In 1889, Ransom Temple Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America was organized and founded in Nashville, Tennessee, by Rev. Willis Ransom. Born in 1844, in Bedford County, Tennessee, Willis Ransom was a slave who left his owner’s plantation in January 1864 and joined the Union army to fight for his freedom in the Civil War. As a member of the 17th Regiment of the United Stated Colored Troops, Ransom was mustered in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, appointed to Corporal in July 1864, and fought in the Battle of Nashville before pursuing Confederate General John Bell Hood out of Middle Tennessee and into Alabama in early 1865.
After the Civil War, Ransom was honorably discharged from the military, but he continued to fight on the battlefield for the Lord. He immediately settled down with his wife and family as a farmer in the Shelbyville community of Bedford County, Tennessee. Rev. Ransom traveled twenty miles back and forth to Marshall County to establish his first church in the Holts Corner community of Chapel Hill, Tennessee. Although there are no written records of the name and founding date of this church, Rev. Ransom travelled twenty more miles south of Holts Corner and twenty-two miles west of his home to establish a second church that bears his name and still stands more than one hundred thirty-five years after its founding.
According to the history of the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church, many of the African American preachers, like Rev. Ransom, “were not fully ordained and were practically little more than exhorters,” but “with the close of the war and the changed conditions, these Negro Members organized separate churches, and later sought a separate ecclesiastical organization.” In May 1869, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, during the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church meeting; a full delegation of African American Cumberland Presbyterians met separately and decided to organize their own denomination. The General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church acted favorably to fill their request, and in 1874 the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church was established. In 1885, Rev. Ransom organized and founded Ransom Chapel Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, Tennessee. Located in the county seat, at 603 East Church Street, Ransom Chapel Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America continues to serve the spiritual and religious needs of the Marshall County community today.
According to oral tradition, Rev. Ransom went on to organize a third church near Chapel Hill between 1886 and 1888, but the Ku Klux Klan forced him to take his family and leave the area before there were any written records of his leadership. Records of the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror in Bedford, Marshall, and Rutherford counties, however, are plentiful. One report described an incident near Chapel Hill in which “a group of whites planned to whip an African American for some unstated reason,” but a group of African Americans protected the man and helped him escape to Nashville. African Americans frequently left the middle Tennessee rural areas bound for Nashville to avoid the power, influence, and terror of the Klan.
Rev. Ransom, like many other African Americans besieged by the Klan, moved from Bedford County in the late 1880s to Nashville. While working full-time as a stonemason, Rev. Ransom organized his fourth and final church, Ransom Temple Cumberland Presbyterian Church, in a storefront on the corner of Warren and Jefferson Street in 1889. In 1893, Rev. Ransom purchased a plot of land for a permanent church building on the corner of Hamilton (now Herman) Street and 16th Avenue North. He held services at this location for nine years and laid the foundation for the church before he died from exhaustion in 1902. As not only a prominent pastor in the city, but also a Civil War veteran, Rev. Ransom’s life was celebrated and laid to rest at Nashville’s National Cemetery on Gallatin Pike in Madison, Tennessee.
There is no record of who led the congregation after Rev. Ransom’s death, but news articles reveal Dr. Jerry Milton Walter DeShong of Fayetteville, Tennessee, led the effort to complete construction of the “new quarters” on Hamilton Street and hosted the sixth annual National Sunday-School Convention and Thirty-Ninth General Assembly of the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church at Ransom Temple from May 13-15, 1913. Dr. DeShong gave the welcoming address and Miss Sadie Reed, Rev. Ransom’s granddaughter, brought greetings on behalf of the Sunday School.
In 1917, the Elk River Presbytery of the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church convened once again at Ransom Temple on Hamilton Street with the retiring moderator, the Reverend Dr. DeShong presiding. Ransom Temple’s next pastor of record, Rev. Samuel Brooks, offered the Constitutional prayer and students from the Milan Industrial and Bible Institute in Milan, Tennessee, the denomination’s first school for the industrial and religious education of African Americans, received special attention on the program. Rev. Samuel Brooks was born in Virginia and spent the first forty years of his life as an oysterman or longshoreman in the coastal community of Newport News. By the age of fifty-four, he was working as a minister for the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Lawrence County, Tennessee. Rev. Brooks moved to Nashville and led the Ransom Temple congregation until his death at the age of seventy in 1919.
By 1928, Ransom Temple had “taken on
new life” under the new pastorate of Rev. Moses S. McCauley Jr.,
formerly of Detroit, Michigan. On New Year’s Day, he gave his first
sermon titled “The Awakening Year.” After the sermon, Rev.
McCauley gave individuals in the church an opportunity to share
their testimony in front of the congregation.
In the same year, Rev. McCauley gave the eulogy for Rev. Willis Ransom’s daughter, Mrs. Tabitha Frances Reed, survived by her husband, Rev. Reuben C. Reed; son, W. G. Reed; and daughter, Miss Myrtle Reed. Her other daughter, Miss Sadie Reed, had already passed away from tuberculosis in 1915. Rev. Ransom’s grandson, W. G. Reed, served as an elder and superintendent of the Sunday School at Ransom Temple under Rev. McCauley’s pastorship.
