Marshall Keeble, born in Rutherford County in 1878, became the best-known African American leader in the Churches of Christ of the twentieth century. In May 2000 The Christian Chronicle named Keeble as its person for the decade 1940 to 1950 in recognition of his contribution to the Churches of Christ and the Restoration Movement of the twentieth century.
The son of slave parents, Robert and Minnie Keeble, Marshall moved with his family to Nashville when he was four. He attended school through the seventh grade, and as a teenager he worked in a local soap factory. He married Winnie Womack, the daughter of minister S. W. Womack, and they opened a grocery store. By the late 1890s Keeble had begun preaching at Nashville's Jackson Street Church of Christ and his fame began to spread through the area. In 1914 he became a full-time preacher, traveling throughout the state and region. By the end of his career fifty years later, the Gospel Advocate would credit Keeble with establishing almost every African American Church of Christ congregation in the state.
The turning point in Keeble's career came in about 1920 when A. B. Burton, founder of the Life and Casualty Insurance Company and a devout Church of Christ member, began to underwrite Keeble's expenses. Over the next four decades, Keeble traveled extensively throughout North America and the rest of the world. In 1931 B. C. Goodpasture edited, and the Gospel Advocate published, Keeble's book Biography and Sermons of Marshall Keeble, Evangelist. Late in life, Keeble published his autobiography, From Mule Back to Super Jet with the Gospel (1962).
He became a renowned orator and influenced a generation of Church of Christ ministers. In 1942 he became president of the Nashville Christian Institute, a segregated religious school, and served in that position until 1958.
Keeble often stated that the philosophy of Booker T. Washington influenced both his religious and political views. According to historian Paul D. Phillips, Keeble embraced “the two-fold task of elevating Blacks by the proclamation of the Gospel and of establishing a bond of interracial fellowship through White support of his ministry.” (1) Keeble's Christian approach of urging blacks to turn the other cheek while not asking similar Christian behavior from Jim Crow-era whites infuriated many African Americans. They found Keeble was far too accommodating to his white patrons; in fact, he would reserve whites-only seating when he preached to mixed groups. Many whites embraced Keeble because he appeared to be the “humble” black man who “knew his place” in both the society and the church. The reality, however, is more complex. His training of young ministers at the Nashville Christian Institute addressed the reality of discrimination, and he served as a mentor for such important leaders as lawyer Fred Gray and activist Floyd Rose. In several sermons near the end of his life Keeble celebrated the crumbling of the walls of segregation.
Keeble died on April 20, 1968; over three thousand blacks and whites attended the funeral. Keeble is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Nashville.