Richard Furman (1755-1825), Baptist pastor and leader, was born in Esopus, NY to an Episcopal schoolmaster and his wife who shortly thereafter moved to Charleston, SC and then to the High Hills of Santee district in eastern South Carolina. Furman possessed a fine mind and his father tutored him in mathematics, history, philosophy, theology and five languages. He was converted at the age of sixteen by an itinerant Baptist preacher and immediately received acclaim for his preaching ability; by the age of nineteen he had been appointed the pastor of the High Hills of Santee Baptist Church. An ardent patriot and agitator for religious liberty, Furman was forced to flee the colony after the fall of Charleston in 1780. Returning at the end of the war, he resumed his pastoral work until being called to the pulpit at the First Baptist Church of Charleston in 1787.
Furman quickly became one of Charleston’s leading citizens and was elected as a delegate to the South Carolina constitutional convention where he successfully led the fight to disestablish the Episcopal Church. A stalwart believer in the value of education he backed literary societies, the establishment of local academies, literacy programs, and local Bible and tract societies. Not surprisingly, unlike some of his Baptist brethren who viewed formal theological training as an impediment to true religion and the moving of the Holy Spirit, Furman was a keen advocate of an educated ministry. Such was his influence that when American Baptists called their first Triennial Convention in 1814, Furman was elected its president and urged that provision be made for the education of ministers. At the next convention he successfully convinced the delegates to endorse education as a formal element of the denomination’s program, eventually resulting in the founding of Columbian College (modern-day George Washington University) in 1821 (fittingly, the South’s first Baptist college, Furman University, was posthumously named in his honor).
Furman’s activities in South Carolina led to the founding of the South Carolina Baptist Convention (he served as its first president from 1821 to 1825), the first state Baptist convention in the United States and a template for the formation and administration of the future Southern Baptist Convention (1845). Furman’s influence also extended into the political and racial differences that would eventually divide the nation’s Baptists. A self-made aristocrat and slaveowner, Furman’s views on slavery evolved from seeing the institution as “undoubtedly an evil,” to a belief that it was eminently defensible in the light of Scripture. The abortive Denmark Vesey slave uprising in Charleston in 1822 served as a springboard for Furman to compose an address to the governor of South Carolina in which he set forth what became a classic model for all subsequent Bible-based Southern defenses of slavery.
For further reading see James A. Rogers, Richard Furman: Life and Legacy (Mercer, 2001).