Rev. Alfred W. Mack of Huntsville, Alabama, served as the next pastor of Ransom Temple. Rev. Mack also served as the vice-moderator for the general assembly of the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church at Dyersburg, Tennessee in 1928. In 1932, members of the denomination conferred upon Ransom Temple’s pastor, Rev. A. W. Mack, the distinguished honor of election as moderator of the fifty-eighth annual General Assembly of the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church at the Laurel Hill Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church in DeKalb County, Tennessee.
Under the next pastor, Ransom Temple
broke from denominational traditions and southern racial norms by worshipping
alongside white Presbyterians. In December 1935, under the pastorship of Rev.
E. F. L. Rodgers, Ransom Temple invited Rev. Thomas A. De Vore, pastor of the
all-white Addison Avenue Cumberland Presbyterian Church, to preach during a
Sunday afternoon service. Rev. Rodgers also extended a special invitation for
“all white friends” of the church to attend the worship service.
This event was exceptional for the times, especially since other white Cumberland Presbyterian Churches in Nashville were hosting racist theatrical performances and comedy routines about African Americans. In 1932, for example, the Young People’s Association of the Cumberland Presbyterian Churches of Nashville held a social event at the First Cumberland Presbyterian Church on the corner of Ninth Avenue South and McGavock Street. According to the Nashville Banner, the program included “music and blackface sketches” followed by refreshments for all attendees.
It is important to note that Ransom Temple was often referred to as First “Colored” Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Both names Ransom Temple and First Cumberland Presbyterian Church (colored) frequently appeared in both newspaper articles and city directories during the 1930s and 1940s with the same address – 1507 Hamilton Street, Nashville, Tennessee. Ransom Temple also had multiple pastors throughout the decade. Although Rev. A. W. Mack served as pastor for the first three-to-four years, the remaining years saw at least two pastors in less than two years; Rev. E. F. L. Rodgers in 1935 and Rev. J. R. Scott in 1936. There is no record of another pastor until the late 1940s.
To reduce confusion in the city, Nashville’s City Council changed the names of more than one hundred streets with similar names in 1942. On May 7 of that year, Hamilton Street, which was like Hamilton Avenue, was officially renamed as a continuation of Herman Street from the western side of 19th Avenue North. According to the Tennessean, Herman Street was, from this point forward, continuing east to 10th Avenue North. From 1942 onward, both the First Cumberland Presbyterian Church (colored) and Ransom Temple Cumberland Presbyterian Church appeared in newspapers and city directories as holding its services at 1507 Herman Street. The original church, with the foundation built by Rev. Willis Ransom, caught on fire in 1945, and the entire brick structure was destroyed and demolished. With resilience, Ransom Temple’s congregation quickly rebuilt the church at the same location.
In 1947, Rev. Isiah H. Hardison first appeared in local newspapers and city directories as pastor of Ransom Temple and/or First Cumberland Presbyterian Church (colored). Although he worked full-time for the American Tobacco Company, Rev. Hardison led Ransom Temple’s congregation for two years before accepting another call to pastor a local Baptist church. In the last year of Hardison’s pastorship, a thirty-seven-year-old Rev. DeWitt C. (D. C.) Williams took over as pastor and led Ransom Temple from 1949 to 1961. During his twelve-years of leadership, the interior of the church was renovated and remodeled, the Ransom Temple Gospel Singers were established, and the Nashville community was invited to daily vacation Bible school for two weeks during the summer.
After Rev. D. C. Williams, Rev. William Howard Nichols, a native of Centralia, Illinois, took over as pastor of Ransom Temple. Rev. Nichols had lived in Nashville from 1929 to 1940. During that time, he met and married Helen B. Jones who surprisingly lived across the street from Ransom Temple at 1520 Hamilton Street. Rev. Nichols and his wife left Nashville, and he pastored churches in Lewisburg, Tennessee, Fayetteville and Providence, Kentucky before returning to become pastor of Ransom Temple in 1961.
After a few years of service, Rev. Nichols had to lead Ransom Temple through an important transition period. In 1968, Ransom Temple moved from 1507 Herman Street to make way for an important addition to the community, Meharry Medical College’s Matthew Walker Health Center. Valued at $1.2 million, the Matthew Walker Health Center took up the entire 1500 block of Herman Street. The two-story building, located at 1501 Herman Street, provided 30,962 square feet of space for nineteen full-time and part-time physicians and dentists. The new, permanent facility also provided comprehensive health services to a poverty-stricken area of Nashville at the time. According to public health reports, the community had a population of 30,000 and approximately 18,000 of them were poor. After construction was completed in 1969, Matthew Walker Health Center offered medical and dental care, nutrition, obstetrical, ophthalmology, social, and physical therapy services to thousands of families who had no access to healthcare.
