(b. Esopus, N.Y., Oct. 9, 1755; d. South Carolina, Aug. 25, 1825). Clergyman, patriot, educator, and pioneer denominational stateman. More than any other man, he created the basic organizational concepts that are unique in Southern Baptist denominational life. He was the son of Wood and Rachel (Brodhead) Furman, who moved to Charleston, S. C., shortly after his birth and to the High Hills of Santee in 1770. Furman’s mind matured at an early age. When only a small child, he learned to read from the family Bible. He had less than a year of conventional schooling, but his father instructed him in mathematics and other sciences. By persistent, personal study he learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, metaphysics, logic, history, and theology. He had a remarkable memory and mastered selections of poetry merely by reading them. In middle life he could recite correctly much of Homer’s Iliad and portions of other classics that he had learned when only 11 years old. He acquired a knowledge of medicine and frequently ministered to the sick when no physician was available. Rhode Island College (now Brown University) recognized his attainments and granted him the honorary master’s degree; both that institution and South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) gave him D.D. degrees.
Furman’s spiritual heritage of evangelistic Calvinism determined his doctrine and tempered his preaching. He was converted in 1771 under the ministry of Joseph Reese at High Hills. Reese was a convert of Phillip Mulkey, who was in turn a convert of Shubal Stearns; all were zealous, evangelical Calvinists. The union of the enduring qualities of the Regular and Separate Baptists in Furman made him the arch-prototype of the prevailing norm of the Southern Baptist of the 20th century. Furman began to preach at the age of 16 and became popularly known as the "boy-evangelist." Reese and Evan Pugh ordained him two years later, on.
May 10, 1774, as pastor of High Hills. After a fruitful ministry there of 13 years, he became pastor of the Charleston Baptist Church, which he served for the rest of his life. "In the community no minister ever enjoyed so large a share of general confidence and reverence." For 38 years he made "annual excursions" into various parts of the state, preaching the gospel and promoting the interests of the denomination. This itinerant ministry resulted in numerous revivals and the formation of many churches. His eloquence and fame as a preacher once opened for him an opportunity to preach in the United States Congressional Hall.
As an ardent patriot, Furman won many to the Colonial cause when the Revolutionary War began. He volunteered to fight, but Gov. John Rutledge persuaded him to continue as a propagandist among the Tories in western South Carolina, which he did with remarkable success. By his prayers and eloquent appeals, Furman so reassured the patriots that Cornwallis was said to have remarked that he "feared the prayers of the Godly youth more than the armies of Sumter and Marion." When Charleston surrendered, Cornwallis determined to make an example of this notorious rebel. He placed a price of £1000 on his head and forced Furman to flee from the state, not to return until after the war, in 1782.
A group of dissenters in 1776 called a meeting at High Hills to discuss religious liberty, of which Furman was a zealous advocate. His work contributed strongly to the constitutional change two years later which ended the established church in South Carolina. While serving as a delegate to the South Carolina constitutional convention in 1790, he obtained the passage of measures that discontinued the special privileges of the Episcopal church and granted the right of incorporation to all denominations.
Furman had a profound sense of the necessity and value of education. While a pastor in Charleston, in conjunction with Gen. Sumter and other leaders in the city, he helped to establish a literary society, and later a literary institution, Claremont Academy, near Statesburg. His interest in educating the masses in the Scriptures led him to assist in forming and directing the affairs of both the Charleston Bible Society and Religious Tract Society.
When the Triennial Convention was organized in 1814, Furman urged that provision be made for the education of ministers. His impelling address to the convention in 1817 aroused the delegates to include education in the denomination’s program of work. Furman’s plan, which was approved by the body, called for a central theological institution at Washington, with institutions preparatory to it in the separate states. A class of young men was gathered at Philadelphia under the instruction of William Staughton, whom Furman had influenced to come to America in 1793, in anticipation of removal to Washington when funds permitted. The movement which Furman began resulted in the founding of Columbian College (now George Washington University); Furman University; Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which grew out of the theological department of Furman; Mercer University; and others.
Furman was also a pioneer in the work of organizing his denomination of the district, state, and national bases. A Southern aristocrat and a Federalist in religion as well as politics, he advocated a more centralized ecclesiastical polity than many Baptists were willing to accept. Nevertheless, he conceived, initiated, and promoted much that is a vital part of Southern Baptist life and work today.
Through the influence he exerted upon its life and work, Furman led the Charleston Association to develop several ventures that marked the beginning of the basic distinctive forms from which come later Southern Baptist development. This body, under his leadership, set up an education fund for young ministers and organized the general committee, which not only directed this program but also came to serve in an executive capacity for the association. This committee foreshadowed the executive boards of associations and conventions. When his attempts to incorporate the Charleston Association failed, Furman secured in 1792 a charter for its general committee so that it could hold and distribute funds. He promoted a program of associational missions in 1802 and a more extensive program of itinerant preaching in 1817, in many respects similar to present-day associational and state mission programs, with a board to superintend the work. The Charleston Association chose Furman as its moderator for over 25 years.
Furman helped to organize and mold the character of the first state Baptist convention. As early as 1809, he expressed the hope that a plan might eventually be adopted to unite all associations in South Carolina to promote missions, education, and other important objects. His address to the Charleston Association in 1819 influenced the body to approve his plan for organizing a state convention and to print and distribute the address among the churches and associations of the state. The constitution of the new convention, which Furman helped to draft, embodied his ideas of a centralized denominational organization that comprehended within its scope the work of missions, education, Sunday schools, and other objects deemed useful by the body. He served for four years as president of the South Carolina convention, which became a model for the organization of conventions in other states.
Furman’s far-reaching influence as a denominational statesman was even more extensive on the national level. He pointed out to the Charleston Association, as early as 1800, the need for an organization to unite the Baptists of America. The body voted with certain reservations to support such a coalition, if it were organized, and appointed Furman to secure the reaction of other associations to the idea. He also corresponded for several years with John Gano and Thomas Baldwin about uniting the denomination to promote missions and education. When the 33 delegates met at Philadelphia in 1814 to organize the Triennial Convention, they unanimously chose Furman president. As a member of the constitutional committee, he sought to construct a comprehensive denominational organization. The committee’s first draft was rejected, probably because of its strong denominational emphasis. The delegates accepted the second draft after they had made several amendments. The Convention re-elected Furman president in 1817. Through the impact of an address in which he advocated a "plan of education," he influenced the body to include ministerial education as one of its objects. This was a step toward the truly denominational organization that he had originally recommended. His denominational concept, however, waited many years to be realized on a national scale. Southern Baptists adopted in 1845 a plan of organization which comprehended within its scope any phase of work that the Convention should desire to perform. This was essentially the same plan that Furman had advocated at Philadelphia in 1814 and 1817 and had secured on the state level in 1821. It is significant that Furman’s protege and spiritual heir, William Bullein Johnson, who wrote the original draft of the first constitution of the denomination, led Southern Baptists to adopt the centralized convention type of organization. Through Johnson, Furman’s dreams were ultimately realized.
Rogers, James A. Richard Furman: life and legacy, 1985.
George, Timothy. Baptist theologicans, 1990.
Furman, Wood. A biography of Richard Furman, 1913.
Archival sources in Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives
Furman, Richard. Correspondence, 1777-1825. MF 1746.
Furman Family Correspondence, 1812-1853. MF 6494.
"Sermons preached in antebellum South Carolina." MF 6658.