Baylor University and the Baptist General Convention of Texas
Baylor University has emerged over the years as a strong research university, consistently ranking in U. S. News and World Report’s top one hundred best colleges among all national universities. Looking at the success of Baylor today, it is hard to believe that Baylor began as just a dream in the hearts of Texas Baptists. Baylor University was founded out of the first Baptist association of Texas, and as the association grew to become the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT), Baylor remained its most important educational asset. From the beginning, the association recognized its role as a central support for Baylor, but the school was a distinctly separate entity from the association: Baylor was not in any legal sense under the control of the association. When controversy struck in the 1920s, however, the BGCT decided it wanted tighter control over the academic activities taking place in its premier Baptist university’s classrooms. The Convention appointed a textbook commission in an attempt to regulate what professors were teaching and students were learning. During this time period, Baylor University struggled to establish its identity as a higher education institution associated with but separate from the Baptist General Convention of Texas. President Samuel Palmer Brooks found himself under immense pressure as he deciphered how to remain true to his personal convictions and please the Convention, while at the same time furthering Baylor’s reputation of academic excellence.
History of Baylor University and the Baptist General Convention of Texas
In order to have an appropriate understanding of the relationship between Baylor University and the Baptist General Convention of Texas, it is vital to understand the history of Baylor’s long-standing relationship with Texas Baptists. In fact, Baylor University was founded as a direct product of the BGCT, though at the date of Baylor’s founding the Convention as it is today did not yet exist. In 1840, the first Baptist association in Texas was formed. This association came to be known as the Union Baptist Association (UBA), and R. E. B. Baylor, the university’s namesake, was among the founding members (McBeth, 1998). Establishing a great Baptist university was one of the founders’ foremost goals. As a result, the Texas Baptist Education Society was formed at the 1841 meeting of the Union Baptist Association (McBeth, 1998). It took a few years to get off the ground, but at the 1844 meeting of the Texas Baptist Education Society (TBES), the officers decided to set their plan for a great university into motion. R. E. B. Baylor, a lawyer by occupation, was chosen as president of the TBES. He was also part of the committee to write the charter for the university, and because of his legal training, he was asked to phrase it (McBeth, 1998). Baylor was chosen as the name by Kenneth Anderson, vice-president of the Republic of Texas, at the suggestion of one of the other members of the committee, William Tryon (McBeth, 1998). The school was officially founded in 1845 by the TBES, “a group distinct from but allied with the Union Baptist Association” (McBeth, 1998, p. 36). Its charter stated Baylor as a Baptist university “founded by Baptists and for Baptists” (McBeth, 1998). While the ties to the Texas Baptists were strong, nothing in the charter or legal documents gave the UBA or any other convention legal rights or control over the institution (McBeth, 1998).
The first president of Baylor University was Henry Lea Graves, who helped form the Baptist State Convention (BSC) out of the Union Baptist Association in 1848. Judge Baylor presided at the meeting in which Graves was elected as the first president of the Convention (McBeth, 1998). At this early point in Baylor’s history, the ties to the BSC remained strong, as Baylor’s president also functioned as the president of the Baptist State Convention. The Convention’s main purpose in the life of Baylor University was to support the university financially, elect members to the Board of Trustees, and raise money to provide scholarships for ministerial students to attend Baylor. A committee was appointed at an early Convention meeting specifically to focus on Baylor affairs (McBeth, 1998). The BSC was so dedicated to Baylor University as its premier Baptist institution, that in the early years it refused to financially support other Baptist institutions. At a Convention meeting in 1852, the board responded to pastor G. G. Baggerly’s request for sponsorship of a Baptist school in Tyler with language of sole support for Baylor. The response reads: “Our educational efforts extending only to the aid of ministers of the gospel; and as we have under our patronage the Baylor University designed especially for that purpose, we cannot promise to aid any other institution” (BSC, 1852, p. 7). Clearly the BSC claimed Baylor University as its own, though legally its authority over the university was minimal. An 1870 report demonstrated the power some members believed the Convention had. The report stated:
Two institutions of learning, Baylor College and Baylor Female College are organically connected with it [the State Convention]. You elect their Boards of Trustees and fill all vacancies in them. You therefore virtually control them…if the Presidents and faculties of these institutions do not please you, command your Trustees to dismiss them. If they will not obey you, then dismiss your Trustees and appoint others. (McBeth, 1998, p. 82)
Although the BSC held a tighter rein on its schools than did other religious conventions, the BSC did not often show interest in having authoritative control of the institutions. The Convention did not make regular influential decisions regarding Baylor, aside from electing its trustees and hearing reports of its progress. For the most part, Baylor University was self-sustaining (McBeth, 1998).
