In 1841, 35 delegates to the Union Baptist Association meeting voted to adopt the suggestion of Reverend William Milton Tryon and R.E.B. Baylor to establish a Baptist university in Texas, then a self-declared republic still claimed by Mexico. Baylor, a Texas district judge and onetime U.S. Congressman and soldier from Alabama, became the school's namesake.
In the fall of 1844, the Texas Baptist Education Society petitioned the Congress of the Republic of Texas to charter a Baptist university. Republic President Anson Jones signed the Act of Congress on February 1, 1845, officially establishing Baylor University. The founders built the original university campus in Independence, Texas. Reverend James Huckins, who had been the first Southern Baptist missionary to Texas, was Baylor's first full-time fund-raiser. He is considered the third founding father of the university. Although these three men are credited as being the founders of the university, many others worked to see the first university established in Texas and thus they were awarded Baylor's Founders Medal. The famous Texas revolutionary war leader and hero Sam Houston gave the first $5,000 donation to start the University. In 1854, Houston was also baptized by the Rev. Rufus Columbus Burleson, future Baylor President, in the Brazos River.
In 1851, Baylor's second president Rufus Columbus Burleson decided to separate the students by gender, making the Baylor Female College an independent and separate institution. Baylor University became an all-male institution. During this time Baylor thrived as the only university west of the Mississippi offering instruction in the law, mathematics, and medicine. Many of the early leaders of the Republic of Texas, such as Sam Houston, would send their children to Baylor to be educated. Some of those early students were, Temple Lea Houston, son of President Sam Houston, a famous western gun-fighter and attorney. Along with Lawrence Sullivan "Sul" Ross famous Confederate General and later President of Texas A&M University.
During the American Civil War, the Baylor president was George Washington Baines, maternal great-grandfather of the future U.S. President, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Baines was also later a trustee of Mary Hardin-Baylor. Baines would fight hard to keep the university operating during the terrible struggles of the civil war while the male students were enrolled in the Confederate Army serving Texas in various military campaigns throughout the War . After the war and during the late nineteenth century, the city of Independence began suffering a slow decline, due primarily because of the rise of neighboring cities serviced by the Santa Fe Railroad. Because of the fact that Independence lacked a railroad line, University fathers decided to begin searching for other more viable locations to build a new campus.
Beginning in 1885, Baylor University moved to Waco, Texas, a growing town on the railroad line. It merged with a local college Waco University, where Baylor's former second president, Rufus Burleson, was serving at the time as the local college president. That same year, the Baylor Female College decided to also move to a new location and chose the city of Belton, Texas to be its new home. It later became known as the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. A Baylor College Park still exists in Independence in memory of the college's history there. Around 1887, Baylor University began readmitting women and became coeducational again.
In 1900, three physicians founded the "University of Dallas Medical Department", in Dallas, although a university by that name did not exist. In 1903, Baylor University acquired the medical school, which became known as the Baylor College of Medicine, while remaining in Dallas.
In 1943, Dallas civic leaders wanted to build larger facilities for the university in a new medical center, but only if the College of Medicine would surrender its denominational alliances with the Baptist state convention. The Baylor administration refused the offer. With funding from the M. D. Anderson Foundation and others, Baylor moved the College of Medicine to Houston.
During World War II, Baylor was one of 131 colleges and universities nationally that took part in the V-12 Navy College Training Program which offered students a path to a Navy commission.
After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the university was desegregated. In 1969, the Baylor College of Medicine became technically independent from Baylor University. They still maintain close ties.
Baylor University and the Baylor College of Medicine have an agreement that provides for some Baylor undergraduates to be accepted to Baylor College of Medicine. Talks are underway to strengthen the affiliation between the two institutions, although a formal merger is under consideration.
In the late twentieth century, the Southern Baptist Convention had a major controversy between conservative Baptists and liberal/moderate Baptists. Conservative Baptists achieved control of the organization and replaced officials of many agencies. Similar actions took place in many state conventions as well.
Concerned about potential effects on its governance, in 1991 Baylor University gained authorization by the Texas legislature to change the terms of its charter. It established a governance less directly dependent upon the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which administration was feared to follow suit with the Southern Baptist Convention. The state convention continues to elect one-quarter of the members of Baylor's Board of Regents.
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