High Hills Baptist Church is an antebellum structure with an interesting history, but like many old rural Southern churches it would seem its best days are behind it.
The congregation was begun in 1772 and the current church building was erected in 1848, replacing an earlier structure that dated to 1803.
Richard Furman (1755-1825), influential in spreading the Baptist faith in South Carolina, was the first pastor of the church, taking over at the tender age of 18.
Furman was a native of New York who had moved to Charleston as a youth. At 16 he converted to the Baptist faith, turning away from the evangelical Calvinism of his family. Two years later, in 1774, he was ordained as pastor of High Hills Baptist Church.
The High Hills of Santee area, around present-day Stateburg, SC, was, from the colonial era until the War Between the States, noted as a healthful region where wealthy planters from the South Carolina Lowcountry would escape to during the summer months, when malaria and yellow fever were especially prevalent.
Thanks to Furman’s efforts, numerous Baptist churches emerged around South Carolina during his decades as a pastor.
Furman was an ardent patriot, as well. During the American Revolution, he volunteered to serve in the Continental Army but instead was persuaded that his talents could better be used as a speaker to help gain support for the American cause.
On the fall of Charleston to British forces in 1780, General Lord Cornwallis announced a princely bounty of £1,000 for Furman’s capture, and the latter was forced to flee South Carolina.
The land where High Hills Baptist Church is located was donated by American patriot Thomas Sumter, the South Carolina militia general who played a key role in defeating the British during the Revolution.
While many of the large plantation-style homes and other structures that once dotted the area were destroyed in the waning days of the war by Union troops, some survived, including High Hills Baptist Church.
The distinctive Greek Revival structure has remained largely unchanged over the past 168 years.
In fact, there is still an operational outhouse out behind the church, one of the few churches in South Carolina with such a “facility.”
The church is showing the ravages of time, however. Bees have set up a hive in one of the wooden pillars at the front of the church, and the slats along at least one of the large hurricane shutters are deteriorating.
Given that the church has just a single service each week, and that it takes place at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, it’s likely the congregation is small.
Inside, the church features tiled floors, hard-carved walnut woodwork and old-time wooden pews.
Despite the church’s diminished role, it’s left an indelible mark on the state that continues unabated.
Furman University, one of the Southeast’s most prestigious private schools, was established in 1826, the year after Richard Furman’s death. It was named in his honor.
Now based in Greenville, Furman University was located near High Hill Baptist Church from 1829-1834. It later relocated to Fairfield County, SC, before moving to Greenville in 1851.