Basil Manly Sr. was born near Pittsboro, North Carolina, on January 28, 1798. His parents were Captain Basil Manly (1742 – 1824) and Elizabeth Maultsby, (1768 – 1855). In 1816, Manly attended the Bingham School, and that same year he was baptized at the Baptist Church of Christ at Rocky Springs, Chatham County, North Carolina.
On April 26, 1818, he received his license to preach from the Baptist Church of Christ at Rocky Springs, North Carolina. He became the beneficiary of the "Southern Education Society," Coosawatchie, South Carolina, on May 17, 1818, and on the following day, he preached his first regular sermon at the Baptist Meeting House in Beaufort, South Carolina. The following year, in December 1819, he was admitted to the senior class at South Carolina College, Columbia, South Carolina, (later known as the University of South Carolina). Basil graduated valedictorian on December 3, 1821. On March 10, 1822, he was ordained at the Little Steven's Creek Church, Edgewood County, South Carolina.
On December 23, 1824, he married Sarah Murray Rudolph of Edgewood, South Carolina. Sarah Rudolph was born August 1, 1806 and died on September 12, 1894. Together they had eight children: Basil Manly Jr. (December 19, 1825 – January 31, 1892); Zebulon Rudolph (July 27, 1827 – July 15, 1829); John Waldo (April 8, 1827 – November 6, 1830); Sarah Rudolph (Smith) (January 10, 1833 – January 9, 1900); Charles (May 28, 1837 – May 1, 1924); Abby Murray (Gwathney) (September 12, 1839 – 1919); James Syng (October 4, 1842 – March 1, 1921); and Richard Fuller (February 11, 1845 – August 15, 1919).
On February 22, 1826, he became the minister at Charleston Church, Charleston, South Carolina. Later that year, on May 11, he was officially installed as pastor, where he preached for eleven years. Also in 1826, he helped establish Furman University at Greenville, South Carolina.
The family moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1837, when Manly became president of the University of Alabama, a post he held until 1855. Manly owned 40 slaves and supported the institution of slavery.
Manly played a central role in the founding of many institutions and associations. In 1838, he had a leading role in the founding of the Judson Female Institute (which changed its name to Judson College in 1903) in Alabama. In May 1845, he also had a leading role in founding the Southern Baptist Convention. Then in 1850, he was the founder of the Alabama Historical Society, whose role was to preserve the history of the state.
In 1855, Manly resigned as the president of the University of Alabama, and he accepted a call to preach at the Wentworth Street Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where he remained for four years. In 1858, he served as founding chairman for the board of trustees of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1859, he returned to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as State Evangelist. On February 18, 1861, in Montgomery, Alabama, serving as chaplain for the provisional Congress of the Confederate States, Basil commenced the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as the President of the Confederate States of America, with a prayer. He also served at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1861. Then in 1863, he resigned from the First Baptist Church (Montgomery, Alabama), and he returned to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. On November 22, 1864, he was stricken with paralysis. Basil Manly Sr. died at the home of Basil Manly Jr. in Greenville, South Carolina, on December 21, 1868. He was buried at Springwood Cemetery in Greenville.
Manly is best known as the author of the "Alabama Resolutions", which formed part of the case for separation of the Southern Baptist Convention from northern churches. His son Basil Manly Jr. also became a prominent figure in Baptist history.
In 1892 Manly produced a hymnal called "Manly's Choice A New Selection of Approved Hymns for Baptist Churches with Music" arranged by Basil Manly and published by Baptist Book Concern, Louisville, KY.