Minister, educator. Furman was born in Esopus, New York, on October 9, 1755, to Wood Furman and Rachel Brodhead. In 1756 the family moved from New York to Charleston, eventually settling in St. Thomas Parish. Furman was educated at home and mastered both Latin and Greek. His penchant for self-education was recognized when Rhode Island College (later Brown University) awarded him master’s (1792) and doctor of divinity degrees (1800).
In 1770 the family moved to the High Hills of Santee, near the fork of the Wateree and Congaree Rivers. Under the influence of a local minister, Joseph Reese, Furman was converted in 1771. Abandoning his Anglican upbringing, Furman embraced the evangelistic Calvinism of Separate Baptists. He was ordained on May 10, 1774, and served as pastor of High Hills Baptist Church (1774–1787) and Charleston Baptist Church (1787–1825). On November 20, 1774, Furman married Elizabeth Haynsworth. They had four children before her death in 1787. Two years later, on May 5, 1789, Furman married Dorothea Burn. His second marriage produced thirteen children.
Furman volunteered to fight during the Revolutionary War, but Governor John Rutledge persuaded him to plead the patriot cause among the Loyalists in western South Carolina instead. Furman’s success came to the attention of Lord Cornwallis, who, after capturing Charleston in 1780, apparently offered a £1,000 reward for Furman’s capture.
An ardent champion of religious liberty, Furman met with a group of dissenters at High Hills in 1776. Their deliberations helped set the stage for disestablishment of the Church of England in South Carolina two years later. In 1790, as a delegate to the South Carolina constitutional convention, Furman supported extending the right of incorporation to all denominations. Furman’s actions generally reflected the era’s notion that religious liberty prohibited denominational favoritism but not necessarily church-state interaction (for example, Furman reportedly preached a sermon before Congress in 1814).
Furman greatly influenced the development of the Baptist denomination, although his fellow Baptists sometimes disagreed with his preference for centralized church governance. He was twice elected (1814, 1817) president of the Triennial Baptist Convention, a national organization of Baptists based in Philadelphia. He was also a founder and president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention (1821–1825), the first statewide Baptist organization in America.
Unlike some of his Baptist contemporaries, Furman stressed the importance of an educated ministry. He helped establish an educational fund to train Baptist ministers and also called for a national theological institution; the latter eventually led to the creation of Columbian College (now George Washington University). Other institutions that resulted from his influence were Furman University, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Mercer University.
Furman initially opposed slavery but reversed his position after he became a slaveowner and came to believe that slavery was economically necessary and morally justified. His “Exposition of the Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population of the United States” (1822) foreshadowed the intellectual and religious arguments southerners would use for the next four decades to defend slavery. Furman died in Charleston of an intestinal obstruction on August 25, 1825. He was buried in the First Baptist Churchyard, Charleston.
Rogers, James A. Richard Furman: Life and Legacy. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985.