While many churches call themselves First Baptist, the First Baptist Church of Charleston can actually lay claim to being the first of its denomination in the South. The congregation was formed in 1682 in Kittery, Maine, and in 1696 the Reverend William Screven brought 28 members of his Maine church to Charleston. Initially the group met in the King Street home of William Chapman until William Elliott gifted the church with its current Church Street lot in 1699. A frame building was erected on the site in 1701, and the First Baptist Church of Charleston has remained at this location ever since.
By the mid-eighteenth century, Baptist minister Oliver Hart arrived from Philadelphia, the heart of the American Baptist denomination, to lead the Charleston church. It was under Hart’s guidance that the Charleston Baptist Association was formed with representatives from the colony’s other Baptist congregations: Ashley River Baptist, Euhaw Baptist, and Welsh Neck Baptist churches. The Charleston Baptist Association was known for its mission work and outreach to new settlers and local Native Americans as well as starting a fund to educate future Baptist ministers.
Though Hart had served this church and the local Baptist community for 30 years, the minister was forced to evacuate in February of 1780 due to the Revolutionary War. When Charleston fell to the British in May of that year, church was seized and used for storage. The Reverend Richard Furman arrived in 1787 to lead the church and served in that role until his death in 1825. Furman, who came to Charleston from High Hills Baptist Church in Stateburg, was a particularly magnanimous leader. The pastor had made a name for himself throughout South Carolina, and British commander Lord Cornwallis said of Furman that “he feared the prayers of the young Baptist minister more than the armies of Marion and Sumter.”
In 1819 Furman oversaw the construction of the present church, which was completed in 1822. Notable architect Robert Mills, who designed the Greek Revival church, called this structure “the best specimen of correct taste in architecture in the city. It is purely Greek in style, simply grand in its proportions, and beautiful in its detail.” However, many architects note that the church’s Tuscan columns and Roman arches dispute Mills’ claim to the building’s Greek purity. Nonetheless, the church remains a beautiful example of Robert Mills architecture.
Furman was also instrumental in developing Furman University in Greenville with the funds generated by the Charleston Baptist Association. The school, which bears his name, opened in 1826 – the year following Furman’s death. From this school the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was born. Examples of Furman’s legacy in the Baptist denomination remain active and visible throughout South Carolina.