Known for many years as one of the oldest African American congregations organized in Nashville, Mount Zion Baptist Church is now also recognized as one of the largest congregations in Tennessee. Under the leadership of its dynamic senior pastor, Bishop Joseph W. Walker III, Mount Zion has experienced phenomenal growth from its congregation of 175 in 1992. Today, the church has expanded into three locations and claims a membership close to 20,000.
Reverend Jordan Bransford founded Mount Zion Baptist Church in 1866. After relocating several times and holding services in parishioners’ homes, the congregation finally settled on historic Jefferson Street. The well-known building in north Nashville was completed in 1905 during the tenure of Reverend Sandy Matheus. The nearby Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church is said to be the result of a split in the Mount Zion congregation in 1885.
Fourteen pastors led Mount Zion before the early 1990s. Ministers with the longest periods of service include Reverend J. W. Watkins, Dr. Maynard P. Turner, and Reverend Emanuel W. Roberson. Watkins pastored the church for twenty-seven years, beginning in 1932. After serving American Baptist Theological Seminary as president for six years, Turner began his eleven-year pastorate at Mount Zion in 1960. Roberson answered the call in 1972 and served Mount Zion for twenty years. Roberson worked to improve the church facility, renovating the lower auditorium and acquiring four lots across the street. Mount Zion was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Buena Vista Historic District in 1980.
Fresh from Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Reverend Joseph W. Walker III began his pastorate at Mount Zion in 1992 at the age of twenty-four. While serving the church in Nashville, Walker commuted to Princeton Theological Seminary to complete his doctorate of ministry. The congregation quickly embraced the Shreveport, Louisiana, native, and his vision for growth began to take root. Mount Zion’s seven-hundred-seat location on Jefferson Street began to fill to capacity, leading to the expansion of services into temporary locations across town. In October 2001, with nearly 7,000 members on the rolls, the church opened a new facility in the Whites Creek area of Nashville. The $17 million complex features a three-tier sanctuary that seats 5,000 and is the first phase of a twelve-year development plan that includes a gospel recording studio, television studio, international conference center, school, and bowling alley–all extending over 130 acres. Mount Zion’s third location opened in the Antioch area of Nashville in December 2003. The $7 million ministry complex with a two-thousand-seat multi-purpose facility and children’s wing was built into an existing retail center, now called Mount Zion Plaza.
The church building on Jefferson Street, which hosts weekly Bible study and the New Level Community Development Corporation, is a traditional church building, but the new buildings for Mount Zion are modern and very technologically sophisticated. Though critics oppose the theatrics of the new sanctuaries, Bishop Walker explains on the church’s website, “You can’t have an eight-track ministry in a CD generation.” His belief in the importance of connecting with the congregation through modern technology, particularly appealing to younger generations, has helped to bolster the church’s growth. Walker’s uplifting and conversational style of ministry has attracted many newcomers to the church as well.
Walker is also responsible for leading Mount Zion from the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. into the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship (FGBCF) in 2000. Founded in 1992 by Bishop Paul S. Morton Sr., pastor of New Orleans’s Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, this confederation of several thousand congregations differs from traditional Baptist denominations in that it promotes a Pentecostal style of worship, supports women as pastors, and relies on a hierarchy of bishops, elders, and overseers. While the spirited services have sparked controversy in many Baptist congregations, many others have embraced the fellowship’s encouragement of outward religious expression and praise.
Bishop Walker is well known around Nashville and across the region. He is an active participant in a variety of civic groups and was appointed by Governor Phil Bredesen to the Citizen Advisory Group on Ethics in Government and the Tennessee Human Rights Commission. He also serves as the bishop of pastors, international, for the FGBCF. Walker’s nonprofit business, J. W. Walker Ministries, and the church’s New Level CDC serve the congregation and the local community through scholarships and diverse programs on issues such as finances, emotional struggles, health awareness, and marital conflict. The church also sponsors the annual “You Can Make It Youth Crusade” at the end of every summer. Walker and the Mount Zion congregation view individual and community empowerment as key components of the church’s ministry. While Mount Zion has reached “mega-church” status, the church remains connected to its north Nashville, African American roots by promoting economic development and renewal in the community.
Designed for Worship: An Architectural History of Nashville&amp;amp;#8217;s Sacred
Spaces, Nashville Public Television, Inc., 2003 (bonus segments)