The National Baptist Convention, founded in 1895, has since spawned four different denominations that have roots in the original convention. It formed originally as a combination of three separate organizations–the American National Baptist Convention, the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, and the National Baptist Educational Convention. Each group took on separate work in evangelism, missions, and education. By combining the three, the National Baptist Convention became a large and multifaceted denominational body, delegating specific types of religious work to various boards and agencies subsumed under it.
Tennessee and Tennesseans played a major role in the early history of the convention. Richard H. Boyd, later manager of the National Baptist Publishing Board in Nashville, was present at the founding meeting of the National Baptist Convention in Atlanta, as was Sutton Griggs, for many years a black Baptist pastor and author in Nashville and Memphis. Many of the early leaders of the organization either attended, graduated from, or taught at Roger Williams University in Nashville and Howe Institute in Memphis (both now defunct). Major Tennessee congregations, such as the East First Baptist Church in Nashville and the Beale Street Baptist Church in Memphis, have played key roles in the organization's history.
Tennesseans also were instrumental in the battle which led to the splitting of the original convention in 1915. Convention leaders deemed Boyd's National Baptist Publishing Board to be an agency subsumed within the larger denomination, while Boyd himself believed that his publishing enterprise was an independent entity affiliated with, but not specifically controlled by, the convention. When, in 1915, convention leaders tried to secure control of the board, Boyd and his forces, including most Tennessee black Baptists, bolted from the meeting hall and formed the unincorporated National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. A battle for the future of the National Baptist Convention raged through the courts, and unsuccessful mediation attempts over the next several years resulted in two groups, the incorporated National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., and the unincorporated group of the same name. Both were based in Nashville. After Boyd and his main combatant, Elias Camp Morris (a former student at Roger Williams) died in the early 1920s, the conventions settled into a dual existence, each claiming to speak for black Baptists of America.
Today the incorporated group is the larger, with five million members. With the recent opening in Nashville of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., Inc.'s World Headquarters, Tennessee will continue to play a key role in the future of this religious denomination. Its American Baptist Theological Seminary is in Nashville and produced the notable student leader, John R. Lewis, during the Civil Rights movement.