James Clement Furman was born on December 15, 1809, in Charleston, South Carolina. His father was Richard Furman, namesake of Furman University, then pastor at Charleston Baptist Church. His mother was Dorothea Burn Furman, second wife of his father. James Clement was the thirteenth of fifteen children born to Richard and Dorothea Furman. He was in normal physical health until he contracted malaria as a teen. After that point, James Furman suffered from recurring bouts of illness and remained frail for the rest of his life. As an adult, he was approximately five feet, eight inches tall, but weighed only one hundred twenty pounds.
Furman received his license to preach in October 1828. In March 1830, he became the twelfth student at the Furman Theological Institute. In April 1832, Furman was ordained by the Charleston Baptist Church. A year later, on April 3, 1833, he married Harriet Eloise Davis (1814-1849), daughter of Jonathan Davis. James Clement and Harriet Davis Furman had six children, born between 1834 and 1849.
In August 1840, Furmanís eldest daughter, Elizabeth Williams Smith Furman, died after a brief illness. Furman delivered the eulogy at her funeral on the first of September.
Furman became senior professor at the Furman Institution in 1845. In August, 1849, Harriet Davis Furman died of consumption. In 1850, Furman located the site in Greenville, South Carolina, which would be purchased for the university. Shortly thereafter, construction began on the campus, which overlooked the Reedy River. Between 1852 and 1860, Furman served as chairman of the institutionís faculty, and as president of Furman University. In June 1856 Furman married Mary Glenn Davis (1824-1911), sister of his first wife. James C. and Mary Davis Furman had four children, born between 1857 and 1867.
Throughout 1860, Furman was highly involved in the cause for Southern secession, stumping in Greenville, and serving at the Secession Convention. Furman returned to teaching after South Carolina seceded, in December 1860, although most of his students left to join the army. When Furman University reopened in February 1866, it was crippled by low funds, and was unable to collect most of the bonds it made before the Civil War. By the fall of 1868, there was serious talk of abandoning the university, but Furman refused to leave it.
In 1880, Furman resigned as president of Furman University, although he continued to take an active role in university affairs for another decade. On March 3, 1891, Furman died in Greenville, at the age of eighty-one. He was buried in Springwood Cemetery.