On December 3, 1825, the South Carolina Baptist Convention (SCBC) elected a board to organize an institution to train young men for the ministry. The Furman Academy and Theological Institution was established the following year. It officially opened in January 1827 and was named in honor of Richard Furman, a Baptist minister and education pioneer.
Originally located in Edgefield, Furman provided both a “literary” and a theological curriculum. Few students enrolled, however, and the school teetered on insolvency during its first twenty-five years. Furman was closed for a brief period (1834–1837), moved twice (to the High Hills of Santee near Stateburg, 1829–1834; to Fairfield District near Winnsboro, 1837–1850), and had an average enrollment of only ten students.
On December 20, 1850, the state legislature chartered “The Furman University.” Classes were held in downtown Greenville until the first building, a two-room wooden cottage, could be erected on a new fifty-acre campus overlooking the Reedy River. The institution was composed of an academic department that offered college-preparatory studies (discontinued in 1916), a collegiate department comprised of six “schools,” and a theological department—with graduate studies—that provided justification for Furman’s designation as a university. The theological department operated until 1859, when it separated to become the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1877.
Like most southern institutions, Furman was disrupted by the Civil War. President James C. Furman was a member of the Charleston Secession Convention, and after the Civil War began, most students and several faculty members enlisted in the Confederate forces. The university closed in the fall of 1861 and did not reopen until the winter of 1866, although at the time there was no money even to print a catalog.
Financial problems continued to haunt the school, and near bankruptcy prompted reorganization in 1881. At the turn of the century, Greenville’s textile prosperity, along with effective and academically rigorous presidents, brought a surge of northern philanthropy to the school. In December 1924 Furman was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges. Five days later the president learned that the university had been named one of the collegiate beneficiaries of the Duke Endowment. A watershed in the university’s history, this bequest kept Furman alive during the Great Depression. In 1936, with Furman still $170,000 in debt, school officials sought additional funding from the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation to sponsor the Greenville County Council for Community Development. Among other activities, this organization coordinated participation of Furman faculty and students in novel university-community undertakings, including a Citizens Education Center and several teacher-training institutes.
Furman’s growth was paralleled by that of the Greenville Woman’s College. Initially called the Greenville Baptist Female College, the Woman’s College was established in 1854 by the SCBC and governed by Furman’s trustees until 1908. The school had high aspirations and inspired teaching but had no endowment. The Woman’s College and Furman undertook joint fund-raising campaigns, and their students participated in shared activities. While its extensive music and education programs helped make it the second-largest women’s college in the state (Winthrop University was larger), it could not survive the economic chaos of the 1930s, when it gradually became the coordinate women’s college of Furman.
In 1950, with highway projects threatening to divide Furman’s property and with enrollment at record levels, the university’s trustees purchased approximately nine hundred acres for a new campus six miles north of downtown Greenville. Groundbreaking took place in 1953, men moved to the new campus in 1958, and women joined them in 1961. At the urging of Dean Frances Bonner, incoming president Gordon Blackwell, and the rest of the university community, the board of trustees affirmed its support of integration in December 1964, despite protests from the state Baptist Convention. The school was officially integrated a couple of months later. In 1973, after trying to attain one for more than three decades, Furman was awarded a Phi Beta Kappa chapter.
Throughout the twentieth century Furman maintained a balance between intellectual rigor and denominational priorities. This became increasingly difficult in the 1980s with the rise of conservative evangelicals within the SCBC. For that reason, Furman’s trustees voted to sever all ties with the SCBC on October 15, 1990; the SCBC officially recognized that break on May 15, 1992. The potential financial consequences of this decision were significant for Furman, but the institution’s liberal-arts focus remained unchanged.
Notable Furman graduates include John B. Watson, one of the founders of behavioral psychology; Charles Hard Townes, a Nobel laureate in physics; and Richard Riley, a governor of South Carolina and U.S. secretary of education.
Bainbridge, Judith T. Academy and College: The History of the Woman’s College of Furman University. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2001.
Reid, Alfred Sandlin. Furman University: Toward a New Identity, 1925–1975. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1976.