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Nashville’s historic First Baptist Church marks 200 years of ministry

NASHVILLE (BP) – Union forces occupied Nashville First Baptist Church for more than two years during the Civil War, generally trashing the place as they threw church pews on the lawn and established a temporary hospital.

As historians tell it, pastor Robert Boyté Crawford (R.B.C.) Howell refused to pledge allegiance to the federal government and was thrown into prison at bayonet point for a two-month stay. Members who remained in Nashville worshiped where they could – including individual homes, a theater and a room above a grocery store.

Construction is ongoing at downtown Nashville’s First Baptist Church. The July grand opening of its new addition, canceled due to COVID-19, is now scheduled for Easter Sunday 2021.

The church, which originally opened its doors in 1820, survived the tumultuous period. In 2020, the historic church is marking its bicentennial amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Senior Pastor Frank Lewis is the 20th pastor of the downtown church, which is credited with the founding of both the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) and The Baptist newspaper (the forerunner to The Baptist and Reflector). The church also founded the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes. It has been described as the unofficial headquarters of the Seventy-Five Million Campaign that birthed the Cooperative Program. And it numbers among its pastors many former Southern Baptist Convention presidents and entity leaders.

“Prior to the closure of our city, its economy, our tourist industry, and the relocation of literally thousands of new residents each month, our church culminated a multi-year campus renovation project that included plans to build a new 80,000-square-foot multipurpose facility,” Lewis said. “When COVID-19 closed things down, we were at the halfway point of construction. Our hopes prior to that are still the hopes that this church holds for our future. We are here to be Nashville’s downtown church for a new season. We just didn’t realize that would be a post-COVID season.”

A year-long bicentennial celebration was interrupted for months, with the official July 19 Sunday bicentennial observance moved to 2021, when the church anticipates an Easter Sunday opening of its $34 million facility adjacent to the sanctuary.

When it’s complete, the $34 million addition to First Baptist Nashville will feature a rooftop chapel and a coffee shop with Christian entertainment — all easily accessible to the heavy foot traffic of lower Broadway.

“The pandemic brought a number of cancellations and changes to a year that had been planned and prayed over for years,” Lewis said. “All of our mission trips for 2020 were canceled due to travel restrictions and other concerns. … Locally, all of our mission projects that are carried out in crowds were canceled. … Six guest preachers had been invited years ago, each asked to speak to a particular theme that would help our church understand the rich history that we were remembering this year.

“… Once the building closed and we moved to an online-only presence, that preaching plan was changed entirely to allow me to better address the hurts and needs associated with COVID-19, our economy and our national pain and confusion brought on by the unjust treatment of people of color in our communities.”

Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, resumed the guest preacher schedule Oct. 4, adding to a series that began before the shutdown and included Union University professor and dean Ray Van Neste, First Baptist Capitol Hill Pastor Kelly Miller Smith and historian Tom Nettles.

Lewis has led Nashville First since 1997 after serving as national consultant for preaching and worship at what is now LifeWay, and as founding pastor of Green Valley Baptist Church near Las Vegas as a Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) church planter.

Lewis has described Nashville First as “the mother church of our convention,” in part because of the many Southern Baptist entity employees and leaders who have served the church. He notes in particular H. Franklin Paschall, who pastored the church from 1956-1983 and served as SBC president from 1966-1968.

“I discovered that the church had been an innovator for the Gospel by owning the first license for a radio station. WCBQ (We Cannot Be Quiet) carried the Gospel to listeners in Kentucky, Alabama and all across the state of Tennessee,” Lewis said. “First Nashville also started a number of ministries. The Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home was started by the Fidelis Class, one of our women’s Sunday School Classes. The Baptist Sunday School Board, now Lifeway, was started in the pastor’s office. First Nashville was one of the four churches that started the Southern Baptist Convention. We were instrumental in giving birth to Union University. We started The Next Door, a treatment center for women serving Nashville and Chattanooga.”

Nashville First has expressed commitment to expanding its Gospel presence in a downtown that continues to attract new business and residential development. The new Broadway building will make the church more accessible and useful to an anticipated 25,000 residents expected to live within an easy stroll of the sanctuary within two years. A third-floor outdoor chapel will host sunrise services, evening worship gatherings, weddings and other events overlooking Broadway. A coffee house with Christian entertainment will offer an alternative to secular music venues a few doors down.

“Next to the Chapel, sharing the broad and open entry, will be a coffee shop providing a place for hospitality that we’ve never had before along Broadway, our most heavily trafficked, pedestrian walkway,” Lewis said. “It is estimated that over 2 million people will walk past our building in the first year. We want to provide each of them with another musical option to what they will experience in Nashville, provide a safe place for conversations about the Gospel, recovery, or just a place to meet up with a good friend.”

Nashville First has positioned itself to reach the next generation with the Gospel.

“We believe the previous 200 years were in preparation for all God wants to do in the spiritual development of Nashville’s future,” Lewis said. “Our former pastor, Dr. William Francis Powell (who served First Nashville from 1921-1956), said it best with these words which he often used as a benediction: ‘The past is prologue, the present is unparalleled, and the future is as bright as our trust in God.'”