The influence of the Baptist State Convention showed, however, in Baylor’s move from Independence to Waco. The BSC made the official recommendation for Baylor to move, and after a vote by the BSC-elected Baylor University Board of Trustees, the school relocated to Waco. This is an example of how the Convention could exercise some form of control over the school if it so desired.
When the Baptist General Convention of Texas was formed in 1886 by the merging of the Baptist State Convention and the Baptist General Association, the reins were pulled a bit tighter on Baylor University and other institutions linked to the BGCT. B. H. Carroll, trustee president at the time said, “The Convention was our Pharaoh, and we were the Israelites making bricks without straw. Well, we made them” (Baker, 1987, pp. 22-23). The “bricks” Carroll was talking about was a reference to the success and growth of Baylor despite the chaos and complications of the time. The Convention’s focus on Baylor continued when six schools, including Baylor University joined the BGCT Educational Commission, which officially gave the BGCT oversight of the schools. The commission’s priorities were to name trustees and raise funds for endowments, buildings, and operating budgets. Baylor University and Baylor Female College were the only four-year institutions at this time, and as a result, most of the funds raised by the commission’s campaign were funneled to them (McBeth, 1998).
Formation of the Textbook Commission: The Evolution Controversy
The Evolution Controversy that took place at Baylor University during the 1920s caused concern in higher education institutions across the country, but specifically in Baptist institutions associated with the BGCT. The issue began with a textbook written by G. S. Dow, a professor of sociology at Baylor. As related in the Baptist Standard, this textbook was reported to have language of Darwinian evolution, and Dow was highly criticized for it (“Report of Committee,” 1922). Constituents began to question the commitment to Christian truth at Baylor, and the BGCT had great concern. This series of events caused several obstacles since Baylor was the primary institution the BGCT supported both financially and symbolically. Texas Baptists were supposed to be able to trust that their children were receiving a distinctly Christian education, without a hint of any teachings that were contradictory to the teachings of the Bible. As a result of the suspicion of the teaching of evolution at Baylor University, the BGCT adopted a resolution concerning schools at the 1921 convention. The resolution was reported to all Baptists in the Baptist Standard. A portion of the resolution reads:
We believe no teacher should be allowed to hold a position in any of our Baptist schools who teaches in any form any of the above named heresies. We hereby call our school presidents and boards of trustees to see to it that none of these false teachings be allowed in our schools and to this end that the most vigilant, painstaking and continual care be exercised in the selection of both teachers and textbooks. (“Convention Adopts,” 1921, p. 1)
Out of this resolution came an investigation committee whose purpose was to search thoroughly for evidence of such teachings in all of their Baptist schools. According to the Convention report in the Baptist Standard, an additional committee was sent to talk specifically with President S. P. Brooks, the Board of Trustees, and the professors in question (Routh, 1922). On the outcome of the investigation, The Baptist Courier reported, “They found that Baylor University, with all its faculty, was in thorough accord with the Evangelical faith and with the interpretation that Texas Baptists put on that faith: that no one was holding or teaching any theory of evolution that denied this faith” (Cody, 1922). This was good news for Baylor University and the BGCT. It was just the beginning, however, of the BGCT tightening the reins and exercising its control over Baylor and its other institutions.
J. B. Tidwell, long-standing chairman of the Bible Department at Baylor, wrote a lengthy article entitled “Sound Textbooks for Our Schools” for the Baptist Standard in April after the resolution concerning schools was adopted in December. In his article he lists five aspects of the problem related to the need of textbooks. The five points he puts forth were: there are many unsound textbooks, this puts the Christian teacher at disadvantage, sound textbooks will not save us, the logistics of getting sound textbooks is a huge challenge, this is a new and big task to fix a problem that must be remedied (Tidwell, 1932). He concludes by saying, “I believe there should be some sort of organized action in the matter and will gladly join in any movement or organization of our forces that may sanely seek to solve this problem” (Tidwell, 1932, p. 10). The BGCT had to keep its schools in line, and Baptists across the state clearly agreed. The main concern, therefore, became textbooks, and at the 1923 Convention the Textbook Commission was officially formed.
