President’s Perspective: Products or Prophets? A Look at Our Legacy

In December 1822, the South Carolina Baptist Convention met for just the second time. At Fellowship Church in Edgefield, the delegates were led again by the distinguished Richard Furman. The state was still reeling from a year of turmoil and fear. In September, the great Carolina Hurricane of 1822 hit Charleston and caused major devastation to the state. It was the largest of five hurricanes in less than 20 years to hit the city and caused more than 300 deaths. In June 1822, the discovery of the plot by a free black named Denmark Vesey stoked fear throughout the state. By the end of October, the courts convicted 65 conspirators and hanged 35 of them. Some South Carolinians believed that the insurrection was God’s judgment upon them. Others believed that Baptists had helped provoke the insurrection because they showed too much regard for slaves by evangelizing them, baptizing those who believed, and making them members of their churches.

Furman was elected president for the second time and opened the meetings with a sermon. The text was from Psalm 122, “Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek thy good.” Furman believed that the church and its gospel preaching to the lost was protecting the state from God’s judgment. With the founding of the SCBC the previous year, South Carolina Baptists could now make a greater impact and speak with one voice. A motion was made, and the convention unanimously asked Furman to “prepare and present an Address, on behalf of this body, to his Excellency the Governor of South Carolina.” The address was to request a “Day of Humiliation, Prayer, and Thanksgiving, to be observed by the citizens of the State at large.” The address should also present the views of the convention “concerning the lawfulness of holding slaves.”

At the heart of Furman’s address was a defense of slaveholding: “The Convention think it their duty to exhibit their sentiments … for the right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures by precept and example.” Furman admitted that it was a “crime” that “a man may be deprived of his liberty,” but the Africans were in bondage “by their own consent.” He drew this strange conclusion because Africans chose to live “by the indulgence of barbarous principles.” Many were not “qualified to enjoy freedom” anyway. Furman called for masters to be faithful and kind, but he concluded that they had every right to own men. The slaves, he believed, were “happy” to remain in their condition.

Furman’s speech was met with great applause. In previous years, Furman had spoken of slavery as “evil,” but no longer. He now claimed that slavery, when tempered with “humanity and justice, is a state of tolerable happiness.” The leadership of the convention echoed his sentiments. At the 1823 annual meeting, the messengers read the address aloud and “unanimously resolved” to give thanks to Furman “for the very able and satisfactory manner in which he has discharged the delicate and important duty committed to his trust.” William B. Johnson was tasked with the duty of having the address published.

The cherished gospel legacy of South Carolina Baptists was established upon the rock-solid pillars of cooperation, missions, and education. Our legacy includes unfortunate elements also. We have at times been products of our culture, rather than prophets to our culture. The unfortunate legacy of race relations that dominates most of our convention’s history is something that we must understand, acknowledge, and lament. Embracing our legacy means that we acknowledge it all, the good and the bad. It means that we celebrate, and replicate, that which is good and faithful — while at the same time, we must discard and correct that which is unfaithful. As God’s Word says, “Abhor what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9).

At our 2020 annual meeting, we will gather again at First Baptist Church of Columbia, and, by God’s grace, we will pass the gavel off to a godly and faithful leader in our state, our first African-American president, Alex Sands. It will be an historic evening that you will not want to miss!

— Josh Powell is senior pastor of Lake Murray Baptist Church in Lexington and president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.