This article was written by Dr. Eugene W. Baker and published in the Fall 2008 issue of The Baylor Line.
They were Baptist pioneers back in the days when Texas was its own nation. They devoted their lives to the Lord’s work in a rough land. And in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds, they brought to life the dream of creating an institution of higher education.
THIRTY-FIVE RUGGED TEXAS BAPTIST PIONEERS GATHERED IN A SMALL building near Rutersville during the first week of October 1841 for the first annual meeting of the Union Baptist Association. Although they represented only nine small Baptist churches, this handful of men eagerly accepted the challenge to share the love of Christ throughout the infant Republic of Texas that many were calling the “new Promised Land.”
As they developed their plans and strategies, few, if any, realized that one of their decisions would eventually lead to the development of Baylor University, today the oldest university in Texas and the largest Baptist institution of higher education in the world.
On the second day of the conference, Robert Emmett Bledsoe Baylor—judge of the third judicial district of the Republic and corresponding secretary of the association—presented a report, part of which concerned educational needs and the formation of a society to sponsor the development of a denominational institution.
The proposal was not original with Judge Baylor, but was the concept of William M. Tryon, newly elected moderator of the association. Tryon, an appointee of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, was thirty-one years of age. Although he had been in Texas but a few months, he had just completed one of the most successful revivals ever held in the short history of the Republic. Judge Baylor, also an ordained minister, had assisted Tryon in conducting religious services during the summer and early fall. It probably was during this period that Tryon and Baylor had discussed the need for a Baptist university in Texas.
The day after Baylor presented his report, the associational representatives passed a resolution requesting that the moderator appoint a committee to take into consideration “so much of the said report as related to the subject of education?’ Later that morning, the appointed committee recommended the formation of an education society and asked “that the brethren generally unite with and endeavor to promote the object of such society.” It was organized immediately as the Texas Baptist Education Society, with Baylor as president and Tryon as vice president.
Among those named to the board of managers was James Huckins, who, in 1840, had been the first American Baptist missionary appointed to Texas. Since that time he had founded and currently was pastor of the Baptist churches in Galveston and Houston. In addition to electing Huckins to the society’s board of man-agers, the association delegates named him agent of their Home Mission Society and their religious book depository, and requested him to serve as editor of the Texas column in the Kentucky-based Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer.
Other officials of the society closely involved in the early work of this body were S. P. Andrews, Noah T. Byars, W. T. Collins, Stephen Williams, B. B. Baxter, Gail Borden, W. H. Ewing, Hosea Garrett, James S. Lester, J. L. Farquahar, and Z. N. Morrell. Of these men, only Byars, Baxter, Garrett, and Morrell were ministers, and each of them had another occupation as a primary source of income.
Catalysts for education
The objectives of the Educational Society were to establish an “academical and theological institution” and “to assist in procuring an education for those young men who give evidence of being called of God to preach the Gospel, and who shall have the approbation of their respective churches?’ According to the constitution of the society, anyone was eligible for membership, regardless of denominational affiliation, but those on the executive committee were required to be Baptists.
The creation of an education society to promote religious educational interests was not original with this group in Texas. It had been a well-tested method within the denomination for at least a quarter century. Following the religious awakening of the early 1800s, Baptists developed missionary societies to spread the Gospel across the world. In 1814, representatives of these societies, which were scattered across the states, formed the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions.
At the second session of this convention, which met only every third year, the delegates recognized the necessity of an educated ministry and recommended the formation of education societies. The rapid growth of these groups was phenomenal, and within two decades a Baptist education society was operating in almost every state in the Union.
Though originally created to provide financial support to ministerial students, the education societies gradually became catalysts for the creation of institutions of learning. By the late 1830s, Baptist schools established by the societies offered both literary and theological education, but the number of students preparing for the ministry was usually much smaller than the number of students enrolled in general education courses.
Tryon had benefited from Baptist funding of his education while enrolled as one of the original students in Mercer Institute in Penfield, Georgia, and James Huckins had received Baptist financial support at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Both of these missionary-appointees, as well as the other members of the Texas Baptist Education Society, recognized the value of a Baptist university in Texas and were anxious to see one established.
