First Baptist Church has been a fixture in downtown Nashville for more than 190 years. Those years reveal bold commitment to Christ, consistent dedication to Baptist principles, tenacious focus on the purpose of the church, a disciplined spirit of sacrifice, courageous resolution of crises, and careful articulation of goals and dreams.
Beginnings and Buildings
The Baptist Church of Nashville (later First Baptist Nashville) was organized on July 22, 1820, in the Davidson County Courthouse. Thirty-five members of Mill Creek Baptist Church presented letters of dismission to form the new church. The church built its first building (pictured above) in 1820-21 on Spring Street (now Church Street) for $6,000 but lost it in the late 1820s to followers of Alexander Campbell led by Philip Fall, the church’s second pastor. Campbellism opposed many Baptist practices and viewed baptism as essential to salvation. Remaining First Baptist Nashville members met for worship in the Masonic Hall in 1830-39.
First Baptist Nashville built two more worship centers in the 1800s. After worshiping in the basement of its unfinished building for two years, it completed its second building (below) on Summer Street (now Fifth Avenue) in 1841.
The third building (below), which included facilities for Sunday School, was built at Broadway and Vine (now Seventh) and dedicated in 1886.
Besides Campbellism in the 1820s, First Baptist Nashville struggled in the 1830s with antimissionism which opposed organized missions, Sunday Schools, an education ministry, and conventions. In the 1850s, the church fought off Landmarkism, a divisive movement which viewed Baptist churches as the only true churches.
The Civil War created special problems. First Baptist Nashville supplied more than one hundred soldiers for the Confederacy. The Union Army seized the church’s building, used it for more than two years, part of the time as a hospital, and wrecked the interior. Church finances suffered during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
First Baptist Nashville ministered to the African-American people of Nashville before, during, and after the Civil War. In 1853, it ordained Nelson Merry, a slave, as pastor of its African-American congregation, a position he held until 1884.
First Baptist Nashville formed new churches. It organized a Sunday School in 1835 and had a choir by 1842. The church developed an influential deacon body. First Baptist Nashville applied rigid discipline to wayward members. The church led in organizing several denominational agencies. In 1891, two such organizations were formed at First Baptist Nashville: the Sunday School Board and the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home.
First Baptist Nashville related to Baptists on the associational level. It joined the Concord Association in 1820, the Cumberland Association in 1871, and the Nashville Association in 1900. First Baptist Nashville also related to Tennessee Baptists at large. The present Tennessee Baptist Convention was formed in 1874. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was chartered in 1845 when Baptists in the South broke away from the Triennial Convention primarily over the issue of slavery. First Baptist Nashville immediately related to this national body of Baptists and continues to do so.
First Baptist Nashville experienced enormous growth in its Sunday School beginning in 1920 when Arthur Flake led an First Baptist Nashville enlargement campaign. First Baptist Nashville organized six new churches between 1909 and 1921. The church launched a radio ministry in 1924 and formed a new library in 1928. In the 1930s, First Baptist Nashville created effective programs in teaching, training, music, and missionary education. In the 1940s almost 400 First Baptist Nashville members served in the armed forces, and the church developed special ministries to World War II servicemen and women in Nashville. In the 1940s and 1950s, First Baptist Nashville began to call more full-time staff members. It also developed a graded-choir program.
The Lord’s Supper
In 1915, First Baptist Nashville began to use individual communion cups instead of the traditional common cup. Since 1933, the church has used grape juice instead of wine in the Lord’s Supper. Since 1986, both men and women have served as deacons and assisted in the Lord’s Supper.
Buildings and Properties
First Baptist Nashville completed several building projects: its first educational building in 1928, a second educational building in 1955, an activities building in 1960, a remodeled chapel in 1962, and a new sanctuary and educational facilities in 1970. In 1988, the church voted to purchase the lot and building of Associates Capital and occupied this space in 1990. In 1997, the church constructed a large new parking lot. In 1999, First Baptist Nashville voted to purchase the Nashville Rescue Union Mission property for future development. The former Anchor Home building now houses the Downtown Ministry Center.
First Baptist Nashville members have become increasingly diverse. Their backgrounds, worship preferences, and ministry needs vary. A major First Baptist Nashville strength resides in the willingness of its members, however diverse, to unite in Bible study, worship, ministry, and missions.
The 2000s and Beyond
First Baptist Nashville continues to seek new ways to minister to its community. The downtown location provides unique opportunities to minister to the city of Nashville and surrounding metropolitan area in extraordinary ways. The church also maintains a commitment to missions in the United States and around the world, both through giving and going.