The history of Baptists in South Carolina begins in the late 17th century. The names of William Screven, Oliver Hart, Richard Furman, and W.B. Johnson are very familiar to Baptists in the South. These men, along with others like Isaac Chandler, John Roberts, and Philip Mulke, helped to establish the foundations of Southern Baptist life, and they all served in South Carolina. This invaluable history to Baptists has been chronicled in two main places — “A History of South Carolina Baptists,” authored by Joe M. King, and “Saints of Clay: The Shaping of South Carolina Baptists,” authored by Loulie Latimer Owens. King published his history in 1964, and Owens’ work was completed in 1971. The aim of this article is to take a quick glance at the last 60 years of South Carolina Baptist history.
While the history of Baptists in South Carolina dates back to the 17th century, the history of the South Carolina Baptist Convention dates back 200 years. On Dec. 6, 1821, nine delegates from three associations in South Carolina signed their newly minted constitution. The constitution states that the “grand objects” of the convention were to bring the Baptists of the state together in cooperation for the purpose of “religious education” and “the support of missionary service.” Cooperation for the purpose of education and missions was not just the heart of the new convention but also the driving force.
As the first state convention of Baptists in America, South Carolina gave the paradigm for Baptist cooperation. As years went by, many other states formed conventions with the model of South Carolina as their basis. Within 30 years, the conventions of the southern states joined together in a national convention. As Baptists in the South grew, so did their efforts of cooperation. However, at the heart of Baptist cooperation in the South was education and missions that South Carolina Baptists outlined in their first meeting.
In the past 60 years, there is one pivotal event that came at the center, both figuratively and literally, of South Carolina Baptist life. Unfortunately, rather than taking the lead in Baptist life, the SCBC reflected the trends on display in the national convention. In 1990, the board of trustees of Furman University voted to sever ties with the South Carolina Baptist Convention. The relationship of the school and the state convention dates all the way back to 1826, and since 1850 the charter of the school had been with the SCBC. However, tensions between the school and the convention had been mounting for some time leading up to the 1990 decision.
As an example of those tensions, the state convention and Furman were at odds over the issue of integration. At the 1964 annual meeting of the SCBC, the convention messengers defeated a motion to integrate the school by the slim margin of 943-915. Under pressure from the federal government, the trustees of Furman decided to defy the convention’s directive and enrolled its first African-American student in January 1965. In this episode, we recognize that the institution was right to integrate, whatever the motive may have been, but it also highlights that the leadership of the school was prepared to defy the convention.
Another tension was the fear of theological liberalism being taught in the school. Under the leadership of President Gordon Blackwell, Furman had hired faculty members like Theron Price, who had been fired from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to teach in the religion department. Price, a New Testament scholar, did not hold to the doctrine of inerrancy. The leadership of Furman believed that the SCBC was keeping the school from true progress and overstepping the bounds of their relationship. The majority of the SCBC believed that Furman was losing sight of the original mission and vision. By 1979, this divide in South Carolina between the SCBC and Furman University reflected what was happening on the national level between the churches and the institutions. Throughout the 1980s, the divide grew wider and a showdown was inevitable.
After the 1990 decision of the Furman board to sever ties from the state convention, there were some serious attempts to save the relationship. A committee was formed by the convention to help formulate a way forward. However, many within the convention believed that the action of the Furman trustees was illegal, and at the SCBC meeting in 1991, the convention messengers voted to pursue legal action against the university by a close margin of 2,011-1,973. In the months that followed, leaders on both sides of the issue recognized the damage that a long legal battle could bring upon both sides. A special called meeting of the SCBC was convened on May 15, 1992, at the Canty building on the state fairgrounds in Columbia, and to this day it remains the largest attended meeting of the SCBC, with 4,876 messengers. At that meeting, the messengers voted to completely sever ties with Furman.
The loss of Furman was indicative with what was happening in other state conventions. Schools like Samford, Mercer and Baylor had all severed ties with the Baptists in their states. The question that would arise is how the churches would respond to the splintering of the cooperative work. Many states struggled to find their way, but it was at this point that South Carolina began again to lead the way. In 1992, the SCBC accepted a call led by the new executive director-treasurer, Carlisle Driggers, to adopt a 10-year plan called Empowering Kingdom Growth. The vision behind EKG was to rally the churches of the state together for the kingdom, to create environments for pastors to develop relationships with each other, and to bring our institutions in line with the vision of the state convention. The success of EKG was recognized by Baptists across the nation and adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2001.
The SCBC has not been without struggles, but whatever struggles there have been, the conversation has always centered on remaining committed to cooperation for the sake of missions and education. The three colleges that are related to the SCBC are in a healthy relationship with the convention and eagerly support the mission of the churches. There is also a strong commitment to supporting the work of missions, as our state gives 50 percent of Cooperative Program dollars to the SBC for the International Mission Board.
These “grand objects,” education and missions, of the first convention in 1821 remain the pillars of the SCBC 200 years later.
— Josh Powell is senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Taylors, and a former president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. He has been commissioned to write an update of the SCBC’s history for its 200th anniversary, which is due to be released soon.