The entirety of the Evolution Controversy was not resolved at this time, however. G. S. Dow, the professor in question, resigned shortly after the Textbook Commission was formed, and the controversy continued. Dr. W. P. Meroney came on as the head of the Sociology Department at Baylor. Meroney, then, became the center of attacks that were made against the university. As a result of the attacks, Dr. Meroney made a voluntary statement regarding his stance on evolution. His statement was printed both in the Baptist Standard and in The Lariat, Baylor’s student newspaper. The Lariat relays part of his statement, “‘I do not believe or teach that man was evolved from lower forms of life.’ On the other hand, I do believe that ‘man came into existence by the direct creative act of God, as stated in Genesis 2:7’” (1924, p.1). As the focus on textbooks continued to grow, Meroney also stated his thoughts on textbooks and the responsibility of each professor. He said,
I would first beg leave to differ from your statement that the real issue is not in regard to textbooks…by inference, implication, suggestion, and innuendo they [those criticizing Baylor] are confusing the minds of ordinary laymen by making the presence of books containing certain teachings as to evolution prima facie evidence that the teacher both believes and teaches it and is such a rotten heretic that he ought to be cast out. (1924, p.1, 4)
The controversy began to simmer as President S. P. Brooks continually reaffirmed to all Baylor constituents that he and the university were dedicated to biblical teaching, and no teaching of Darwinian evolution was taking place in its classrooms. He made statements in the Baptist Standard, The Baptist Courier, The Baylor Bulletin, The Lariat, and in many other publications defending Baylor University’s commitment to the Baptist tradition.
The Textbook Commission
Pressure on President Brooks continued to increase, however, at the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1923. What he had done so far had not been enough to convince the Convention that Baylor, as well as other Texas Baptist institutions, were safe places for their children to attend. Alternatively, this controversy caused the Convention to become more aware of its lack of knowledge about what was actually happening within its schools. As previously mentioned, the Textbook Commission was officially formed at the Convention in 1923. President S. P. Brooks put forth the idea for a textbook commission and was subsequently made chairman of the commission, though little direction was given by the Convention for its functioning. A committee on textbooks had previously existed through the Convention, but this new commission had a more relevant role. How the group was to accomplish the task assigned no one quite new, but the Textbook Commission was delegated the responsibility of ensuring that all textbooks used in Texas Baptist classrooms aligned with the Baptist denomination and the entirety of the teachings of the Scriptures. Why President Brooks was the man heading up this committee is a compelling question, particularly considering that it was his school that was under the strictest scrutiny for the very offense they were to investigate. Though S. P. Brooks surely had a deep concern for what students in the Baptist schools were being taught, this was undeniably an opportunity for him to convince the BGCT that he was on board with what they wanted. Whether this was the goal of the Convention or not, the BGCT was giving Brooks the opportunity and responsibility to prove that his personal convictions about Christian higher education aligned with theirs, and they expected evidence of this harmony.
Brooks’ appointment was also an opportunity for the BGCT to strategically keep a closer watch on the school it was most worried about while hopefully preventing its other schools from making the same mistakes. Baylor University was putting the reputation of the Convention at risk, and they were determined to set the record straight. While Baylor had to prove itself worthy to the BGCT, the BGCT had to prove itself worthy among its constituents and other external groups. Other Christian institutions were watching, as well as other religious conventions and the higher education arena as a whole.
Concerns arose among students regarding the power of the Convention in Baylor affairs when they heard of the new commission. President Brooks addressed the issue in chapel almost immediately following the Convention, and The Lariat reported an excerpt of his address. Though the Commission still knew almost nothing about how it was going to function, in his statement he expressed to students that the selection of textbooks would not lie entirely in the hands of this new commission. He assured them that the Baptist Textbook Commission would give advice only, and the existing committee would continue as it had in making any final decisions regarding textbooks (Smith, 1923). The fact that President Brooks felt it necessary to address the issue in chapel suggests that a significant number of students were worried that greater Convention control over Baylor would somehow inhibit their college experience. Brooks was obviously concerned about his students. He made a promise to them that the new BGCT Textbook Commission would not have decisive authority over their textbooks before he even knew how the commission was going to function. Though he was made chairman of the commission, his job first and foremost was to preside over Baylor University and ensure his students were getting what they needed for a quality education.
President Brooks: Searching for Help from Outside Sources
President S. P. Brooks was not fully prepared to take on the position of chairman of the Textbook Commission. According to one of Brooks’ letters, he was surprised to be chosen. He had simply made a suggestion. A number of the Convention members agreed, and Brooks found himself “…apparently chairman of the commission” (Brooks, S. P., Brooks to E. Y. Mullins, November 28, 1923). According to Brooks’ letter, the commission had freedom to decide how they were going to accomplish their specific task. The Convention expected results from this group, but the more Brooks dug into the problem, the more he saw that there was no realistic solution. This is when President Brooks reached out for support and wisdom from other leaders in higher education.
