Marker unveiled for Nashville’s first ordained African American minister

Rev. Nelson G. Merry historical marker unveiled.

The Metropolitan Historical Commission with the help of the Mayor’s Office and council members recently unveiled a historical marker at Frankie Pierce Park dedicated to Rev. Nelson G. Merry.

According to historian, Linda T. Wynn:

Nelson G. Merry, born a Kentucky slave in 1824, came to Nashville with his master. In 1840, his widowed mistress willed the 16-year-old slave to the First Baptist Church. He was employed by the church, baptized, and finally freed on November 1, 1845.

Merry began preaching to the First Colored Baptist Church congregation, which had been organized by Whites in 1843. Merry was carefully tutored by Rev. Samuel A. Davidson, a White man who served as the Black congregation’s pastor from 1848 to 1853. After being examined by local Baptist ministers, Merry became in 1853 the first ordained Negro minister in Nashville. Immediately he took charge of the 100 members of the First Colored Baptist church. In 1849, after Rev. Davidson became pastor, the Black congregation moved into the old schoolhouse at 21 North McLemore Street (now Ninth Avenue). After moving to a house on Pearl Street, the church finally found a permanent location on the west side of Spruce Street (now Eighth Avenue), today’s site of the Federal Reserve Bank. Under Merry, the First Colored Baptist Church became the state’s largest church, with over 2,000 members. It became independent of the White First Baptist Church in 1866.

During the 1880s and the 1890s, the church experienced trouble and several congregational splits. In 1887, an ideological split caused Rev. Tom Huffman, Nelson Merry’s successor, to lead a group of members to organize Mount Olive Baptist Church at 908-910 Cedar Street (now Charlotte Avenue). In 1895, due to a destructive fire and bickering over the insurance proceeds, the First Colored Baptist Church split again. One faction went to court and received the name First Colored Baptist Church (now First Baptist Church Capitol Hill on Merry Street) and moved to the northwest corner of Spruce Street. The other faction was granted the old church site at 311-313 Spruce Street, along with several thousand dollars in insurance proceeds. They organized Spruce Street Baptist Church at 810 Cedar Street and are now located on 20th Ave. North.

Merry organized at least 14 Negro Baptist churches, including the Vandavall Baptist Church on Stewart Street in Edgefield, begun in 1866. Its pastor, Randall B. Vandavall, a self-purchased free Black who was born a slave near Nashville in 1834, officiated at Nelson G. Merry’s funeral on July 15, 1884.

Merry is recognized as a founder of the Tennessee Colored Baptist Association (1866). He served as editor of The Colored Sunday School Standard (1874-1875). He also was well known in regional and national Baptist church conferences, due to his frequent attendance at such meetings before and after the Civil War.

His survivors were his wife Mary and their children: Adella, Elizabeth, Emma, Jimmy, John, and Nammie. His death drew notices in both of the city’s major newspapers, and Nashville’s White ministers conducted a special service for Merry. He was buried in Mount Ararat Cemetery. The tomb is marked with a life-like relief and a 40-foot granite monument.

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