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Spruce Street Baptist Church (1835- )

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Spruce Street Baptist Church is one of the oldest black churches in Nashville, Tennessee. It is also one of three churches to evolve out of Nashville’s First Colored Baptist Church (1865-1891).  In 1835 First Colored Baptist Church (FCBC) began with separate prayer services for the black members of First Baptist Church.  By 1848 it became a church mission when the white congregation of First Baptist Church, Nashville permitted its black members to hold separate religious services and conduct church business autonomously from the white congregation.  Nelson G. Merry, a manumitted slave who served as a church sexton at First Baptist Church and who was ordained a minister in November 1853, became the first African American to lead the mission.

First Baptist Church however retained jurisdiction over the mission until 1865 when the black congregation petitioned to become an independent congregation. On August 13 of that year First Colored Baptist Church was granted approval to establish its own charter and became the first African American church in Nashville and the state of Tennessee.  First Baptist Church, recognizing that the Civil War ended slavery, chose to relinquish its control over this African American congregation.  Nelson G. Merry continued to lead the new church.  

By 1873, FCBC, now with approximately 3,000 members, built its first edifice at the corner of North Spruce Street and 8th Avenue North.  The Church eventually took the name Spruce Street Baptist Church.  Rev. Nelson G. Merry, the only pastor to lead FCBC (now Spruce Street Baptist), died on July 14, 1884 at the age of 60. Following Merry’s death Rev. Tom R. Huffman became pastor in 1885. Two years later in 1887, Rev. Huffman led dissident Spruce Street parishioners who broke away to create Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church.  The remaining Spruce Street members continued to worship under Rev. M.W. Gilbert.  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 founded First Colored Baptist Church, Capitol Hill.

Despite these divisions Spruce Street Baptist Church continued to function and in fact its parishioners were able to retain control of First Colored Baptist Church’s original 1866 charter. With that document, the members of Spruce Street Baptist viewed themselves as the organizational descendants of FCBC and claimed to be the oldest continuously operating black church in the city of Nashville.  

Throughout the 20th century Spruce Street Baptist Church has been instrumental in promoting Baptist leadership and engaging in civic endeavors throughout Nashville. Spruce Street Baptist Church has worked closely with the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. and American Baptist College in supporting Baptist theology locally, nationally, and internationally.  In 2011 the church was led by Rev. Raymond Bowman.

Sources:
Mechal Sobal, “They Can Never Both Prosper Together:  Black and White Baptists 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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