Three Early African American Leaders Among Nashville Churches of Christ

Peter Lowery (1810-1888).

Peter Lowery (1810-1888), married to a free Cherokee named Ruth Mitchell, (1) became a member of the Nashville Christian Church in 1835, (2) purchased his own freedom in 1839 and eventually freed his mother, three brothers, and two sisters, (3) worked at Franklin College and was mentored by Tolbert Fanning in the 1840s, (4) began preaching in 1848, (5) owned businesses worth $40,000 which he lost in the Civil War, (6) planted the first black congregation in the Restoration Movement in Nashville (eventually known as the Second Colored Christian Church) in 1855, (7) stayed in Nashville despite harassment and potential exclusion of all free blacks from TN by the legislature, (8) participated in the political pursuit of rights for Freedmen after the war, and (9) founded Tennessee Manual Labor school near Murfreesboro, TN in 1866 (185 students enrolled in 1869) though the project was abandoned in 1874 and property sold in 1876.

David Lipscomb recommended that his readers support the school: “Elder P. Lowery was long an approved teacher of the Gospel by the Church of Christ in Nashville. He has long been a free man; has, by industry and economy in days past, gained property; and so demenned [sic] himself as to command the respect and esteem of the community in Nashville, as his letters of endorsement attest. It would probably be difficult to find one of his race more competent to cary his proposed school into successful operation.” Gospel Advocate 10, no. 11 (12 March 1868) 256.

J. P. Grigg wrote his obituary in the Gospel Advocate (Feb 15, 1888, p. 10): “Bro. Lowery obeyed the gospel in his young days and had been a proclaimer of the gospel for 40 years. He was a good neighbor and devoted Christian. He lived a devoted member of the church from the day of his obedience until the day of his death. He died in a bright hope of a blessed immortality. I never saw any one who seemed to be more devoted to the Christian life than he. He was always found at church on Lord’s day when he was able. I do not remember of ever meeting him that he did not ask me how I was getting along spiritually and express his hopes of a brighter and better world than this.”

Peter Lowery (1810-1888), an enslaved black man who purchased his own freedom, owned businesses in Nashville, and planted the first black congregation in Nashville associated with the Restoration Movement in 1855, petitioned the city council of Nashville for permission to hold night church services in 1857. This was their response. May God have mercy.

“Ald. Fogg said he did not believe any good resulted from negro preaching. If negroes desired religious instructions, the churches in the city were all open to them. Negro preachers could not explain the fundamental principles of Christianity; they were not competent. There were many things connected with the night meetings which were objectionable and demoralizing. He moved its rejection. The motion prevailed unanimously.”“City Council,” Republican Banner (May 29, 1857) 3.

David Lipscomb held a different view: “Elder P. Lowery was long an approved teacher of the Gospel by the Church of Christ in Nashville” (Gospel Advocate, March 12, 1866, p. 256).

Samuel Lowery (1830-1900)

Samuel Lowery (1830-1900), the son of Peter Lowery and educated by Tolbert Fanning at Franklin College (whom he always highly regarded), became a school teacher in 1846 (yes, at 16!; schools for free blacks had existed in Nashville since 1833) and a preacher in 1849.

He left Nashville for Cincinnati, Ohio, due to the closure of black schools and violent threats against free blacks in 1856. It seems he founded the Harrison Street Christian Church (“colored”) in Cincinnati in 1857. From 1859-1862 he served as an evangelist and church planter in Chatham, Canada West, sent by the American Missionary Society.

He later returned to Nashville as a chaplain in the Union army (9th US Heavy Artillery US Colored Troops) during the Union occupation. He also conducted school for soldiers in Union regiments while in Nashville. Between 1865-1875 he was deeply involved in State Colored Men’s Conventions and the Tennessee State Equal Rights League.

He raised funds for and taught at the Tennessee Manual Labor University near Murfreesboro, TN (five of his seven children attended the school). The school’s demise was due, in part, to accusations about the mishandling of funds by Samuel, though it is uncertain whether this was ever the case. After studying law with a white mentor near Murfreesboro, TN, he began to practice law in Nashville.

In 1875, he moved to Huntsville, Alabama, to practice law and founded the Lowery Industrial Academy (which won first prize for its silk at the 1884 World’s Fair), edited the National Freeman, and was the first African American to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. He ultimately became disenchanted with politics and focused on his silk business. He became an ally of the educator Booker T. Washington.

The Gospel Advocate (1880, p. 203) noted his achievement: “Samuel R. Lowery, a colored man, was recently admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.”

Daniel Wadkins (1818-1883)

Elder Daniel Wadkins (1818-1883), biracial and born free, was a member of the Nashville Christian Church on Church Street (probably since 1844). Originally a farm laborer, he became a teacher’s assistant in 1833 when the first school for free blacks in Nashville was started. He began his own school in 1839.

The schools were typically clandestine and often violently opposed. In December 1856, twelve white men threateningly entered his school and closed it. It remained closed until 1862 when it reopened with 159 students during Union occupation. However, by 1865, Wadkins’s school closed due to free education offered by white churches/missionaries in Nashville.

