|The college officially opened under the name of the American Baptist Theological Seminary on September 14, 1924. In 1971, the school became accredited and its official name was changed to American Baptist College. The college was originally formed as a joint educational partnership between the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.. The Southern Baptist Convention withdrew its support of the college in 1995. The college continues to serve as the primary theological training center for the NBC, USA Inc.
The idea of a seminary for the training of Black Baptist ministers grew out of conversation between National Baptist leaders and Dr. O.L. Hailey, one of the founding fathers of the College. At its annual meeting in 1913, the National Baptist Convention appointed a committee to investigate the possibility of establishing a seminary for the education of its ministers. In a resolution presented by Dr. E.Y. Mullin and adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in that same year, the convention pledged its cooperation and appointed a similar committee. The committees of the two conventions met together and the following year recommended to their respective bodies that the college be established in Memphis, Tennessee. It was later decided to establish the College in Nashville. The present site of 53 acres was purchased with the help of the National Baptists in 1921, and a plan calling for the management of the seminary by a holding board and a governing board representative of the two conventions was adopted. The first building, Griggs Hall, was erected in 1923 and housed dormitory rooms, dining hall, library, and classrooms.
American Baptist College formally opened its doors for the training of Christian workers under the name of the American Baptist Theological Seminary on September 14, 1924. In 1937, the Southern Baptist Convention agreed to share 50/50 with the National Baptist Convention, USA Inc. in the operation of the College. The unprecedented cooperation between the National Baptist Convention, USA Inc. and the Southern Baptist Convention created a unique educational opportunity for African American clergy to gain higher biblical and theological education for over five decades. Due to this partnership, the Southern Baptist Convention helped prepare students and a broad spectrum of church leaders who were ready to meet the challenges of the Civil Rights movement led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Providing scholarships and fiscal support of the operations of American Baptist College, the Southern Baptist Convention made a significant contribution to the education of men and women for Christian service in the world. In order to support the future growth and flourishing of the College, the Southern Baptist Convention continued in that partnership until a joint decision to turn over the assets to the Board of Trustees of American Baptist College in 1996.
The College has educated Civil Rights champions, national leaders and outstanding Christian ministers. The school’s history during the 1960s and 1970s was lively with cultivating civil rights champions, national leaders and outstanding Christian ministers. Students from American Baptist College, such as Julius Scruggs, Bernard Lafayette, Jim Bevels, William Barbee and John Lewis served on the front line of the Nashville Student Sit-In movement for justice and change. Under the tutelage of then Professor J.F Grimmett, the late the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, and Rev Dr. C.T. Vivian, many of our students dared to sit down at lunch counters dramatically altering the quality of life for Americans living in the South. They sat, marched, and persevered through arrests and beatings before they were victorious in pursuit of justice and human rights. The campus itself was a popular command post for organizing and training students for social justice causes throughout the city at the time. American Baptist College can boast that a number of its students from that period have gone on to become major names in civil rights history and American politics (e.g., Congressman John Lewis, Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Dr. Julius Scruggs).
Nashville was the "University of Nonviolence...the movement's research laboratory...here the nonviolent sit-in was first methodically theorized, practiced, and tested...An extraordinary number of [Civil Rights] Movement leaders got their start in Nashville...Their organizational energy was felt throughout the South for the next decade." Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement.
Author Townsend Davis lists graduates of this "University of Nonviolence": James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, C.T. Vivian (American Baptist Theological Seminary students); Diane Nash and Marion Berry (Fisk University students). He also notes the leadership of Rev. Kelly Miller Smith (pastor, First Baptist Capitol Hill and professor at ABTS). In the recent "rolling history lesson" on the 1961 Freedom Rides [January 27-28, 2007], American Baptist College was represented by Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, C.T. Vivian and four current students as well as one of our faculty members. Rev. James Lawson spoke often during this journey of the impact of the Nashville movement on the national movement, from 1959 until now, and of the importance of American Baptist. A number of people have tried to figure out why so many of the national civil rights leaders came from American Baptist College, a small four year historically black college in North Nashville. Noting that American Baptist was seldom even mentioned, David Halberstam, author of The Children explains:
"It was a place without pretense, without class lines...But at a time when the black church was becoming the driving force of a larger social revolution taking place in the United States, American Baptist had become a magnet for many of the most talented and passionate young blacks in the country. For young blacks in small towns in the South, dreaming of doing something for their own people, did not in those days dream of going to Harvard or Yale or Stanford Law, they dreamt of going into the Baptist ministry. Therefore the talent and the passion and the innate human strength of the students at American Baptist had nothing to do with the seeming simplicity and relative poverty of the school. It was a place filled with political ferment and passion. Its faculty was gifted and its students, many of them diamonds in the rough, were hungry to learn."