With roots going back to 1901, American Baptist Theological Seminary remains one of the most influential and important African American seminaries in America. After a long planning process, the school actually began to take shape in 1904 when a joint commission of the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the National Baptist Convention (NBC) met in Austin, Texas, to consider a school sponsored by both conventions. Due to a series of setbacks, the seminary did not open for twelve years. It eventually held its first classes in the fall of 1916 in Memphis.
The seminary moved to Nashville in 1918 at the invitation of Roger Williams College and occupied a portion of that schools new campus on White’s Creek Pike overlooking the Cumberland River in North Nashville. In 1921, the seminary adopted the unusual arrangement of having two governing boards of trust, a move designed to keep the endorsement of both of its sponsoring denominations. The board representing the SBC oversaw buildings and acquisitions, and the board representing the NBC provided for furnishings, infrastructure, and maintenance of property. Under the new provision, the president of American Baptist Seminary would be from the NBC and the secretary of the board from the SBC. With this new agreement in place, the school looked to its future and in 1923-24 built its first building, Griggs Hall, named after Sutton Griggs, an influential NBC minister who would become president of the seminary in 1925-26 and his father, the Rev. Allen R. Griggs, who helped found the school.
When Roger Williams College moved to Memphis in 1929, the seminary’s campus moved to First Avenue in South Nashville, where it rented property from Meharry Medical College. In 1934 the campus previously owned by Roger Williams became available. American Baptist’s Board of Trust purchased the fifty-three-acre tract, and the school returned to the campus where it remains to this day. In 1937, the dual board voted to share costs, and the two conventions split all expenses equally. During the Civil Rights movement, American Baptist grew to national prominence as one of the training centers for non-violent protesters in Nashville. Several members of its student body became leaders in the movement. John Lewis, currently a congressman in Georgia, worked with James Lawson from Vanderbilt University and others from Fisk, Meharry, and Tennessee State University to help form the groups that were a part of the sit-in protests and Freedom Riders. Other famous American Baptist alumni active in the Civil Rights movement include C. T. Vivian, a Chattanooga minister and activist; Bernard Lafayette, who would serve as the seminary’s president in the 1980s; and John Bevels. These activists helped to organize the Nashville Christian Leadership Council at the urging of Martin Luther King, and each went on to leadership in the national Civil Rights movement.
In 1971, the school was accredited by the Association of Biblical Higher Education, the national Bible college accrediting agency, and changed its name to American Baptist College. It is the only African American school to achieve that recognition. The institution currently offers the B.A. and Th.B. degrees along with certificate programs in humanities, biblical and theological studies, and church vocations. In 1996, the SBC withdrew its support due to waning enrollment and turned all assets over to the NBC, whose national offices and World Baptist Headquarters building, one of the most recognizable architectural landmarks in Nashville, have graced the campus since 1983.
Ruth Marie Powell, Lights and Shadows: The Story
of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, 1924-1964 (1964)