Black and White Nashville Churches Remember Shared History

Kelly Miller Smith, Jr., preaching Sunday (Feb. 16) during a yearlong bicentennial celebration at Nashville First Baptist Church, exhorted Christians to love with the compassion characteristic of Jesus. Photo by Scott Schrecker

NASHVILLE (BP) — Nashville First Baptist Church was willed an enslaved 16-year-old Nelson G. Merry in 1840, and by 1853 had baptized, discipled, freed and ordained him to pastor the First Colored Baptist Mission, a First Baptist church plant.

That church plant became First Baptist Church Capitol Hill, a majority black Nashville congregation led by senior pastor Kelly Miller Smith Jr. He participated Sunday (Feb. 16) in Nashville First Baptist’s yearlong bicentennial celebration, preaching the morning sermon and answering questions on race relations and civil rights during a luncheon afterward.

“Our congregation was born at a time when slaves were just being freed after the Emancipation Proclamation,” Smith told Baptist Press. “From the time of inception, Nashville First Baptist seemed to understand the value and importance [of] former slaves having their own identity and approach to worshiping and serving God. It is evident in our shared history.”

Smith and Frank Lewis, pastor of the mother congregation Nashville First Baptist, are longtime friends, having met more than 20 years ago when both served on the Board of Trustees of Belmont University. Lewis, who has collaborated with Smith in several racial reconciliation initiatives, told Baptist Press the slavery is what he most regrets about the history of Nashville First Baptist.

“Every encounter I have had with the membership and leadership of First Baptist Capitol Hill has been an expression of grace and forgiveness, that seems to be based on a shared hope for a better future,” Lewis told BP.

Nashville First Baptist traces its beginnings to an 1820 Nashville revival led by Jeremiah Vardeman and James Whitsitt. Sunday marked the second guest sermon in a series of speakers and monthly mission emphases scheduled as First Baptist Nashville prepares to officially mark its bicentennial July 19. The day included two special Sunday School classes focusing on racial reconciliation and taught by teachers from First Baptist Capitol Hill, Smith’s 10:30 a.m. sermon and a luncheon Question and Answer with Smith and Nashville School Board member Sharon Gentry, a First Baptist Capitol Hill member who led a Sunday School class. Also teaching was Susan Howard.

Smith, 64, grew up in Nashville during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, when his father Kelly Miller Smith Sr. pastored First Baptist Capitol Hill. Smith’s father was a leader during the struggle. Smith said Sunday his father often had to evacuate his family from their home in the middle of the night after receiving bomb threats, never certain whether an explosion was imminent.

The struggles of the age still trouble Smith, who believes Christians fall short in demonstrating the compassion of Jesus.

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Source: Baptist Press

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