Black Religious Experience, December 7, 1970, undated
Scope and Contents
The Kelly Miller Smith Collection of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt University fittingly complements the Divinity School's Kelly Miller Smith Institute on the Black Church. The Collection clearly honors the memory of a great religious leader but, just as importantly, it signals the academic value of black religion as a subject matter for teaching and research. We are grateful to Dorothy Ruth Parks, Associate Director and Collections Librarian of the Divinity Library, and Marice Wolfe, University Archivist and Head of Special Collections, for initiating this project; and above all, we are grateful to Mrs. Alice C. Smith for making the collection possible.
Both contemporary and future scholars will view the collection as a valuable resource for inquiring into the thought and practice of a widely esteemed black leader. Happily, Kelly Miller Smith saw the importance of keeping good records and, consequently, the academic community now has access to important primary materials relative to one of the most significant periods in black American history, ca. 1945-1984.
Born and reared in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, the soul of Kelly Miller Smith was shaped by two major institutional responses to the omnipresent reality of racism: namely, the black church and the Knights and Daughters of Tabor. These separate but related institutions instilled in Smith a dialectical tension between inter-racial unity on the one hand and racial separation on the other hand. First, his training in the black church as well as at Morehouse College and Howard University readied him for the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the philosophy and strategy of the Civil Rights Movement. As a charter member of the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the founder and President of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council, Smith was part of the inner circle of advisors to Martin Luther King, Jr. Second, the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, in which his father held prominent leadership, throughout his life prepared Smith for the black consciousness movement of the late sixties and the concomitant rise of black theology and its institutionalization in the National Conference of Black Churchmen and the Society for the Study of Black Religion. Smith rendered important leadership in both of these organizations. The Smith Collection contains many boxes of materials pertinent to all of the above organizations. The one thing all of these associations shared was their mutual abhorrence of racial discrimination and segregation as paramount evils.
Since Kelly Miller Smith will always be remembered as a great preacher, scholars will not be surprised to find in this Collection a vast reservoir of sermons helpfully cataloged under both title and biblical text. Herein is to be found the substance of Smith's theological and ethical thought as well as the art of his rhetoric, both of which merit critical study. One will also discover his 1983 Lyman Beecher lectures (subsequently published by Mercer University Press under the title Social Crisis Preaching) in various stages of development: lectures in which he attempted to describe the normative foundations for all authentic preaching. Similarly, the Collection also contains numerous speeches, lectures and essays prepared for delivery to many diverse audiences.
Kelly Miller Smith's leadership in the Nashville sit-in movement gained national prominence through an NBC Special White Paper. Both the white and black communities in Nashville will always be indebted to Smith for his prudential leadership in guiding a racially polarized situation to discern and implement justice. His sermon title on the church bulletin board, "Father, Forgive them...." graphically depicted the mood of the Nashville Movement as hundreds of students marched daily from First Baptist Church to sit at lunch counters as a means of protesting racial segregation in public establishments.
Along with numerous relevant materials, this Collection contains several unfinished manuscripts by Smith including one called "The Nashville Story." It is no overstatement to say that between 1960 and 1983 Smith had a hand in every public protest of racism in the city of Nashville as well as on every public policy concerned with racial justice.
Like all black religious leaders, Kelly Miller Smith's ministry was characterized by many diverse functions, offices and associations. But, unlike many, Smith's leadership, more often than not, produced the required results. He was able to mobilize people around issues and inspire them to become actively involved. Many did so simply because he asked them. He seemed always to be calling meetings of one kind or another for purposes of institutional nurture and evaluation, often to start new organizations as a response to some pressing need, and, at other times, to try to revive groups that had fallen into a slump. Numerous files will be found in this Collection on scores of different local, regional, national and international organizations in which Smith enthusiastically rendered some type of leadership. In fact, the Collection offers a road-map of Smith's organizational involvements ranging from denominational activity in the American Baptist Convention, the National Progressive Baptist Convention, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, the National Conference of Black Churchmen, and the National Council of Churches, to service in major civil rights organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, the Opportunities Industrialization Center, People United to Save Humanity, several anti-apartheid organizations, various black colleges, and numerous civic, educational and social service organizations. It is important to note that Kelly Miller Smith's ministry clearly demonstrates the integral relation between the church and the community at large. Since the former is the institutional center of the latter nothing can be outside its concern and care. Hence, black ministers must integrate within themselves a broad diversity of functions, offices and interests.
Kelly Miller Smith served as pastor of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill for thirty-four years. Although the church had a long history of distinguished ministers, Smith's prophetic leadership moved the congregation more significantly than ever before into the arena of public ministry, but not at the expense of basic pastoral care. Rather, his ministry integrated prophetic criticism and pastoral care in all his activities, thus reflecting authentic ministry in the black Christian tradition. This Collection contains comprehensive data relative to the organizational structure and activities of the church, church reports, calendars, organizational objectives and guidelines, music, liturgies, duties and responsibilities of officers, to mention only a few.
Smith's teaching at the American Baptist College of the American Baptist Theological Seminary and at Vanderbilt Divinity School afforded him the opportunity to make an imprint on the ministry of many. It is important to note that in so far as I know he was the first person in the nation to offer a full course on the thought of Howard Thurman. His popularity as a teacher was due in part to the practical wisdom he embodied, his sound judgment about problems of ministry, and his ability to affirm the interests and gifts of every student.
Through the panoramic view that Kelly Miller Smith's papers give us of his thought and ministry, we discover the basic elements of the black church tradition embodied in the preaching, educational and social ministries of this model par excellence.
Peter J. Paris
Elmer G. Homrighausen Professor of Social Ethics Princeton Theological Seminary
- 1920 - 1985
From the Collection: 66.78 Linear Feet
Language of Materials
From the Collection: English
Part of the Vanderbilt University Special Collections Repository
Jean and Alexander Heard Library
419 21st Avenue South
Nashville TN 37203 United States