Richard Furman: Life and Legacy. By James A. Rogers. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2001. XXXV + 335pp.
Originally published in 1985, this is the first biography since 1913 devoted to the life of the pioneer Southern Baptist pastor and statesman, Richard Furman. It is a worthy addition to the growing body of literature on Baptist history and theology. The author, James A. Rogers, is primarily concerned with drawing a picture of the man and his historical impact on Baptist missions, Southern Baptist organization and Baptist education.
Furman was born into a Puritan family in New York shortly before their move to South Carolina in 1756. Converted under Baptist preaching in the early 1770s, Furman rejected his father’s Anglicanism for Baptist views and was ordained within a few years of his baptism. During the Revolution, Furman had a price set on his head by the British General Cornwallis, who feared the prayers of Furman more than the combined might of two continental armies. Furman was an advocate of a pan-Protestant religious liberty, yet defended his own right as an ordained minister to be a political representative at the state level and argued for state funding of his religious school. In church government, he moved his congregation away from an aristocratic to a more democratic model. Furman showed some ability to adapt to varying cultures when he appropriated a simple vestment after moving from a rural church to become pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, an adaptability for which he was criticized.
A prominent leader in the Charleston Association, the first and leading Baptist association in the South, he believed revival would come to the churches as a result of ministerial education, lay indoctrination, attention to ecclesiology and pious commitment. During the Second Great Awakening, he lauded the movement’s “great tendency to excite the attention, and engage it to religion,” but warned about “some incidental evils,” especially the loss of rational activity (108-9). Furman was not only a dedicated pastor, but also the first true denominational statesman among Baptists in the United States. In 1813, he was elected the first President of the Triennial Convention, the first national Baptist missions society in America. Soon after his 1817 address to that same convention on the need for ministerial education, Baptists established at least ten now-prominent Baptist colleges and universities. He was invited to preach before the President and Congress of the United States in 1814. Unlike some denominational leaders then and today, Furman understood that Baptists must have a vote on those institutional decisions which affect the churches, something that even Luther Rice did not fully comprehend (179-85). While he could evoke awe among his ministerial colleagues, he still made time for the children. In her diary, Eliza Tupper remembered her pastor requiring children to memorize the catechism. She described how he would descend from the pulpit to quiz them: “I think I hear at this very moment the dear voice of our pastor, saying, ‘A little louder, my child’” (207).
Although he established a unique form of ecclesiastical structure with the constitution of the South Carolina Baptist Convention—a form that would empower the later Southern Baptist Convention to become the greatest missionary and educational denomination in the United States—Furman also had his faults. He had earlier denounced slavery, but came to defend it during the ideological buildup to the Civil War. His letter to the Governor of South Carolina defending slavery is reprinted in all of its misdirected eloquence with the eight appendices of original documents located at the back of the book. Perhaps it is fitting that this founder of Baptist conventions, missions societies, education societies and even of a college which later bore his name, delivered his final sermon on the divinity of Christ. After all, God became a man and died on a cross for Baptist icons, too.
Rogers is a capable historian but makes mistakes when foraying into theology. Without any historical evidence to support his claim about Furman’s response to a question concerning his performance of a wedding ceremony for a fellow minister, Rogers asserts that Furman “demonstrated liberalism uncharacteristic then of Baptist conservatism” (81-82). Fortunately, Rogers focuses on the historical side of the discipline of historical theology. For those interested in the doctrinal contributions of Furman, Thomas J. Nettles offers a concise and well-written essay in Baptist Theologians, ed. By Timothy George and David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990).
Malcolm B. Yarnell III
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Originally published in Midwestern Journal of Theology 1:1-2 (Spring 2003), 94-95