Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies

About The Institute

The Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies was established in honor of the late Kelly Miller Smith, Sr., assistant dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1968 until his death in 1984. The Institute perpetuates his legacy of theological and academic excellence and prophetic witness. The Black church remains the primary institution in the African American community committed to the liberation of persons and groups who suffer equity gaps from systemic decades of racial and social oppression. The work of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute brings together the Black church community and African American educational institutions, as partners with Vanderbilt Divinity School to study and research issues important to the practice of faith and public life in the Black church. 
 As a part of the Vanderbilt Divinity School, the Institute is an important resource for bridging African American church studies and theological education of African American laity and clergy for leadership in ministry. The Institute participates in the shaping of curricular offerings in African American religious tradition.  The Black Church Studies curriculum is designed to inspire prophetic leadership to effect institutional and community change toward humanizing justice in oppressed communities. In 1985, the faculty established the Kelly Miller Smith Scholarship for Ministry in the African American Church. This scholarship is awarded to one entering student who plans to enter ministry in the black church. 
 Justice and the struggle for human wholeness have been the primary concern of the Black church community. The Black church stands at a critical juncture in its history. Meeting the challenges of theology, and praxis of faith against  exploitative injustices remain formidable for the leadership of black churches in the public square.  The basic mission of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute is to enter into partnership with the African American community to reflect on the liberating elements of religion and to assist in defining a future for oppressed peoples, shaped by the prophetic vision of God’s justice on earth. The Institute serves as a resource  for generating scholarship on the single most important institution in the African American community, sharing that research through conferences and workshops, and enriching research opportunities through a dialogue with lay and clergy leaders in America’s Black churches. As a center for research and praxis on issues of theology and justice in the Black church tradition, the Institute focuses on: 

  • Theology, Social Ethics and Justice education for faith in public life, 
  • The promotion of dialogue between Black and Womanist Theologians, Church Leaders and Community Activists 
  • Prophetic Black preaching for humanizing hope and justice 
  •  The development of research materials on the history of African American religion in America, leadership in Black churches, and Black and Womanist theology 

Kelly Miller Smith Institue Resources

  • Faculty
  • Courses
  • Resources
  • Certificate in Black Church Studies Program

Research and Praxis of KMSI


The praxis emphasis of the Institute provides opportunities to work with the African American church community in sponsoring study forums, clergy and laity study retreats, and conferences for the purpose of examining the critical social ministry needs of the African American community. It is our aim to disseminate the latest in African American theological thought and to provide settings in which the leading African American theological thinkers can hear from and can be engaged critically by those who lead the congregations, lay, and clergy. Through the African American church study forums, the Institute seeks to generate a dialogue that will yield a new theological and justice praxis, one that will enliven the church for Christian social ministry. Conferences sponsored by the Institute in the past have highlighted various liberation themes and praxis goals.  RESEARCH The KMSI’s research focuses on the intersections of ecclesial praxis, black culture, race and gender in the African American religious experience.  Scholarly research during the past decade has documented the historical, theological, and social importance of religion  as the foundation of Black culture. The Institute’s current research focuses on the systemic web of oppression afflicting the flourishing of Black life and the alternative epistemology of Black and Womanist theologies and the legacy of black religious leadership. Drawing from the black jeremaid literary tradition, other forms of black cultural production, and liberative leadership models, the Institute’s research seeks to broaden the justice education lens of Black religious praxis for social transformation.  This research seeks to understand the multi-contexts, complexities of the public function of black religion or black church and where Black and Womanist theologies can have their greatest impact. The Institute sees this research as a vital element in the reason, theory and methodology of black theological reflection for black churches and the important role it can play in gaining the necessary insight and capacity to struggle for social justice change and holistic liberation.  The Institute has made an important beginning in developing a research base as a result of the acquisition of the papers of the late Kelly Miller Smith, Sr. The gift of the Smith Papers provides the Institute with the opportunity to research the particular ecclesiology and theological perspectives of an important African American church leader. Because of the expansive volume of the Smith Papers and the various leads and links to other significant church leaders, civil rights leaders, and other social activities, the Institute’s goal is to develop a comprehensive research archive on Black religious leadership. This research has revealed the theological impact and leadership qualities of African American church leaders. 

Contact Information

Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies
Vanderbilt University Divinity School
411 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37240