Southern Baptists in Tennessee represent a tradition born in Amsterdam and London in the early seventeenth century, transported to the American colonies in the 1630s, and carried south and west with frontier migrations. These Christians affirm the authority of Scripture, the liberty of conscience, autonomous churches composed of converts who have received immersion baptism, associational cooperation of churches, the priesthood of all believers, and religious liberty. While there are numerous types of Baptists in Tennessee, the largest single group is represented in those churches related to the Southern Baptist Convention, numbering more than a million adherents statewide.
Baptists were among the earliest settlers to Tennessee, with churches founded perhaps as early as 1758, though records are unclear. The rolls of the Sinking Creek Baptist Church contain the names of some such early colonists as Julius C. Dugger, Michael Hyder, and Baptist McNabb. Many were influenced by the Separate Baptist congregation founded by Shubal Stearns (1706-1771) and Daniel Marshall (1706-1784) at Sandy Creek in North Carolina in 1755. Certain of these Separate Baptists were forced to leave Carolina in the 1770s after Governor William Tryon blamed them (falsely) for the ill-fated Regulator rebellion. They were instrumental in the building in 1779 of the Buffalo Ridge Baptist Church, often claimed as Tennessee’s first Baptist church. William Murphrey established the Cherokee Church in 1783 and became the church’s first pastor.
The first Baptist association in Tennessee–the Holston Association–was founded at the Cherokee Church in 1786 by several churches which had previously identified themselves with the Sandy Creek Association in North Carolina. The association linked churches for fellowship, discipline, and doctrinal inquiry.
In the eastern portion of the state numerous Baptist groups developed, some in response to the anti-mission controversy initiated by preachers like Daniel Parker (1781-1844). Parker traveled through Tennessee, challenging those who sought to organize mission boards and send out missionaries. He insisted that God was the sole author of salvation and human means of conversion were unbiblical. The Primitive Baptists of Tennessee and other portions of Appalachia reflect Parker’s legacy. They eschew Sunday Schools, revivals, and any human attempt to bring about conversion. They practice various Baptist “ordinances” including immersion baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the washing of feet. Other Baptist sub-denominations in the region include the old Regular Baptists, United Baptists, and Free Will Baptists.
Nashville was the scene of another important Baptist movement known as Old Landmarkism, an attempt to trace Baptist origins to the New Testament church. Led by Tennesseans such as James R. Graves (1820-1893) of Nashville, Landmarkists claimed that Baptist churches alone retained the marks of the true church. All other churches were merely “societies.” Landmarkists rejected alien immersion–the baptism of persons in non-Baptist churches and promoted “close (or closed) communion,” a practice which restricted the Lord’s Supper only to members of the local congregation in which it was served. Landmarkism was a significant influence on Baptist life well into the twentieth century.
Tennessee was also a center of the Restorationist movement fostered by Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) and Barton W. Stone (1772-1844). In an effort to “restore” the New Testament church which had been corrupted by all the denominations, they claimed only to maintain those practices evident among New Testament churches. They rejected denominational names and labels, calling themselves “Christians only” or Disciples of Christ. Many Baptist churches in Tennessee became Christian churches, or “Campbellites,” as their critics designated them.
An initial effort in 1833 to organize a state Baptist convention had failed by 1842 due to opposition from those who rejected such general alliances as unscriptural and a threat to congregational autonomy. From 1842 to 1874 there were actually three sectional organizations linking Baptists through associations in East, Middle, and West Tennessee for missionary and benevolent endeavors. A state convention uniting all those regions was finally founded in April 10, 1874. The convention funded missionary work, colleges, hospitals, evangelism, and other ministries for Baptist churches. The first corresponding secretary-treasurer (director) was William Allen Montgomery, elected in 1877. A state Baptist periodical, the Baptist and Reflector, was begun in 1889 through a union of two earlier papers, the Baptist and the Reflector.
The state convention also owns and operates three schools of higher education: Belmont University in Nashville, Union University in Jackson, and Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City. The Southern Baptist Convention also maintains a significant presence in Nashville, where its Sunday School Board and Executive Committee offices are located. A joint effort between the African American National Baptist Convention, Inc., and the Southern Baptist Convention led to the founding of American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville in 1924. The seminary provides theological education for African American ministers.
Nancy T. Ammerman, Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention (1990); Bill J. Leonard, Gods Last and Only Hope: The Fragmentation of the Southern Baptist Convention (1990)