At the formation of the Texas Baptist Education Society in October 1841, money was subscribed, and several large tracts of land were promised to help fund a university. The following May, a planter in Montgomery County offered his entire plantation, worth at least $3,500, as the site for the school.
Series of unfortunate events
Unfortunately, all plans for funding a denominational institution had to be postponed because of invasions into Texas by Mexican troops during the spring and fall of 1842. The incursions were not, as feared, attempts to recapture Texas, but merely harassments in retaliation for actions previously directed by Republic President Mirabeau B. Lamar.
In the summer of 1841, Lamar, without congressional approval, had authorized a three-hundred-man contingent to go to Santa Fe to encourage citizens of the town to annex themselves to Texas for mutual political and commercial benefits. During their three-month trek toward Santa Fe, the men suffered from faulty reconnaissance, insufficient provisions, and Indian attacks, and they were eventually ambushed and taken captive to Mexico City.
Although the Mexican forces retreated quickly after both 1842 invasions, poor communications, so prevalent during these times, delayed the news of the withdrawals by several weeks. Even when the people in Texas learned that the Mexicans were no longer threatening the frontier towns, rumors of impending invasions continued to spread throughout the Republic and even into the United States. Because of the resulting unsettled conditions, only informal sessions of the Texas Baptist Society were held in 1842 and 1843. During this period, most schools in the Republic suspended classes, and several institutions dosed their doors permanently because of lack of support.
By 1844, although fear of the Mexicans had greatly diminished, Indian attacks continued to occur frequently along the frontier. Even so, the general state of affairs was greatly improved, and the Education Society reorganized in an attempt to pursue its original quest. Once again, R. E. B. Baylor was selected president and William Tryon vice president.
The society then made plans to create a university upon a plan “…so broad that the requirements of existing conditions would be fully met. . .” The “existing conditions” referred to the need for educating ministers as well as those individuals interested only in secular learning. In addition to meeting these needs, the society wanted to establish an institution that “. . . would be fully susceptible of enlargement and development to meet the needs of all the ages to come.”
The initial step to accomplish these objectives was to secure a charter from the Congress of the Republic of Texas. Though not legally required, as many schools operated in Texas without charters, it seemed to be the most desirable course to follow. Therefore, the members of the society requested that Tryon, Baylor, and J. G. Thomas draft a petition and present it to the lawmakers when they convened at Washington-on-the-Brazos in December for the Ninth Congress.
Tryon was personally acquainted with many of the congress-men since he had unofficially served as Senate chaplain during the Seventh Congress and had been formally elected to that position in the Eighth Congress. Thomas, a trained lawyer and clerk of the Union Association, was corresponding secretary of the Education Society. He had been extremely active in denominational affairs during his three years in Texas. How much value he was in helping to secure the charter is not known, but his rapport with the lawyers serving in Congress was probably of some assistance.
In the fall of 1844, Baylor visited Tryon at his farm at Hidalgo Bluff. There the necessary documents for presentation to Congress were developed as Baylor dictated and Tryon recorded his words on paper. The only part not completed when the materials were presented to congressional officials was the name by which the school would be known.
Judge Baylor originally suggested the name of Tryon, since it was Tryon’s idea to establish the institution. Tryon had declined, however, fearing that since he had worked so strongly to see the university created, some might feel he had done it for personal gain. Tryon, in turn, had suggested the university be named for Baylor, who demurred on the grounds that he had done nothing worthy to be so honored.
During the ten days the petition was under consideration by the Senate, the names San Jacinto University and Milam University were successively recommended. Sometime during this period, Kenneth Anderson, vice president of the Republic, added his support to Tryon’s suggestion. As a result, on the final reading, the name Baylor University was recommended and approved. The House quickly endorsed the Senate’s decision, and on February 1, 1845, Texas president Anson Jones approved the charter by affixing his signature.
The actions of the trustees during the next several months encompassed the selection of Independence as the site for the institution and the naming of the president and the faculty. With these accomplished by the spring of 1846, Baylor University was ready to begin operation.