Brooks then wrote a letter and sent it to presidents, vice presidents, deans, and professors at higher education institutions across the country to seek their advice. He stated in his letter that he has long held the belief that no group should truly have the authority to provide textbooks, but that “the whole matter was one of trust in the men and women who teach” (Brooks, S. P., Brooks to E. Y. Mullins, November 28, 1923). He pleaded for help as he took on this unanticipated position as chairman. First, he states, he had simply asked the Convention to appoint a commission for the task of helping teachers identify better books. He had no intention of forming a group to direct teachers in any way, but simply to assist them. Second, he then found himself chosen as the chairman, and explicitly stated in his letter that “[I] have myself little faith in what we may do” (Brooks, S. P., Brooks to E. Y. Mullins, November 28, 1923). He presented in his letter two possible solutions and requested any wisdom they were willing to offer on his most desperate situation. His two suggestions were to either employ men to write all the textbooks or appoint men to select all the textbooks from already existing ones. Both of these suggestions had critical flaws, as Brooks pointed out when he wrote, “suppose a series of books were chosen today and the Convention felt itself at ease, and then some body looked into a microscope or test tube tomorrow and found it all false, in what a fix will we Texans find ourselves” (Brooks, S. P., Brooks to E. Y. Mullins, November 28, 1923). Clearly, President Brooks not only had a sincere dedication to Christian teaching, but also to sound scholarship. His personal convictions regarding education probably played a major role in his choosing to seek advice from other respected leaders in higher education.
President Brooks wrote to other Texas Baptist schools as well as universities, seminaries, and education boards in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Missouri, and Virginia. He received over 25 responses. The suggestions he received from his professional colleagues varied, but there was a common thread that ran through nearly all the letters: “trust your teachers.” E. Y. Mullins, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was one of those men, along with leaders from Georgetown College, the University of Richmond, Wake Forest College, and Howard College, to name a few. Mercer University directed Brooks to the Southern Baptist Convention Education Board, from which two men responded with the same suggestion of hiring teachers that will select sound textbooks for their courses. Many of these men expressed to Brooks that a group from outside the university or even outside any particular department could not adequately do this job. In the words of E. Y. Mullins to President Brooks, “I do not believe any committee in the world can determine text-books for schools. The only person capable of determining text-books for a department is the expert in charge of the department. I would not like for anybody to select my text-books in theology. I do not believe anybody else could do it as well as I can for my own classes” (Mullins, E. Y., Mullins to S. P. Brooks, December 1, 1923). M. B. Adams, President of Georgetown College echoed the thoughts of others when he wrote, “Given the right kind of a teacher who meets the ideals of the Baptists of Texas, who takes proper care in the selection of text books, I believe the results in text books will be the very best that can be secured under present conditions” (Adams, M. B., Adams to S. P. Brooks, December 14, 1923). These sentiments were echoed over and over by institutional leaders across the country.
A few men gave more tangible, but far less attainable suggestions. Furman University President W. J. McGlothlin did not have much faith in any outside group for help, but put forth a new idea. He suggested that the faculty select their own books, and then send them on to be looked over by a small committee appointed by the Convention. This might in some way re-establish “the confidence of the brotherhood in the orthodoxy of Baylor” (McGlothlin, W. J., McGlothlin to S. P. Brooks, December 1, 1923). Though McGlothlin gives this suggestion, he admits that there is no good solution, and even this one would be quite humiliating for the University. H. C. Wayman, President of William Jewel College, sent his thoughts as well. He explicitly stated that he was completely dissatisfied with a large number of the books used in the denominational colleges. He said that in the interest of scholarship, too much Christian teaching has been sacrificed. His suggestion to President Brooks was simple, yet unreasonable: influence the scholars at our colleges to write scholarly, yet true-to-Scripture textbooks.
