — died June 28 at age 92.
“The West Virginia Baptist Convention is saddened by the passing of Senator Robert C. Byrd,” said a press release issued June 29 through American Baptist News Service. “Senator Byrd’s leadership provided the direction of federal funding to develop programs and people in the Mountain State.”
The convention — the state affiliate of the American Baptist Churches USA — noted that Byrd had been raised at Crab Orchard Baptist Church in Crab Orchard, W. Va. where he once taught “a very significant Sunday school class.” Byrd and his wife, Erma, were baptized in 1945 in the First Baptist Church of Beckley, W. Va. Both congregations are affiliated with ABCUSA.
Byrd’s seniority brought untold billions of dollars in federal spending to one of the poorest states in the Union. Deficit hawks criticized him as an embodiment of so-called “pork-barrel” spending, in which members of Congress earmark particular federal projects for their home districts. But the federal dollars endeared him to West Virginians, who elected him to nine terms in the Senate despite his increasingly liberal voting record in the conservative state. He won his most recent re-election in 2006 with 64 percent of the vote.
Byrd also came under criticism late in his life for his poor early history on race relations. In the 1940s and early 50s he was a leader in his local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, although he disavowed the organization in the mid-50s and apologized for it repeatedly later in life. He also infamously attempted to filibuster the 1964 Civil Rights Act — but later said that was his greatest regret in life.
Byrd became a reliable vote for civil-rights measures in the late 1960s, and was one of the early supporters of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s primary campaign in 2008 even though his fellow West Virginia Democrats voted heavily for Obama's main rival, Hillary Clinton.
“Senator Byrd’s simple faith in God and his love of family and service to our nation will be greatly missed,” the release continued. “It is our prayer that his family will be comforted and our nation will celebrate his service to humankind.”
Byrd’s Senate office announced June 29 that, among funeral arrangements that include his body lying in state at the U.S. Capitol and the West Virginia Capitol, would be a memorial service at Memorial Baptist Church in Arlington, Va. According to the church, Byrd worshiped there, when physically able, when the Senate was in session in nearby Washington. Memorial is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
The service will be held in the church’s sanctuary at 11 a.m. on July 6, and is the final public event of Byrd’s funeral arrangements prior to a private interment ceremony.
Robert Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press.