On May 18, 1846, twenty-four young boys and girls gathered in a small, partially refurbished frame schoolhouse on the southern edge of Independence to open the first class of Baylor University. Thirty-year-old Henry F. Gillette, a native of Connecticut who had been in Texas teaching and farming for about six years, greeted the students. He was the only employee of the university, as president Henry L. Graves had not yet arrived.
The students enrolled in the preparatory department since collegiate courses were not yet offered. Tuition ranged from $8 to $15 per five-month term, depending on the courses of study, which included the three “Rs” as well as geography, grammar, philosophy, chemistry, and the Latin and Greek languages.
As the enrollment increased to seventy toward the end of the term, another teacher was authorized. This position was not filled immediately, for with the arrival of President Graves in February 1847, a large portion of the teaching load was shifted to his shoulders.
Graves and Gillette undoubtedly brought prestige to the school during its early years, as both were able educators and were well respected by the religious and educational leaders of the state. The fact that Gillette was an Episcopalian indicates the tolerance of the founding fathers, who were more interested in the abilities of an individual than in his denominational affiliation.
The five-year administration of Graves was plagued with several traumatic events. Four original trustees resigned; another, William M. Tryon, died; finances dwindled; salaries went unpaid; and Gillette left, principally because of “hardships” he had to endure.
There were some things, however, that gave optimism to supporters of the school. Enrollment remained stable; fundraising activities, directed by James Huckins beginning in March 1848, began to attract donors; buildings were planned and started; new teachers were employed; and additional courses were added.
Graves, serving as pastor of the Independence Baptist Church as well as president of Baylor, was influential in securing interest within the denomination for the university, and in 1850 the two-year-old Baptist State Convention took over sponsorship of the institution.
Transition in leadership
In June 1851, Graves surprised the trustees—as well as the Baptist State Convention delegates who were meeting at Independence for their first annual session—by announcing his resignation. He claimed poor health, though some felt it may have been the gross weight of the difficulties associated with running the school in its primitive condition. Graves’s final year, however, had been one of the best. Among the highlights had been the completion of the school’s first permanent hall, later named in his honor.
At a candlelight session of the convention on the evening of Graves’ resignation, the delegates contributed an endowment fund of more than $5,000. It was the first real outpouring of support from the denomination for Baylor. Had Graves received this kind of backing, he might have remained at the helm of the institution, per-haps changing the entire course of the university.
Graves’s replacement, acquired within twenty-four hours of the president’s resignation, was the Reverend Rufus C. Burleson, pastor of the Baptist church in Houston. Though a twenty-seven-year-old bachelor with no experience in directing an educational institution, he was unanimously selected by the trustees to head the school.
Burleson accepted the presidency with stipulations related to financial operations, quality of facilities, and the practice of coeducation. To meet his demands, the trustees agreed to raise a $50,000 endowment, build whatever structures the enrollment dictated, and never to go into debt for anything—agreements that were never kept. The policy of educating boys and girls in the same rooms, how-ever, was changed. When fifty-two students matriculated on September 1, 1851, the male students were placed in Graves Hall on Allen Hill, half a mile away from Academy Hill, where the females were left to study in the original wooden structure.
Horace Clark was given charge of the girls, and Burleson accepted responsibility for the education of the boys. This division of labor was a key to the controversy that arose between the two men a few years later. Clark believed he had absolute control over the entire female operation. Burleson felt he should be directly responsible for the male students but also maintain a supervisory role over the female department since he was president of the entire university.
The inability of the two men to reconcile their positions led to Burleson’s move to Waco in 1861.
When Burleson left Baylor, the institution was hardly recognizable as the same campus over which he had taken control ten years earlier. During his administration, the curriculum had been expanded to include ancient and modern literature, natural philosophy, civil engineering, physiology, moral and intellectual philosophy, evidences of Christianity, history, and political economy. In addition, the library holdings had been increased, three literary societies and two fraternities had been organized, and several new structures had been erected on both campuses. Approximately forty faculty members taught the more than two thousand students who enrolled while Burleson was president. Of this number, about eighty-five were granted degrees, approximately one third of them in law.