By Bill Carey
When people think about historic events, they usually think about military rebellions, battles, and elections. But in 1854 something important happened to Nashville that doesn’t fall into any of those three categories. Had it not occurred, Nashville may not have become a publishing center, and never gotten Vanderbilt University or its medical center.
In 1854, the Methodist Episcopal Church South picked Nashville for its publishing house.
The story starts 10 years earlier. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church, then the dominant Christian denomination in America, split over the issue of slavery. It took several years for the courts to decide how to divide up the assets of the publishing concern, which had offices in New York and Cincinnati. In 1854, the settlement was finalized, and southern Methodists were given enough capital to start a new operation.
By this time, there had already been a lot of debate in the editorial pages of Methodist newspapers about where to locate the publishing house of the
Close vote in 1854 changed Nashville’s history
new Methodist Episcopal Church South. As it happened, the influential Nashville Christian Advocate had as its editor John McFerrin. McFerrin, a friend of the late president James K. Polk, used his newspaper to argue in favor of Nashville.
Among McFerrin’s arguments: New Orleans, La., was unqualified because it had “broken levees, deluged streets, deserted mansions, and epidemic diseases.” Louisville, Ky., was a “border town,” and “there is not a place in the South or West for which nature has done so much and man so little as the city of Louisville.”
Nashville, on the other hand, was the political capital of the South in the 1850s, having produced two presidents in the last 30 years. And it was a place where “Methodism is decidedly in the ascendancy, and Tennessee is a commonwealth of primitive, real camp-meeting Methodists.”
Despite McFerrin’s arguments, Nashville did not immediately rise to the top of the list of cities for the new publishing house at the annual conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1854. On the first ballot, leading vote-getters were Memphis, Louisville, and an industrial suburb of Montgomery, Ala., called Prattville. One by one, cities were eliminated from the list. On the sixth ballot, Nashville finally beat Louisville 60 to 57.
So why is this so important?
Almost immediately after its opening in Nashville, the Publishing House of the Methodist Episcopal Church South became one of the most important publishers of literature in the South, bringing a lot of jobs and many educated people to the city.
After the war ended, the leaders of the Methodist Episcopal Church South decided to start a university. In its infancy it was known as Central University. But when millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt, a relative by marriage of Methodist Bishop Holland McTyeire, donated $500,000 to the cause, the school was renamed for him. One of the reasons Nashville was chosen as the site for Vanderbilt University was because the Methodist Episcopal publishing house was already there.
Vanderbilt University broke from the church in 1914. The future of its small medical school was set in stone about a decade later, when the Rockefeller Foundation chose the school to be the recipient of a $5 million gift. Today Vanderbilt is one of the top private universities in the South. The Vanderbilt Medical Center is the largest non-governmental employer in Middle Tennessee, with a staff of nearly 40,000.
As for the Southern Methodist Publishing House, it grew in size and stature in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In 1891 the Southern Baptist Convention voted to form a publishing arm and chose Nashville for its headquarters, doing so in part because of the existence of the Methodist publishing arm. For generations it was known as the Baptist Sunday School Board.
In the early 20th century, the National Baptist Convention also located its religious publishing organization in downtown Nashville, again because of the presence of religious publishing in Nashville. It became known as the National Baptist Publishing Board.
Desktop publishing and the internet have taken much business away from the world of religious publishing in recent years. (That, I suspect, is another column.) However, the 1854 decision by the Southern Methodist Church to put its headquarters in Nashville is still one of the most important things to ever happen to the city.
Bill Carey is the founder of Tennessee History for Kids, a non-profit organization that helps teachers cover social studies.