History of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, 1865-
1834-1865, Roots—First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill (FBCCH), originated from the history of First Baptist Church, Nashville (FBCN). In 1834, that white congregation allowed the black members including slaves and free Negroes—nearly half the FBCN membership, to hold monthly prayer meetings. These were extended to weekly meetings, on Fridays, and later to afternoon services. The church established the First Colored Baptist Mission (FCBM) in October 1847. In Jan. 1848, the black members were authorized to begin separate church services in a frame building on Martin Street. Associate minister Samuel Davidson was assigned moderator for the Colored Baptist Mission. In 1853, former slave Nelson G. Merry was ordained and appointed the first Negro moderator. In Nov., Louis Butler, Aaron Jennings, Joseph Morsell, Anderson Pritchett, and Daniel Walker became the first of FCBM’s deacons. By 1860, Merry was allowed to organize Negro Baptist missions in Edgefield (east Nashville) and Murfreesboro. The Civil War began in April 1861. The auxiliary colored Baptist missions were shut down in May. Tennessee joined the Confederacy in June. The Union Army occupied Nashville on Feb. 25, 1862. President Abraham Lincoln invoked the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, that authorized the recruitment of 200,000 U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) including 20,133 in Tennessee. Many of the fugitive slaves and free Negroes who flooded Nashville began to attend FCBM, which had 277 members on the roll. On March
4, 1865, Lincoln said, “All knew that this interest [of slavery] was, somehow, the cause of the [civil] war.” On March 4, voters approved Tennessee constitutional prohibition against slavery. On March 5, Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Freedman’s Banks to aid the Negro’s transition from Slavery to Freedom. Merry served on the Freedman’s Bank Board of Trustees. On March 7, FCBM members petitioned the First Baptist Church for independence. On April 5, the legislature ratified the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. April 6: Negroes petitioned the legislature to grant them full civil rights. On April 9, the Confederacy surrendered. On April 15, Lincoln died from assassination. The FCBM held city-wide prayer and mass meetings for each historic event.
1865-1884 Independence—On August 13, 1865, First Baptist Church, Nashville granted independence and the property deed to First Colored Baptist Mission. On Dec. 18, the American states ratified the 13th Amendment that outlawed slavery through the USA. On May 26, 1866, the General Assembly granted a charter to “the First Colored Baptist Church, of Nashville.” FCBC and the Rev. Merry hosted founding meetings of national Baptists conventions. On Feb. 25, 1867, Tennessee restored the right to vote to blacks. FCBC had 780 members. Blacks gained citizenship and protection of rights 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. They occupied the new edifice in 1873. FCBC had some 2,800 members by July 1884, when the Rev. Merry died. He had baptized 1,055 persons, married 820 couples, and helped ordain 14 ministers, organized four churches, edited the Baptist Standard, and helped found and lead the state Baptist convention and the national Baptist convention.
1885-1928 Division but Survival—The Rev. Thomas Huffman became pastor. FCBC charter was refreshed, April 5, 1885, whereas the state since 1875 required charters to be filed in the Secretary of State office. In 1887, the FCBC congregation split over moral issues involving Huffman. His faction formed the Mount Olive Baptist Church on Cedar (Charlotte) Street. Meredith W. Gilbert (1887-90) and John (Jessie) Purdy led FCBC. Frederick Douglass spoke on topics about Haiti and Tennessee lynching at the church in May 1892. The church burnt down on Dec. 4, 1893, and bitter disputes about Purdy’s leadership caused the congregation to split. A meeting of white and black Baptist representatives and the Davidson County Court settled the dispute. One faction filed the charter of “First Colored Baptist Church” on April 2, 1895. The larger faction chartered “Spruce Street Baptist Church” on Sept. 19, 1895. The settlement gave Spruce Street Baptist Church part of the insurance and the burnt church building at Spruce and Union Streets. FCBC built an edifice at 319 Spruce St. in 1896. The small First Colored Baptist Church congregation struggled from 1894-1928. Deacon William T. Hightower put up his business assets to guarantee mortgages. Harding Smith (1894), Thomas W. Lott (1895), Allen D. Hurt (1896-98), J. Gardner Ross (1898-99), and W. S. Ellington (1899-16) led the First Colored Baptist Church, followed by Meredith M. Gilbert (1916-17),
Samuel L. McDowell (1917-1923), Peter A. Callahan (1924), and Samuel N. Vass (1925-28). A small faction of members left the congregation and formed the nearby Community Baptist Church.
1929-1984 The Activist Church—Russell C. Barbour (1897-1944) served as pastor from 1929 until his
death. Barbour, a notable preacher, visited the Holy Land; spoke out on civil rights, edited the National Baptist Voice and editor at the National Baptist Sunday School Publishing Board. He was followed by Acting Pastor Ralph W. Riley (1944-46) and Pastor Herbert L. B. Wilkins (1946-50). The federal government desegregated agencies in 1946 and 1948. In March 1951, Kelly Miller Smith Sr. became pastor of the near-800-member First Colored Baptist Church. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) began school desegregation. Smith became president of the local NAACP and he founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Council—affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1957 he and wife Alice registered daughter Joy in Nashville’s first integrated public schools. FCBC served as a center for sit in demonstrations and Freedom Rides, and soon had some white members. Community Baptist Church reunited with FCBC. Nashville was desegregated. Congress passed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. The charter (1965) was amended to read: “First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill.” Smith was a fellow graduate of Morehouse College and close confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., who frequently visited FBCCH and the Smith family home. On March 5, 1972, the congregation marched from the old church at 319 Eighth Ave. to its new
edifice at 900 James Robertson Parkway (now 625 Rosa Parks Blvd.). On May 11, 1977, FBCCH chartered First Baptist Capitol Hill Homes, Inc., for the elderly. The Vice President of the US visited FBCCH in 1979. Also in 1979 the first woman was ordained as a minister, and in 1980 ordained its first women deacons, and enabled women as chairs of the deacons and trustees. The church got the city to change Pearl Street to Nelson G. Merry St. in 1982. FBCCH prospered and soon paid off the mortgage on the new facility. Rev. Smith died in 1984.
1985-2015 Readjustment—Assistant Pastor Ottie L. West (1984-85), Pastor Wallace Charles Smith (1985-91), Pastor Sherman R. Tribble (1992-98), Pastor Victor M. Singletary (2000-08), and Assistant Pastor Arrold N. Martin (2008-10) provided pastoral leadership. A renovation project, August 2004-Nov. 1, 2009, caused the congregation to worship in the Pearl-Cohn Public High School auditorium. On July 27, 2010, the congregation overwhelmingly elected the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith as pastor. He assumed full responsibilities on October1. Smith Jr. sought to renew the church in spirit, stewardship, increased membership, new by-laws and restructuring of ministries and governance. The 2012-2015 FBCCH theme was “Marching toward Jubilee”—Leviticus 25:8-13, (NIV). In September 2014, Pastor Smith and First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, Nashville, and a host of committees began preparations for the coming Sesquicentennial—the 150th Anniversary Celebration, with the theme, “From Generation to Generation: Remembering, Rejoicing, Refocusing, and Rededication.” The scriptural foundation is Psalm 145:4.