It seemed that S. P. Brooks was stuck. He was under immense pressure from the BGCT to produce results for a seemingly impossible task. Even students were aware of the unrealistic expectations of the BGCT, as The Lariat printed a letter received by President Brooks from a man who attended the Convention and put forth a solution so unrealistic it was comical. An excerpt from the letter reads:
Employ someone (almost anybody will do) at a sufficient salary, to be paid by the convention or by you, to prepare ALL textbooks to be used in ALL departments of ALL the colleges. After the manuscript of each book is finished, have 500,000 multigraphed copies made and send one to every white Baptist in the state. Let each of them carefully read the manuscript, striking out all objectionable passages and inserting whatever, seems proper. When the 500,000 copies are all returned (work should not proceed until ALL copies are returned), let the author incorporate ALL suggestions and delete ALL passages to which objection has been raised. Then let the book be printed. (Brownlee, 1924, p. 4)
This letter was an exaggeration of the process, but fairly accurate in describing the large scale of the undertaking and the complexity of this helpless situation.
Following these letters and the general announcement from the BGCT of the commission’s original formation, the Textbook Commission mostly vanishes from historical record. It is possible that the matter just blew over or something of greater importance took the focus in a new direction. Following the formation of the Textbook Commission, Dr. W. P. Meroney was hired as head of the Sociology Department at Baylor, as previously mentioned. His appointment caused further controversy within the Convention, which was possibly a factor in the BGCT’s shift of focus. It is also possible that the Convention decided the existing committee on textbooks was sufficient, or President Brooks convinced them that this new commission was not necessary or likely to succeed in its mission.
During the 1920s, President Brooks found himself in the undesirable position of continuously having to prove that he was dedicated to the BGCT. He somehow had to show the Convention that both he and Baylor University were not interested in violating any of the Convention’s policies regarding its schools, while still remaining true to his personal convictions and promoting sound scholarship. Although the BGCT did not necessarily hold the power to regulate textbooks in its schools, because of its financial investment in the University, its right to appoint trustees, and its right to hear regular reports of school business, it was in Baylor University’s best interest to satisfy the Convention’s wishes when possible. President Brooks wanted what was best for Baylor, but his idea of best was sometimes different than the Convention’s idea of best. In reaching out for support from other respected leaders in higher education, Brooks was attempting to find a balance between the satisfying desires of Baptist General Convention of Texas, staying true to his own personal convictions, and maintaining the academic integrity of a growing Baylor University.
Adams, M. B. (1923 December 14). [Letter to S. P. Brooks]. Samuel Palmer Brooks papers (Box#2C73, Folder #250). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
Baker, E. W. To light the ways of time: an illustrated history of Baylor University, 1845-1896. Waco: Baylor University Press, 1987, 22-23.
Baptist State Convention (1852). Minutes of the Baptist State Convention. Independence, TX.
Brooks, S. P. (1923 November 28). [Letter to E. Y. Mullins]. Samuel Palmer Brooks papers (Box#2C73, Folder #250). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
Brownlee, M. M. (Ed.) (1924 October 13). “‘God created all life’ he declares in full statement of facts.’” The Daily Lariat, pp. 3-4. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/lariat/id/7922/rec/3. The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
Brownlee, M. M. (Ed.) (1924 December 22). “Advances solutions of text book problem.” The Daily Lariat. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/lariat/id/8097/rec/2. The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
Cody, Z. T. (Ed.) (1922 December 21). “A year of unfounded suspicions.” The Baptist Courier. Samuel Palmer Brooks papers (Box #2C73, Folder #248). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
McBeth, L. (1998). Texas Baptists: A Sesquicentennial History. Baptistway Press.
McGlothlin, W. J. (1923 December 1). [Letter to S. P. Brooks]. Samuel Palmer Brooks papers (Box#2C73, Folder #250). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
Mullins, E. Y. (1923 December 1). [Letter to S. P. Brooks]. Samuel Palmer Brooks papers (Box#2C73, Folder #250). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
Routh, E.C. (Ed.) (1922 November 23). “Impressions of the convention.” Baptist Standard, p. 1, 32. Samuel Palmer Brooks papers (Box #2C65, Folder #144). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
Smith, W. C. (Ed.) (1923 November 21). “Textbooks are not entirely in hands Baptist committee.” The Baylor Lariat, p. 3. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/lariat/id/6553/rec/1. The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
Tidwell, J. B. (1922 April 20). “Sound textbooks for our schools.” Baptist Standard, p. 10. Samuel Palmer Brooks papers (Box #2C65, Folder #144). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
(1921 December 8). “Convention adopts resolution concerning schools.” Baptist Standard. Samuel Palmer Brooks papers (Box #2C73, Folder #248). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.
(1922 September 14). “Report of committee appointed to investigate the teaching in Baptist schools of Texas.” Baptist Standard. Samuel Palmer Brooks papers (Box #2C65, Folder #144). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.