Courtesy of Furman University Library Special Collections
The administration and Board of Trustees of Furman University started to become concerned with what appeared to be “a fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and its denominational boards and seminaries in the late 1970s and 1980s” (Taylor 62). According to Furman’s charter, the South Carolina Baptist Convention (SCBC) had the sole right to elect trustees.
This arrangement went fairly smoothly, with the SCBC giving Furman $1.6 million per year, until the 1980s when fundamentalist took control of the nominating committee and started to fill the board with like-minded people. Trustee members were chosen every five years, and by 1990, six out of twenty-five board members were fundamentalist and very agenda-driven. The board decided to make a change—a change that would ultimately tear Furman and the SCBC in two. Here is a chronology of events taken from The Paladin and a doctoral thesis:
October 15: The board of trustees votes 18-6 to amend the school charter, giving itself the sole right to elect trustees. The board felt that this action was legal even though the SCBC pressured it to amend the charter in 1956 to state that the charter shall no longer “‘be amended, altered or added to without the approval of the State Baptist Convention’” (Taylor 67) because under state law, non-profit corporations were allowed to amend their charters and adopt their own bylaws as long as a majority of the members, i.e. the trustees, agreed to any changes.
October 16: The board unanimously elects five new board members to begin their term in January of 1991. Also unanimously approved is a blanket resolution emphasizing the school’s commitment “to S.C. Baptists and Christian higher education” (The Paladin Vol.77 No.18).
October 18: The Executive Committee of the General Board of the SCBC, consisting of seventeen members, has a meeting in Columbia to discuss the action taken by Furman’s Board of Trustees. The Executive Committee asks the President of the SCBC to appoint a seven-member committee to meet with the Furman Board and negotiate a peaceful solution.
November 13-14: Messengers to the SCBC meet in Columbia and vote to escrow the $1.6 million until the seven-member committee and Furman work out a solution.
May: The Furman/SCBC Relations Committee and the Executive Committee of Furman’s board have two meetings in Columbia to discuss a solution to the power struggle.
July 11: The two committees meet a third time and agree on a covenant. The covenant guaranteed that 60% of Furman’s trustees would be South Carolina Baptists. Also, each year Furman would give the SCBC a list of ten Christian nominees for the board from which it would choose five. Finally, the SCBC would continue to give Furman the $1.6 million per year.
July 30: The Furman Board of Trustees approves the covenant.
November 12-13: The SCBC meets in Greenville and decides to seek a declaratory judgment against Furman in order to determine whether or not the Furman trustees had the legal right to amend the charter; the covenant is not discussed.
November 19: The Furman trustees reaffirm their decision to amend the charter and ask the school to “‘use whatever resources it deems necessary or appropriate in order to protect the university from irreparable harm’” (The Paladin Vol.77 No.18).
December 17: SCBC officials announce that they have decided on a seven-member committee, a member of which included a Furman trustee, which will pursue legal action against Furman.
March 27: Furman’s Executive Committee and the SCBC committee held a meeting at Furman. The SCBC committee made two proposals. “With the first, the convention would elect one of Furman’s nominees and four of its own” (Taylor 70). This compromise was rejected by the Furman Executive Committee. A second proposal suggested that the issue be resolved through arbitration. This too was rejected because of legal issues and expenses. The Executive Committee made it own proposal: “Furman would elect all five trustees each year, with the understanding that three would be South Carolina Baptists and the other two would be Christians” (Taylor 71). Furthermore, Furman would award scholarships to S.C. Baptist students as long as it continued to receive financial support from the SCBC. Also, the SCBC would be allowed to employ a director of the Baptist Student Union on campus “and to establish a Baptist Advisory Committee on campus” (Taylor 71). This proposal was rejected, and the meeting ended with the possibility of future meetings.
April 2: The SCBC announces in an eight-page report that it is ending talks with Furman. Furman’s president, Dr. John E. Johns, “responds by saying ‘We are prepared to fight’” (The Paladin Vol.77 No.18).
April 6: At a press conference in Columbia, a group of thirty-four Baptist ministers asks the SCBC to sever all financial ties with Furman. Dr. Johns says that such an action should be decided by a special convention of the SCBC.
April 7: “The head of the SCBC Committee on Furman says that he will not request convention funds to sue the school” (The Paladin Vol.77 No.18). He also believes that a full meeting of the SCBC would vote to not sue Furman. This is a reasonable belief since many “South Carolina Baptists opposed the convention’s decision to sue Furman, citing I Corinthians 6 in arguing that Christians should not sue Christians. Contributions to the convention dropped by 20% in the first quarter of 1992, with some churches withholding funds from the convention and others sending contributions directly to Furman” (Taylor 71).
May 15: The SCBC meets at the Cantey Building on the state fairgrounds to decide Furman’s fate. “An overwhelming majority of the 4,873 messengers in attendance voted ‘that all legal and financial ties between the SCBC and Furman University be dissolved as of May 16, 1992.’ The vote was by a show of hands” (The Paladin Vol.77 No.20). As for the $1.6 million that was put into escrow, Furman would receive $130,000 of that sum, with the rest going to other S.C. colleges and institutions.
"Chronology of SCBC Dispute." The Paladin. Volume 77. Number 18. April 10, 1992.
Hennie, Matthew. "Called Meeting Breaks Ties." The Paladin. Volume 77. Number 20. May 22, 1992.
Taylor, Mark Alan. Religious Identity on a Slippery Slope: Furman University and Mercer University During the 1990s. The Florida State University College of Education. 2000.