On June 18, 1968, Ransom Temple Cumberland Presbyterian Church officially moved to its third and current location at 2210 Buchanan Street. Although the location was new to the Ransom Temple congregation, it was the original location of the North End Baptist Church founded by Rev. Lemuel H. Hatcher in 1929. From 1929 to 1934, the congregation constructed a building on the lot consisting of an auditorium and four Sunday School rooms. In 1934, the church was enlarged by the addition of a new auditorium and nine classrooms, making a total of twenty rooms in the building, including an auditorium and assembly rooms for departmental meetings. The church was a wooden structure of plain design, with a basement, a baptistry, and a painting of the Jordan River at the rear of the sanctuary. By 1939, this traditional, white Southern Baptist church had 427 members, a Sunday school enrollment of 387, and a property value of $20,000. Rev. Nichols played a critical role in helping the church negotiate the purchase of the church and navigate the move from 1507 Herman Street to 2210 Buchanan Street.
During his tenure as pastor, Rev. Nichols was also a member of the Church World Alliance; a worship director for the National Sunday School Convention; president of the Board of Christian Education, and a Mason. In 1968 and 1969, he served as moderator for the Tennessee Synod. In 1970, Rev. Nichols was attending the Elk River Presbytery when he suddenly became increasingly ill. On Saturday morning, April 11, 1970, Rev. Nichols passed away at the Maury County Hospital in Columbia, Tennessee.
In late 1971, Rev. James S. Nance accepted the call to lead Ransom Temple’s congregation for nearly the next two decades. As pastor of the historic Ransom Temple Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Rev. Nance hosted the 100th General Assembly of the Second Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1974. Organized in 1874, as the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the General Assembly voted to remove the term “Colored” and changed the name to the Second Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1960. Rev. Nance arranged for the denomination’s centennial celebration to take place on the campus of Fisk University from June 9 to June 15, 1974. According to Nance, “Fisk was chosen as the meeting place because of its historic tradition.” Featured speakers during the week included Rev. James Lawson, a leading civil rights advocate; Anna Nichols Bolling, assistant dean at the University of Kentucky; and Dr. Henry Bradford, president of the church’s board of Christian education and director of music education at Alabama A&M Normal College, in Normal, Alabama. After fourteen years of leadership, Rev. Nance held a mortgage burning service for the church’s present site. On March 10, 1985, members of Ransom Temple not only celebrated the church’s ninety-six-year existence, but they also rejoiced over the church’s release from a promissory note used to purchase the property in 1968. Rev. Nance led two services that day, one at 11 a.m. and another at 3 p.m.
Three years later, Rev. Gerald B. Easley accepted the call to become the next pastor of Ransom Temple. During his leadership, Ransom Temple celebrated several landmark anniversaries and hosted important annual meetings. In his first year, Rev. Easley led the congregation in a service of celebration and praise for its 100th anniversary on May 6, 1989. He invited Rev. McKinley Jones, pastor of Huntsville, Alabama’s Union Hill Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America and 1989 Moderator of the General Assembly, to speak during the church’s anniversary celebration. In his third year, Rev. Easley and Ransom Temple hosted the biannual meeting of the Tennessee Synod of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America. Rev. David Lockhart, the newly installed pastor of Mount Tabor Second Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Tennessee, and Rev. Tommy Mae Kimble of Cincinnati, Ohio, brought messages respectively on Saturday, October 17 and Sunday, October 18, 1992. The name of the Second Cumberland Presbyterian Church was changed to Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America (C.P.C.A.) the same year. In his fifth year as pastor, Rev. Easley hosted the 125th anniversary of the Elk River Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America. On May 21, 1994, Rev. Dr. Henry Bradford of Huntsville, Alabama, was invited to speak on the history of the denomination at Fisk University for the occasion. A musical banquet was held that evening in the Fisk Student Union Building and a special service, celebrating pastor appreciation day, was held at Ransom Temple the next morning.
In March 1998, the Rev. Thomas E. Austin, former associate pastor for the Moriah Baptist Church in Nashville for seven years, was installed as the new pastor of Ransom Temple C.P.C.A. Rev. Austin was a native of Richmond, Virginia, and a graduate of American Baptist College and Scarritt Graduate School of Christian Education. The following year, he hosted a fall revival at Ransom Temple from Sunday, September 26 to Wednesday, September 29, 1999. Rev. Austin left the congregation in late 2000, having served it about two years.
From 2000 to 2005, the Elk River Presbytery appointed several interim pastors to serve the Ransom Temple congregation. On Sunday, September 25, 2005, Rev. Annette L. Taylor was installed as the first female pastor in the church’s 116-year history. Rev. Taylor was a graduate of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School with a master’s degree focusing on pastoral care. During her four years of pastorship, Ransom Temple revamped the church’s youth ministry, re-established the choir, and developed a ministry called Women in Transition to empower women through life’s changes.
On April 10, 2011, Rev. Dr. Rosemary Herron was officially installed as pastor. Today, Dr. Herron continues the historical legacy of preaching, teaching, and spreading the gospel to all humanity, regardless of race or religion at Ransom Temple Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America.