In 1866, Wadkins, like Samuel Lowery, was commissioned to raise money for the Tennessee Manual Labor University. Wadkins received a letter of commendation from Frederick Douglass. Though accused of mishandling funds, an investigation by the Nashville Christian Church, led by P. S. Fall, acquitted him of any wrongdoing and affirmed his integrity (Gospel Advocate, October 27, 1870, p. 397).

In the 1860s, Wadkins was also involved in city politics as well as Freedmen associations and conventions. In 1867, he was elected to the city council but was replaced by a white Republican before the council went into session. He lost his next election bid in 1868. When Andrew Johnson (former military governor of TN and President of the US) ran for Senate in 1869 in TN, Wadkins led Republican freedmen in questioning Johnson’s views: Did he support black civil and political equality with whites? Did the Tennessee government represent blacks as well as whites? Wadkins’s letter to Johnson was published in the Nashville Daily Press and Times (April 15, 1869). Johnson never responded. Wadkins argued in various political meetings that “there was not now any disposition on the part of the whites to oppress the colored people” and noted the legislature to that point had not passed “any law restricting their rights” (Republican Banner, November 12, 1869, p. 1).

When a new constitution was written in early 1870 and a new governor installed (John Calvin Brown, a former Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan member), Tennessee’s Reconstruction era came to an end. Wadkins was disappointed and disillusioned. He turned his primary attention to preaching.

In the 1870s, Wadkins served as an evangelist supported by various congregations. He preached and planted churches in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. His audiences sometimes included white as well as black attendees, and sometimes he was refused use of buildings where white congregations met. He was also a leader in the annual conventions of the “colored Christian church” in Tennessee (e.g., Gospel Advocate, November 20, 1873, p. 1119).

In support of his ministry, the First Christian Church in Nashville (his home congregation) commended him with this letter: “This shall certify that Bro. Daniel Wadkins (colored) has been for thirty years a member of this congregation, and is in regular standing as such. He has been long engaged in preaching the word, and is hereby authorized to do so wherever, in the providence of God, an opportunity may offer. He is commended, as a disciple of Christ and as a Christian Teacher to the attention of the brotherhood. In behalf of the elders and deacons of the said congregation, and by their order, Lord’s Day, March 29, 1874. P. S. Fall.” (Gospel Advocate, May 7, 1874, pp. 447-8).

In 1881, Wadkins, commissioned by Governor Alvin Hawkins, became a Chaplain in the State Penitentiary. (Gospel Advocate, March 31, 1881, p. 203.)

Wadkins died on May 10, 1883 in Nashville. “His funeral was preached by Bros. D[avid]. L[ipscomb]., and R. Lin Cave, assisted by Rev. Nelson Merry, in the First Baptist Church, a large audience being in attendance. Bro. W. was a man of remarkably strong and vigorous mind, and superior talents.” (Gospel Advocate, May 16, 1883, p. 315.)

Wadkins, a leading black evangelist who traveled in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky preaching and planting churches (see my post earlier this morning), became the center of a controversy in 1874 that signaled the direction many churches would take during the Post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.

In 1874, Watkins asked Lipscomb to publish his request for the use of “meeting-houses” so that he might teach Christianity to “the more destitute of my people” that “are willing to hear.” Unfortunately, to the dismay of Lipscomb, “white brethren in some places refused the use of their houses at times when unoccupied by themselves.” “We do not hesitate to say,” Lipscomb added, “that such a foolish and unchristian prejudice should be vigorously and eagerly trampled under foot, and all persons who are driven from the church because the house is used by the humblest of God’s creatures, in teaching and learning the Christian religion would bless the church by leaving it.” Further, “if the houses are too fine for this, they are entirely too fine for Christian purposes.” (Lipscomb, Gospel Advocate, March 19, 1874, pp. 281-83.)

On October 9, 1874, a “consultation meeting” of more than thirty ministers and elders was held by disciples in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Daniel Wadkins was present, and he was commended “to his people as one being qualified to preach the word, and plant and build up churches among them.” On the morning of October 12, the “ordination” committee proposed this resolution: “Resolved, that we recommend to our colored brethren who have membership with whites, whenever practicable to withdraw themselves and form congregations of their own, believing that by so doing they will advance the cause of Christ among themselves, and when it not practicable so to do, that they receive the attention of their various congregations.” (Gospel Advocate, October 29, 1874, 1017-18.)

David Lipscomb took exception to the segregationist resolution. “The resolution in reference to colored brethren forming separate congregations we believe plainly contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures. The Jews and Gentiles had as strong antipathies as the whites and blacks. They were never recommended to form distinct organizations. The course we believe to be hurtful to both races and destructive to the Spirit of Christ.” (Lipscomb, Gospel Advocate, October 29, 1874, 1020.)

Wadkins himself had stayed with the mother Nashville congregation when a black congregation was planted in the city by Peter Lowery. Lipscomb believed the church should be the place where black and white serve and worship together in contrast to segregated society. But Reconstruction and the emergence of the Jim Crow South dramatically shaped the story of black and white churches in the South.

However, it is understandable that some freed people sought their own space because of the paternalistic and assimilationist attitudes on the part of many white churches where power was not shared or expectations were not equitable.

May God have mercy.

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