FIRST COLORED BAPTIST CHURCH (1848-1891)
Nashville's black Baptist community originated with the city's
first Baptist congregation, which, when formally organized in the 1820s,
included free and enslaved blacks. Negroes and whites were called "sister'
and "brother," although the stations of blacks were denoted as
"servant cuff . . . .," "belonging to. . ..," or "free
man of colour."
With the formation
of the new Christian (Disciples of Christ) Church, most members defected
from the First Baptist Church. It was not until the calling of Reverend
Peter S. Gayle in 1831 that the congregation began to grow. In 1934, he
was replaced by the Reverend Robert Boyte Crawford Howell.
Howell, a Virginia slave owner and staunch segregationist, convinced
the congregation that mixed church services should be discontinued, because
blacks and whites "require different forms of religious instruction;
they can never both prosper together."
In 1841, a special black meeting was given legitimacy by the attendance
of the pastor, deacons, and clerk. This became an annual meeting to review
the black rollback and discuss disciplinary cases. Blacks made up thirty-nine
percent of the membership.
On January 10, 1846, the "Colored" members introduced the
issue of building a separate church. The congregation promptly acted to
fulfill the petition, intending to have it be subject to white command.
Seven whites were assigned to "contract and hold in trust" a
building which would either be "a branch of this church or. . tan
independent church. . ." In 1847, Samuel A. Davidson, a young white
minister from the east, was assigned to the Negro mission. He secured the
old schoolhouse at 21 North McLemore Street (Ninth Avenue) and in January
of 1848 began holding regular Sunday morning services and afternoon Sunday
school sessions. Once every three months, the Lord's Supper was carried
to their church by Howell and the white deacons. Although the mission was
allowed to act on all cases of discipline, discussion was deferred to the
white church for approval. In 1848, First Colored Baptist Church moved
to an old house on Pearl Street (Nelson Merry Street).
In 1848, Nelson Merry (a slave who became free in 1845) was allowed
to preach regular sermons to the Negro mission. The whites had licensed
several Negro preachers, including James Dickinson' Andrew Bents, and George
Bentz. By the end of 1849, some 250 Negroes were attending the mission,
though only 102 were members. On March 9, 1853, by a "unanimous vote
of the church, Nelson Merry was licensed to preach the Gospel."
In November of 1853, for the first time the black members selected their
own deacons: Louis Butler, Daniel Walker, Aaron Jennings, Joseph Morsels,
and Anderson Pritchett. Nelson G. Merry became "moderator" of
the First Colored Baptist Mission. The First Colored Baptist Mission had
500 members in 1860.
During the Civil War, the Negro church continued its services and its
membership grew, doubling its size between 1863 and 1865. In March of 1865,
the black members of First Baptist Church requested that they be constituted
as a "separate and independent church," and the whites agreed
to the ecclesiastical separation rendered necessary by the war. First Colored
Baptist Church was chartered in 1866.
By 1872, the membership of First Colored Baptist Church of Nashville
had experienced tremendous growth. They moved to North Spruce Street (Eighth
Avenue) and erected the largest brick and stone church edifice owned by
The Reverend Nelson Merry died on July 14, 1884. The Reverend Tom R.
Huffman became pastor in 1885. The first "split" of the First
Colored Baptist Church occurred in 1887, under the pastorale of the Reverend
Huffman. Those who followed him organized the Mount Olive Baptist Church.
The remaining members continued to worship with the Reverend M. W. Gilbert,
who served the congregation from 1887 to 1890. The Reverend J. E. Purdy
was called in 1891; during his pastorale, another division of the church
occurred and resulted in the chartering of Spruce Street Baptist Church.
Today there are three churches which are descendants of the First Colored
Baptist Church of Nashville: First (Colored) Baptist Church Capitol Hill,
Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, and Spruce Street Baptist Church.
Annually since 1983 the three churches jointly participated in their "Roots