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First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, Nashville, Tennessee (1835- )

Sanctuary, First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill
"Image Ownership: Public Domain"
First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill lays claim to the designation as the oldest continuously operating African American church in Tennessee because it traces its origin back to First Baptist Colored Mission which first met to hold prayer services in 1835.  Up to that point Nashville’s black Baptists, both enslaved and free, worshipped at First Baptist Church which was founded in 1824 as the first Baptist Church in the city.  In fact ten years after its founding, African Americans comprised half the congregation.

The following year, 1835, black congregants received permission to hold separate prayer services. In October 1847 black members of First Baptist were allowed to rent an old school building where they conducted services three Sundays each month.  

In January 1848, First Colored Baptist Mission (FCBM) officially established separate services under the white assistant minister and assisted by three free black preachers, John Dodd, Henry Howard, and Nelson G. Merry.  A former slave tutored by white ministers, Merry became the moderator for the Mission in 1853.  On November 29 of that year he was ordained a minister in the Baptist Church.

By 1856 the Mission had over 200 congregants.  It continued to grow until the Union Army occupied Nashville on February 25, 1862 and imprisoned Merry for preaching sedition against the United States government.  Merry was eventually released and on January 1, 1863 church members celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation.  As the Civil War came to an end, Mission members petitioned First Baptist Church to become an independent church under the name First Colored Baptist Church, Nashville, Tennessee.  

On August 13, 1865 First Colored Baptist Church (FCBC) obtained its independence from First Baptist Church.   By this point the new church had 500 members.  Nelson G. Merry continued to lead the new church and in fact remained its pastor until his death in 1884.  

By 1872, the church with over 3,000 members, built its first edifice on Spruce Street and adopted the name Spruce Street Baptist Church.  Following Merry’s death in 1884 factions emerged in Spruce Street Baptist Church. In 1887 Rev. Tom R. Huffman led dissident Spruce Street parishioners in forming Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church.  When Spruce Street Church was destroyed by fire in 1892, the church congregation split into two factions who were divided over the use of proceeds from the church’s fire insurance.  In 1895 one faction left Spruce Street Church and became First Colored Baptist Church, Capitol Hill.

First Colored Baptist Church, Capitol Hill built a new church building on Eighth Avenue and continued to provide spiritual guidance through the 20th Century.  The church under the leadership of Rev. Kelly Miller Smith supported the campaign to desegregate Nashville public schools in the 1950s, the Nashville sit-in movement in 1960, and the Freedom Rides in 1961.  The church hosted Dr. Martin Luther King during a number of visits and became one of the few racially integrated churches in the South when it accepted white Baptists as congregants.  On October 29, 1965 the 500-plus congregation voted to amend its 1895 charter and drop the word “Colored” from its official church title.  From that point it would be known as First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill.  Today the 600 member congregation meets at 625 Rosa L. Parks Boulevard which is across the street from the Tennessee State Capitol Building.

Sources:
Bobby L. Lovett, The African American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999); Mechal Sobal, “They Can Never Both Prosper Together:  Black and White Baptist in Antebellum Nashville, Tennessee,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. 38 (3), Fall 1979, pp. 296-307; http://ww2.tnstate.edu/library/digital/FIRSTCB.HTM; http://www.sprucestreetbaptist.org/page1/page1.html.

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Eastern Kentucky University

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