History of First (Black) Baptist Church, Capitol Hill
Nashville, Tennessee, 1865-2017
1834-1865 Roots—First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, originated from the First Baptist Church, Nashville. In 1834, the congregation allowed the black members including slaves and free Negroes to hold monthly prayer meetings. Under Pastor R. B. C. Howell, the church established the First Colored Baptist Mission in October 1847, and authorized the black members to begin separate church services in a frame building on Martin Street, in January 1848, under associate minister Samuel Davidson. In 1853, Nelson G. Merry was ordained and appointed the first Negro pastor of the Mission, and Louis Butler, Aaron Jennings, Joseph Morsell, Anderson Pritchett, and Daniel Walker became the first deacons.
The Civil War (1860-1866) impacted the First Colored Baptist Mission and led to its independence. The Union Army occupied Nashville in late February 1862. Many fugitive slaves and free Negroes flooded Nashville. The Union Army arrested the pastor of First Baptist Church and confiscated the building. But First Colored Baptist Mission, with 277 members, continued operations and benefited from several historic events: President Abraham Lincoln invoked the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863; the Union Army recruited thousands of Negro soldiers; March 5, 1865, Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Freeman’s Banks to aid the freedmen’s transition from Slavery to Freedom. Rev Merry served on the Nashville branch Freedman’s Bank board of trustees.
1865-1884 Independence — On March 7, 1865, First Colored Baptist Mission petitioned the First Baptist Church, Nashville, for independence, which was granted on August 13, 1865, along with the property deed. On December 18, the states ratified the 13th Amendment that outlawed slavery throughout the USA. On May 26, 1866, the General Assembly granted a charter to “the First Colored Baptist Church, of Nashville” (FCBC). The church, which had 780 members, hosted founding meetings for the first national Baptist Conventions. Blacks gained citizenship and voter rights protection through the 14th Amendment (1868) and the 15th Amendment (1870). On August 6, 1872, FCBC bought land on Spruce St. (8th Ave. N.) and Union Streets, built a brick and stone facility, and occupied it in 1873. The church included 2,800 members in 1884, when Nelson G. Merry died.
1885-1928 Division & Survival—First Colored Baptist Church struggled through internal dissensions and changing times. Rev. Thomas Huffman became pastor, but in 1887, the huge congregation split over moral issues. His faction formed the Mount Olive Baptist Church on Cedar Street. Meredith W. Gilbert (1887-90) and John (Jessie) Purdy led First Colored Baptist Church. Frederick Douglass spoke at the church in May 1892. The church burnt down on December 4, 1893. Bitter disputes caused the congregation to split. On July 4, 1894, at the State Street Baptist Church (a temporary place of worship), the “Ladies of First Colored Baptist Church,” including Samuella Work, Hattie Tate, and Lizzie Calhoun, hosted a “Grand Dinner & Fair” including fruit, ices, lemonade, cakes, and more to help raise money for the building fund. A meeting of white and black Baptist representatives and the Davidson County Court settled the dispute. One faction chartered “First Colored Baptist Church” (FCBC) on April 2, 1895. The others chartered “Spruce Street Baptist Church” on September 19, 1895. Deacon William T. Hightower put up his business assets to guarantee mortgages, and First Colored Baptist Church built a new edifice at 319 Spruce St. in 1896. Harding Smith (1894), Thomas W. Lott (1895), Allen D. Hurt (1896-98), J. Gardner Ross (1898-99), and W. S. Ellington (1899-16) led First Colored Baptist Church, followed by Meredith W. Gilbert (1916-17), Samuel L. McDowell (1917-1923), Peter A. Callahan (1924), and Samuel N. Vass (1925-28). A small faction of members left and formed the Community Baptist Church.
1929-1984 The Activist Church—Russell C. Barbour (1897-1944) served as pastor from 1929 until his death. He was followed by Acting Pastor Ralph W. Riley (1944-46) and Pastor Herbert L. B. Wilkins (1946-50). In March 1951, Kelly Miller Smith Sr. became pastor of the 800-member congregation. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) began school desegregation. Smith became president of the local NAACP and founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Council. The church served as a center for local civil rights activities. Several whites joined the church, and Community Baptist Church reunited with the church. The 1895 charter was amended in 1965 to read: “First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill.” On March 5, 1972, the congregation marched from the old edifice (1896-1972) two blocks down Charlotte Ave. to its new edifice at 900 James Robertson Parkway (625 Rosa Parks Blvd.). On May 11, 1977, First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill chartered First Baptist Capitol Hill Homes, Inc., for the elderly. U. S. Vice President Walter Mondale visited the church in 1979. In 1980, First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill began to ordain women as deacons, trustees, ministers, and chairs of the board of deacons and trustees. The church paid off the mortgage on the new facility. Pastor Kelly Miller Smith Sr. died in 1984.
1985-2009 Readjustment & Revival—Assistant Pastor Ottie L. West (1984-85), and Pastors Wallace Charles Smith (1985-91), Sherman R. Tribble (1992-98), Victor M. Singletary (2000-08), and Assistant Pastor Arrold N. Martin (2008-10) provided pastoral leadership. In 1991, FBCCH hosted opera singer Leontyne Price in a citywide concert at the downtown Tennessee Performing Arts Center to help raise funds for the FBCCH Chair of Excellence at American Baptist College. From August 2004-Nov. 1, 2009, the congregation worshipped in the Pearl-Cohn High School auditorium, while the church facility underwent renovation.
2010-2017 Foundation for the Future—Kelly Miller Smith Jr., became pastor September 2010. Church adopted revised By-Laws and new Membership Handbook for mission and programs In 2014, Pastor Smith and the congregation organized several committees for the Sesquicentennial of FBCCH—the 150th Anniversary, which was successfully carried out with the Roots Service (Jan. 2015), a Memorial to the longest serving pastors (Nelson G. Merry; Kelly Miller Smith Sr.) at their gravesites (Mt. Ararat and Greenwood Cemetery), Homecoming Service and Dinner (Oct. 4), Rededication of the KMS Sr. Bridge (Nov. 22), music and dance, Culminating Celebration and Dinner (Dec. 13, 2015), Sesquicentennial Capsule (July 24, 2016); publication of a Children’s Book and First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, 1865-2015: A Photographic Journal—the First 150 Years (2016) including CD/DVDs. Pastor Smith instituted nurture series and spiritually empowered sessions for “Selah Year, which intended to get the people, the ministry, the vision and the direction to all work together for the purpose of God.” Training was established to guide the church to move from “membership to discipleship.” On December 10, 2017, Pastor Smith Jr. and congregation celebrated the 152nd Church Anniversary and held a ceremony for paying off the church’s remaining debt of $1.85 million in 5 years. New members continued to join the FBCCH congregation.
[From the church's website; via "Baptists and the American Civil War" by Bruce Gourley, 2011. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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