Oldest Baptist church in the South was First Baptist Charleston, 1682
By JERRY WINDSOR
Special to Florida Baptist Witness
Published February 26, 2009
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The oldest Baptist Church in the South was organized in Maine. It is not unusual for Baptists to define a local church as a body of baptized believers, and that describes this congregation very well. The church was organized September 25, 1682, and eventually became the First Baptist Church of Charleston, S.C. William Screven was the primary person who led this church start at Kittery and due to persecution, personal appeal and probably shipping interests, Screven and his congregation moved to Charleston.
William Screven (1629-1713) was born in England and became a Baptist in 1652. Under persecution Screven left England and came to Massachusetts in 1668. In 1674 he married Bridget Cutts, daughter of a prominent shipbuilding family, and they had 11 children. Screven and his wife were baptized into First Baptist Church, Boston, in 1681, and in 1682 the church licensed Screven to preach. Screven was a prosperous merchant and no doubt made numerous trips to the port of Charleston, S.C., for business purposes.
Even in economic prosperity there was ongoing religious pressure and persecution forced upon the Baptists. In 1673, William Screven bought land in at what is now Kittery, Maine. Screven was determined to safeguard his religious liberties even though this was in direct opposition to the Congregational Church. He suffered slander, fines, and jail for attending “Baptist meetings” in his own home and elsewhere. Screven helped to organize the Kittery Church in 1682 and was fined and jailed for opposing infant baptism. Screven promised to leave Maine, and he and a congregation of 28 members finally settled in Charleston in 1696. Other Baptists from England and Scotland joined the group and in 1708 the church had 98 members.
First Baptist Church Charleston, today calls itself the oldest Southern Baptist Convention Church. The present house of worship was built in 1822 and was designed by Robert Mills, the first American-born architect.
One of the most interesting aspects of this great church is the number of prominent ministers that have been related to this congregation. About 40 ministers grew up in the church, and this includes men like H. A. Tupper, the second secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention Foreign Mission Board, and James Petigru Boyce, founder of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The church has also had pastors of surpassing influence in the Southern Baptist Convention. Oliver Hart (1723-1795) was a pre-convention pastor and the founder of the Charleston Association. He served the church 30 years (1749-1779) as pastor and was a patriot in a time of national turmoil. Richard Furman (1755-1825) served the church as pastor 38 years. He began preaching at age 16 and learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French and German. He was a zealous advocate of religious liberty and a patriot. He was president of the first national body of Baptists (1814-1820), the founding president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, moderator of Charleston Baptist Association for 25 years and the namesake of Furman University.
Jerry Windsor is executive secretary of the Florida Baptist Historical Society and retired professor of preaching at The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville.