Improving the Legitimacy of Baptist Education

Improving the Legitimacy of Baptist Education:  Baylor University 1950-1960

By Nick Blair

The decade of 1950 to 1960 was marked by growing pains for the world, America, and many of her industries.  The world was just beginning to recover from the still-fresh days of World War II and thousands of servicemen and families were readjusting to civilian life.  A large percentage of men went straight into newly accessible higher education programs made possible by the G.I. Bill.  Colleges and Universities had to quickly adjust to a changing academic landscape discernible by increased calls for accreditation, curriculum variety, and graduate-level programs.

This decade also signaled a new era for Baylor University, heralded by the appointment of Dr. William Richardson White as president on April 13, 1948.  Previously the president of Hardin Simmons University, executive secretary of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and several other administrative and faculty positions throughout the greater Baptist community, Dr. White came from a ministerial background and was hesitant to accept the highly administrative position.  Spurred on by colleagues and seeing potential for challenge and success at Baylor, Dr. White accepted the offer.  In explaining his reason for accepting the post, Dr. White indicated that “Baylor’s strategic position in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention and in Texas, its contributions at home and abroad were so well-known, that I knew it was one of the large opportunities of the whole denomination and that I’d never get to a place where an investment in time in my life and what talent I have would bring more results” (Baker, 1987, p. 254).

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Dr. William Richardson White, 10th President of Baylor University. Courtesy of Baylor University Libraries

Taking the place of the highly controversial Neff presidency, Dr. White sought to strengthen the university’s reputation academically, financially, and nationally.  Particularly, he felt the school needed to work harder to maintain its legitimacy.  By his eighth year as president, Dr. White had many achievements to support his success in these goals (Baker, 1987).   In 1956, Baylor had seen significant institutional in many ways.  Student enrollment reached a record-breaking 5,000 students.  Stature of faculty improved as number of faculty as full professors rose 3% over a four-year period.  The amount of degree offerings doubled and diversified to include numerous new bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral options (Baylor Bulletin 1958-1959, p. 30).

The decade of the 1950s, represented at Baylor by the presidency of Dr. White, was characterized by a quest for academic legitimacy founded in new graduate programs benefiting Baylor’s commitment to Baptist Christian Education.  As the quickly-growing flagship university for Texas Baptists, many in the Baptist General Convention of Texas felt that there was much to be gained from improving the credibility of the graduate-level programs offered.  Through these conversations, Dr. White began outlining a plan for the foundation and expansion of graduate education; particular interest was focused on Baylor’s religion program in order to create a dedicated school where scholars and professionals could be educated in a decidedly Baptist environment.  Even before his official installment as president, Dr. White was already in correspondence with prominent Baptist ministers and educators.

The Driving Forces Leading to Curricular Reform and Graduate Studies

By the 1950s, Baylor had the good fortune of being recognized as the premier higher education institutions affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.  A comprehensive survey of Baylor conducted in the early 1950s by John Dale Russell, chancellor and executive secretary of the New Mexico Board of Educational Finance, on behalf of the office of the Financial Vice President provided a snapshot of the institutional landscape of Texas Baptists at the time.  Baylor was described as “close to the Baptist influence which was responsible for its founding” and that Baylor was “under general direction of the Baptist General Convention of Texas” (Russell, 1954, p. I-2).  Baylor was one of eight such institutions operated by the Texas Baptists, but the only one of university-caliber; deemed such because of its size, steady growth over the years since consolidating with Waco University, and its local and national prestige and influence.  Baylor was among the seven out of the eight that was considered a senior college, one of the five out of the eight that was accredited, and recognize as a leading non-public university in the south (Russell, 1954).  With its status so well renowned, Baylor was seen as a prime candidate for expansion.  Throughout the decade, Baptist General Convention of Texas deliberated on several other colleges as hosts for various curricular additions ranging from agriculture to engineering (Baptist General Convention of Texas Education Commission).    However, only Baylor was chosen for significant expansion, as it was the only institution able to support major financial and institutional change.

With the spotlight of the Texas Baptist academic community focused on Baylor and the arrival of new president W. R. White in the late 1940s, the stage was set for ambitious proposals to grow the academic credibility of the school.  Even before the official beginning of his tenure as president, White was in regular correspondence with prominent Baptist ministers and educators regarding a critical shortcoming perceived in the Baylor academia.  This shortcoming was the lack of a Graduate School at Baylor University; specifically, the need for the ability to grant the PH.D. degree.  By filling this gap, W. R. White hoped to provide avenues for Texas Baptists to gain the education they needed to teach in Baptist schools without going to secular institutions for their masters and doctoral work.  Having the ability to educate Christian scholars of national caliber would build legitimacy for Baylor as a whole and the Baptist cause.

Several accounts from these intermediate years showcase the concerns.  Charles Jonson, chairman of the Education Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote to Dr. White with notes on catalog offerings that would prepare for the offering of the PH.D. degree, adding, “many are interested, too, not only here at Baylor but throughout the South in a Baptist Graduate School where our outstanding future leaders in the field of scholarship may come for the PH.D. instead of having to go elsewhere as is the case now” (Johnson, 1948).  George S.  Anderson, trustee at nearby Baptist college Hardin-Simmons college and president of Reporter Publishing Company, expanded on the issue in his own letter to White:

It is a shame that we have to use key men in our schools that are not Baptist through and through.  Trained in Baptist Universities.  Where they get real Baptist doctrine.  Take a man who graduates from a Baptist school, put him in a State supported university for his PH.D. and he gets slants that he is liable to teach later that don’t carry out our views of what a Baptist should believe (Anderson, 1948).

Asa Pryor Hamrick, pastor of First Baptist Church, Teague, Texas, expressed his excitement for the new degree opportunities, claiming, “Old as I am, I’d like to be one of the first to enroll for it [the Ph.D.]” (Hamrick, 1948).  In his own words to a colleague, White expressed deep concern over the future of Baylor’s mission to serve Baptists in Texas, claiming, “we will need to have a strong graduate school at Baylor University.  The reason we have so much Communism and left-wing New Dealism is due to the fact that so many of our teachers must go to schools that are hot beds of these –isms for their graduate work.  All our schools are required to head their departments and have as many professors as possible with higher graduate degrees.  Otherwise, our work will not be recognized as standard and not accepted by the great institutions of the United States and Europe” (White, 1948).  These words by White serve to express the hope the administration had for gaining legitimacy through a robust graduate and doctoral program.  Educating Christian Baptists to the highest degrees possible by the institutions of the time would grant legitimacy for Baylor as a school and the Baptist denomination as an institution.

Baylor would begin its doctoral degree mission in 1950 by granting a small number of honorary PH.D. degrees to outstanding ministers and Baptist educators including Drs. Cartledge and Morgan, pastors of First Baptist Church of Cameron Texas and Dr. Tom Harrington, acting president of Texas A&M University (Corken, 1950; Russell, 1950).

These early steps provide insight into the mindset with which Dr. White approached his presidential term at Baylor University.  There was interest and support for expanded graduate programs aimed at training professors in the context of Baptist faith from congregation leaders across the state of Texas and Dr. White intended to respond.  The momentum gained from these conversations would drive Dr. White to champion academic expansion and curricular reform, spending time and resources on comprehensive assessment of the academic units in the university for the betterment of Baylor’s future.

Proposals for Improving Academic Legitimacy

By the early 1950s, Baylor’s fledgling Religion PH.D. program was no longer contained to hopeful discussions and honorary degrees.  The next four years would see proposals, institution-wide surveys, and intentional hiring decisions that set the stage for the realization of doctoral degree offerings from Baylor University.  Dr. White sought to expand the university’s academic legitimacy, bringing it up to speed with contemporary academia.  At the same time, he hoped to empower Baptist students in Texas and the south to seek higher education in support of the congregational mission.  Considering all of these factors, an obvious choice of program to expand with a doctoral program was Baylor’s Department of Religion.

With oversight from Dr. White, the School of Religion prepared a proposal with the intention of creating a PH.D. in Religion.  The proposal listed four goals as its purpose:

  1. To provide a degree in the field of Religion, which is not as specialized as the Th.D.
  2. To include in the course of study fields of thought related to Religion.
  3. To provide an opportunity to study in University Departments other than the Department of Religion in pursuance of the degree and provide an integrated program of courses in several departments of the university.
  4. To provide an accredited University Doctorate in the Field of Religion. (School of Religion).

An additional qualification was added for the 4th purpose providing insight into the rationale: “The PH.D. is often times more acceptable to accrediting agencies than the Th.D.  In some institutions a person might teach religion and also other courses in general history or philosophy.  This makes a university degree desirable” (School of Religion).  The department heads intended the degree to be relevant in a broad range of fields, with cross discipline courses that would prepare students for a wide range of work in the religious fields.  Suggested degree applicants included students who were interested in teaching, working in college and university pastorates, education directors, missionaries, journalists, and writers.  Through partnerships with the philosophy, history, and English departments, students would gain a well-rounded selection of courses.  This degree proposal mirrored the university’s commitment to academics: globally relevant, practical, and grounded in the goals of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (School of Religion).  The School of Religion filed the above-mentioned proposal in 1952; however, even with Dr. White’s blessings, there would be several more years of studies and surveys across the university before the plan was realized.  However, it is still noteworthy that the religion department was a cornerstone piece of the foundation that would become the established Baylor Graduate School that we know today.

In the summer of 1953, John Dale Russell, Executive Secretary of the Board of Educational Finance in New Mexico and consultant in the field of higher education, conducted a comprehensive survey of all aspects of Baylor University on behalf of the Financial Vice President.  This survey provided information on class sizes, facilities, and overall operational quality in addition to recommendations for next steps.  From the numbers revealed, many of Baylor’s departments were unaccredited by their major organizations and granted a relatively small number of degrees.  The survey called into question graduate programs that, at the time, were graduating one or two students per year, as seen in the image of the table below (Table 1).  These concerns give factual weight to Dr. White’s concerns for Baylor’s academic future and position relative to other institutions of higher education (Russell, 1954).

Table 1: Number of Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees awarded per year, 1948-1953. The Religion department is about 2/3s of the way down the page, granting 112 Bachelor’s Degrees in 1948-49. Source: Baylor Bulletin, Courtesy of the Baylor University Archives

A second noteworthy recommendation from the report called for the creation of an organized extension department.  This department would be responsible for distance courses, night and evening coursework, and provide authorization for college admission, S. S.  and T. U. awards, and certificates of Christian Training.  An industry standard at the time, extension services helped expand a school’s contributions to the local community.  This particular recommendation was addressed with surprising urgency.  By 1955, two years following the survey’s recommendation, a plan was in place for the creation of a Christian Training Extension Division, a department fully accredited within Baylor.  This program would hire Master’s level teachers and provide coursework in introductory level undergraduate courses as well as training certificates in Christian Training (Dallas Baptist Association Executive Board).

While the extension program suggestion from the Survey of Baylor University was quickly completed, goals including the expansion of the critically small graduate program would take more time.  By 1954, two years following the publishing of the aforementioned survey, the Baylor Religion Department hired Bernard Ramm, a published and well-known Baptist theologian, to create the foundational structure for a graduate program in religion.  During his four-year tenure with Baylor, he succeeded in bringing growth to the religion department by doubling the number of courses available and organizing the curriculum into three categories: Bible, Theology, and History (Pitts, 2015).  In Religion department’s graduate program alone, courses offered increased from 16 offerings to 35 in the four-year span (Baylor Bulletin 1950-1951, p. 59; Baylor Bulletin 1958-1959, p. 60).

Competing Forms of Legitimacy: National Competition vs.  Foundational Agency

While W. R. White was carrying out plans to build Baylor’s academic legitimacy in the national sphere, a parallel crusade for legitimacy in the eyes of the Baptist General Convention was taking place.  As was seen in the motivations for growing the doctoral programs above, legitimacy for Baylor included a commitment to its religious heritage.  Improving the quality of the religion department meant better leaders for the Christian cause.  Having a PH.D. program for religion at Baylor gave Texas Baptists legitimacy both nationally and within their congregations; in academia as a whole, Baylor was contributing scholarship, for the Baptists, Baylor was furthering their message.

The early and middle part of the decade was marked by incredible excitement for improving Baylor, laying the groundwork for future advancements.  Dr. White intended to bring Baylor up to par with national and global higher education institutions while cementing the legitimacy of Baptist education.  The remaining years of the decade would see many of these early plans realized through continued effort.  In the first five years of the decade, President White had recognized critical areas of improvement for Baylor.  Supported by Texas Baptist denominations, extensive survey and proposal data, and foundational steps for change, the second half of the decade was prime for advances in practicality and legitimacy of a Baylor education.

In 1958, Baylor hired a team of consultants for the winter and spring quarters; chief among them was Dr. J. M. Dawson, pastor of First Baptist Waco.  Their goal was to prepare course materials to supplement several Baylor courses across the Political Science, History, and Religion departmentsTying all of these courses to a religious core provided legitimacy to the importance placed on education by Baptists at the time.

By 1959, the landscape of the graduate programs had significantly changed since they were surveyed six years early.  The John Price Jones consulting company was commissioned to improve donation and development funding with “increasing emphasis on the quality of undergraduate and graduate studies” (Clem, 1960, p. 1).  In this same report, Baylor’s religion department was listed among the outstanding programs available at Baylor (Clem, 1960).  Additionally, the Dean of the University found that many graduate faculties had full or over-capacity course loads not counting the supervision of multiple master’s and doctor’s theses (Smith, 1959).  The religion department, at the core of Baylor’s academics, reflected these changes and demonstrated the growth of legitimacy in Baylor’s programs.

Dr. J. B. Adair joined the Religion faculty in August, 1959 as a consultant for the previous proposed doctoral program in religion.  Department Chair George Humphrey, in the same press release that Dr. Adair was announced, laid out a plan to develop a major in religious education to provide further options for training of Christian educators (Markham, 1959, August 30).  A few months later, in November of the same year, Humphrey announced his retirement.  He was credited with increasing faculty numbers, clarifying course requirements, improving academic standards, and broadening the curriculum of the Religion Department (Markham, 1959, November 24).

These new announcements demonstrated that change was happening at Baylor.  Considered one of the highest quality schools for Southern and Texas Baptist education, Baylor had made significant strides over the course of a decade to catch up to contemporary universities of the time.  The university’s success was showcased by academic Dean George Smith attending the 14th annual Association for Higher Education to discuss topics including the direction of curriculum and graduate studies at a national level (Markham, 1959, March 1).


            Baylor’s vision of an educated person in this era included an individual who had completed a degree that was recognized by greater academia, the higher the degree the better, but was also unapologetically Baptist.  Inspired by Dr. W. R. White’s desire for a more stable university dedicated to expanding higher education supported by the Baptist Christian tradition, Baylor saw substantial growth in accreditation, graduate programs, and academic legitimacy, especially in the religion department.  These advances were rooted in a commitment to serving the Texas Baptist community, on which Baylor was dependent for support.  The growth of the Religion Department’s graduate programs was evidence of a new commitment to options for Christian education that would directly benefit the denomination as a whole.  It was not enough to just learn academically, but to be educated, students had to apply knowledge practically and fulfill a vocational calling.  For these goals to occur, a more modern academic offering, including expanded degrees and graduate coursework, was necessary.


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