Monday, June 27, 2016

Before It Was the Ryman

By Ed Byrne

Most ardent country music fans know the Ryman Auditorium as “the Mother Church of County Music.” Many of these same fans will know that the Ryman owes its name and its existence to Captain Thomas Ryman, owner of the largest fleet of riverboats to ply the Cumberland River after the Civil War.

The Union Gospel Tabernacle, later known as the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. The small house at left later (1905) became the home of Congregation Sherith Israel, also known as the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, ca. 1890.
Library Collection

Relatively fewer fans will know some curious facts about the early history of the famous edifice. Among them:

  • It wasn’t always “the Ryman”
  • It wasn’t ever a church
  • It actually began life as a tent

Captain Ryman first embraced the idea that eventually became the Ryman Auditorium in May, 1885 after hearing the famed evangelist Sam Jones preaching to a Nashville audience packed under a “gospel tent” at the corner of Summer Street (now Fifth Avenue) and Broadway. According to reports at the time, as many as 2,000 people had gathered to hear Jones preach. The crowd was simply too large for the tent, and hundreds of listeners had to stand outside.

Nashville’s city fathers had anticipated large crowds for revivals. In late March of 1885, a group of local ministers and “prominent laymen” met to discuss the need for “a large tent or tabernacle” to shelter interdenominational revivals. The attendees voted “to procure a tent with a seating capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 people, suitable for any union services that may be held hereafter.”

"Ladies meeting in Union Gospel Tabernacle, Nashville, conducted by Rev. Sam P. Jones." (1896)
Library Collection

A second meeting, reported on April 4, 1885, recommended that a “tabernacle, having dimensions of 100 x 150 feet be erected at a cost of $4,300.” A treasurer was appointed to solicit contributions from the public to defray expenses.

These meetings indicate that the idea of a revivals venue predated Ryman’s involvement. By the summer of 1885, however, Ryman had become Nashville’s leading proponent and fundraiser for the buidling, generally referred to as the “Union Gospel Tabernacle.”

Theodore Thomas Orchestra Benefit at Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892.
Library Collection

In February 1889, a group headed by Ryman applied for a charter to build the new structure “on the old Lanier place, on the east side of Summer Street, near Broad.” By February, 1892, the exterior of the structure was complete. The interior, while serviceable, still needed work. The balcony was yet to come.

In May, 1892, the new Tabernacle hosted its first event, a “May Music Festival” featuring a 62-piece orchestra. It may have been prophetic that the opening event was a secular music performance, but then a massive revival headed by Sam Jones followed in June.

Jones would appear repeatedly over the next several years in weeks-long revivals that would feature sessions reserved especially for women and for African-Americans. But secular programs also continued.

September 30, 1895 was the date of what may have been the most curious event in the Ryman’s history, “the great duologue drama Yankee Doodle and Dixie.” This drama consisted of two monologues spoken by its characters, Yankee Doodle and Dixie, celebrating -- with musical interludes -- the respective virtues of North and South. In what was probably the only production of this work ever given, the title characters were portrayed by the politician brothers “Alf” and “Bob” Taylor, protagonists of Tennessee’s 1886 “War of the Roses” gubernatorial campaign. About 4,000 people attended the production. The Nashville American review stated that all attendees judged it “a great show.”

Depiction of the campaign for governor between brothers Alf and Bob Taylor. Their campaign became known as the "War of the Roses."
THS Picture Collection

Despite such successes, the tabernacle struggled with debt. In the spring of 1901, the General Assembly voted to permit tabernacle companies to incorporate, and 50 “representative citizens of Nashville” applied for a charter to incorporate the Union Gospel Tabernacle. After forgiving a debt of $2,300 owed to him by the Tabernacle, Thomas Ryman was elected president of the new corporation.

By 1903, the tabernacle was eking out a small annual profit, primarily due to proceeds from the May Festival. The tension between the building’s religious and secular purposes was becoming more apparent, however. A Nashville American article reported a movement among the tabernacle’s trustees to change it name to “the Nashville Auditorium” in order to attract more secular events.

The proposed name change never materialized. When Thomas Ryman died on Christmas Eve, 1904, newspapers announced that his funeral would be held the next afternoon, Christmas Day, at the “Union Gospel Tabernacle,” with Sam Jones preaching the eulogy.

Thomas Green Ryman (1841-1904), the Cumberland River steamboat captain and philanthropist who gave money to build the Union Gospel Tabernacle, which later became the Ryman Auditorium.
Library Collection

In life Ryman had resisted numerous efforts to name the building in his honor. His death removed the only objection. In February, 1905, the Nashville American reported that at the next board meeting, the name of the institution would officially be changed from the “Union Gospel Tabernacle” to the “Ryman Auditorium.” More than 110 years later, this name endures for Ryman’s most famous legacy.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State


  1. Great job,Ed. Of course we wouldn't expect anything less.

  2. And Now We Know the Rest of the Story.