First Baptist Church, Charleston, the earliest Baptist church in the South was organized on September 25, 1682 in Kittery, Maine, under the sponsorship of the First Baptist Church of Boston. Late in 1696, the pastor William Screven, and 28 members of the Kittery congregation immigrated to Charleston, South Carolina. Near this time, two groups of settlers came to Charleston, one from southern England and one from Scotland. The Baptists among these groups were soon drawn into William Screven's church. By 1708 he reported that the membership numbered 98.
Late in 1749 Oliver Hart, a young minister from Philadelphia, came to the rescue of the struggling congregation. For thirty years he gave the church Christian warmth and strong practical leadership. Philadelphia was the center of Baptist life in America at that time, and Hart brought to Charleston the methods he had learned there. In 1751 he gathered representatives of Welsh Neck, Ashley River and Euhaw (the three other Baptist churches in the colony) and formed the Charleston Baptist Association, the first in the South. The association soon launched mission work to pioneer settlements and to Indians and began a fund for educating young ministers. And impressive number of young men received aid from the fund and during two generations provided leadership for the Baptists in South Carolina and surrounding states. The movement stimulated by the fund culminated in 1826 in the founding of Furman University, out of which the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was established in 1859. From the humble efforts in the early days of the Charleston Association, Southern Baptists trace their beginnings in missions and education.
Richard FurmanHart's successor in the church was Richard Furman, a minister of extraordinary ability. From 1787 to 1825 he led the church, the association and the South Carolina Baptists in promoting education and missions. In 1814 he was named the first president of the Triennial Convention, the first national Baptist convention in America. It became the pattern for other state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention. Furman's stature has not been excelled in South Carolina since his death in 1825. He is buried near the southeast corner of the present church building.
Following Furman, the church was served by Basil Manly, Sr., a devout and able man, who played a major part in establishing the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. When he left the church, he became president of the University of Alabama. A brilliant succession of strong pastors followed Manly. They included, W.T. Brantley, E.T. Winkler, A.J.S. Thomas, Lewis Hall Shuck, Lucius Cuthbert, R.W. Lide and John A. Hamrick. About forty ministers grew up in the church, including H.A. Tupper, second corresponding Secretary of the Foreign Mission Board (now the International Mission Board); and James Petigru Boyce, founder of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Sanctuary circa 1911In 1822, while Richard Furman was pastor, the long-felt need for a new building was met in the erection of the present house of worship. Among other things, the new building contained a solid mahogany pulpit, material for which was brought from the West Indies. The building was designed by the first American-born architect, Robert Mills, who said, "The Baptist Church of Charleston exhibits 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." It was completed in 1822. The history of the building after 1860 has been marked by three events: The Civil War, in which considerable damage was done by a shell which tore up the organ; the cyclone of 1885; and the earthquake of 1886. These were serious blows to the building, but the brave congregation set to work each time to restore the edifice for the worship of God. In 1883, during the pastorate of A.J.S. Thomas, the pulpit area received extensive modification. In 1966, during the pastorate of John A. Hamrick, the church undertook complete restoration and re-decoration. The Robert Mills pulpit was reconstructed, following carefully the original design. Also, the baptistery was constructed in its present location, and the Wicks pipe organ was installed with all pipes exposed and functioning, a return to the classic concept in organ building. The sanctuary has also gone through some areas of restoration after Hurricane Hugo in 1989.