First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, Nashville
Nashville’s Afro-Baptists began their religious journey of faith within a spectacular local history. Negroes were among 200 residents in the settlement of Fort Nashborough in 1780. By 1787, they represented 22 percent of 477 settlers; by 1820, their number grew to 35 percent of Davidson County inhabitants, with free Negroes constituting 22 percent of Nashville blacks. Some Fort Nashborough area inhabitants attended biracial services, bringing their slaves and allowing free Negroes to attend church. Negro Christians often sat in back pews or a balcony and took communion last. Baptists and Methodists dominated, although few local churches existed before the 1820s.
By 1824, the First Baptist Church of Nashville (FBCN) had a congregation. In 1834, Negroes numbered 115, or half, of that Baptist congregation. The pastor often reminded the black Christians: “He truly honors his master who conducts himself towards him with all due deference [and] obeys his behests cheerfully, promptly, fully and faithfully.” In 1835, blacks received permission to hold separate prayer services. In October 1847, Negro members were allowed to rent an old school building for worship on three Sundays a month. All FBCN members met together for First Sunday communion.
In January 1848, First Colored Baptist Mission (FCBM) officially began separate services under the white assistant minister, aided by free Negro preachers, including John Dodd, Nelson G. Merry, and Henry Howard. FBCN pastor and deacons delivered communion. In 1852, Negro members were allowed to buy a house on Martin Street. In October 1852, a slave freed in 1845 and tutored by the white ministers, Nelson G. Merry, became “moderator.” On October 5, 1853, FBCN voted to allow Negroes to select deacons Louis Butler, Daniel Walker, Aaron Jennings, Joseph Morsell, and Anderson Pritchett. White Baptist ministers ordained Nelson G. Merry on November 29, 1853.
The 200-plus-member Negro mission was adversely affected by the December 1856 race riot in Nashville. In early 1857, there were new city ordinances against Negro gatherings, teaching of blacks, and preaching beyond 9:00 p.m. The congregation continued operations until the Union Army occupied Nashville on February 25, 1862, and they imprisoned the pro-Confederate pastor of FBCN for preaching sedition against America. The Negro mission held prayer meetings to be thankful for the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), military victories of the Union in 1864, and the abolition of state slavery by the General Assembly in February-March 1865. The blacks petitioned FBCN: “We, the colored members of the First Baptist Church of Nashville, Tennessee, do hereby petition your honor for a separate and independent church to be known by the name of the First Colored Baptist Church, Nashville, Tennessee. We most cordially thank you for kindness done us in times past. We also wish that you would grant us a clear deed to the lot on which our house now stands. Our membership is 500. We petition in love and respect done by order of the Church at its regular meeting for business this 7th day of March 1865.”
On April 5, 1865, Tennessee ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The white Baptists considered the Negro Christians’ petition the day after Lincoln’s death and officially granted black independence on August 13, 1865. On December 18, 1865, slavery was abolished throughout America. On May 25, 1866, FCBC became incorporated under the Acts of the State of Tennessee, 1865-66. FCBC moved from Martin Street to a newly built facility on Spruce Street (Eighth Avenue) in 1872 and grew to more than 3,000 members. During his tour of Tennessee in May 1892, Frederick Douglass spoke at Nashville’s FCBC.
Due to disputes and factionalism within the huge and diverse congregation after Nelson G. Merry’s death in 1884, FCBC birthed two other churches. Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church was formed in 1887 during the debates over the temperance movement. Spruce Street Baptist Church was incorporated as the result of congregational division over governance after a December 1893 fire destroyed the 1872 edifice. That bitter dispute was resolved in 1895 when the state courts awarded the burned-out 1872 building to the group that rebuilt the church and incorporated itself as Spruce Street Baptist Church in 1898. The smaller group had court permission to retain the historic name “First Colored Baptist Church of Nashville” along with the 1866 charter.
These three congregations became Nashville’s elite black Baptist congregations, notable for activist roles in civil rights, cultural, educational, and religious movements. In 1896 the National Baptist Publishing Board and in 1905 the National Baptist Sunday School Congress were founded at Mt. Olive. Spruce Street Baptist Church became a place of leadership for the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., and today’s American Baptist College. First Colored Baptist Church reincorporated itself in 1895, revised the 1866 charter, and in 1895 built a new facility on Eighth Avenue North near the Spruce Street church. Through the 1940s, FCBC continued as a viable congregation with notable pastoral leadership.
Out of this turbulent history, FCBC became a tenacious and defiant black Baptist congregation. In the post-World War II phase of the Civil Rights movement, First Colored Baptist Church under the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith gave leadership to the local NAACP, helped file Nashville’s school desegregation case of 1955-57, founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Council (1958), housed the student sit-in movement (1960), helped to finance the Freedom Rides (1961), and hosted many visits by Martin Luther King Jr. Several liberal whites, who were civil rights advocates, joined the church, and on October 29, 1965, per a petition of the 500-plus congregation, the State of Tennessee amended the 1895 charter of incorporation to drop the word “Colored” and change First Colored Baptist Church’s name to “First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill” (FBCCH). The Reverend Smith preached “We Have Gone Our Separate Ways” and sent it as an “open letter” to the white First Baptist Church, insinuating that the two historic black and white congregations should merge. The predominantly white First Baptist Church of Nashville merely sent a cordial acknowledgement of the message.
The FBCCH congregation remained activist, defiant, feisty, traditionally Baptist in its theology, and predominantly African American. As the last of six historic black churches were forced out of downtown Nashville by urban renewal projects, the members observed the last communion in the old 1895 structure on February 6, 1972. On March 5, 1972, some 600 members ceremoniously closed the old, creaky doors and windows at 319 Eighth Avenue North and proudly marched three blocks away, down Cedar Street (Charlotte Avenue) to a brand new edifice at 900 James Robertson Parkway. The Reverend Smith died in 1984, followed by several short-term pastors and twenty-three years of turbulent factionalism in the congregation. However, in 2007 the First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, was still keeping the Afro-journey of faith and continued to operate with 200 to 400 members at 900 James Robertson Parkway.
D. A. Johnson, ed., Vanderbilt Divinity School: Education, Contest, and Change (2001); Bobby L. Lovett, The African American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930 (1999); L. E. May Jr., The First Baptist Church of Nashville, Tennessee, 1820-1970 (1970)