The Invisible In a University: An Exegetical Exploration of Student Religious and Spiritual Experience at Baylor from 1931-1940

Throughout the developing ethos of higher education in America, a particular emphasis has been placed on the holistic development of college students.  This attention to the whole student is evident in the programmatic and curricular efforts put forth to shape individuals who will learn, lead, and serve the world, society, and in Christian institutions, the Kingdom of God, with discernment and fervor.  Such an ideology of university purpose was indispensable to Baylor University President Pat Morris Neff.  Baylor’s archives hold multiple handwritten and typed copies of a speech Neff tediously edited and refined, entitled “The Invisible in a University.”  Neff writes,

A university does not consist merely of lands, libraries and laboratories.  More important than brick and mortar is the spirit of an institution.  The best part of a college is invisible…the thing of superlative importance about any institution is its atmosphere!  The atmosphere of a college like the atmosphere of the earth should be a mixture of life-giving components.  A university should be permeated and environed with an atmosphere that stimulates and inspires. (Neff)

What Neff alludes to is the deeply formative nature of the collegiate experience.  Neff recognized that classes, books, location, living environments, events, and organizations all shaped college students into the adults they would become, and Neff espoused a vision for Baylor students as one of both intellectual and religious development.   Indeed, he argued that, “The educational institution that makes no provision for the spiritual development of man, overlooks one of the most important things in education” (Neff).  In a cultural exegesis exploring both the vision of Neff for Baylor students through his various writings and speeches, as well as examining the espoused values of Baylor University through publications, student organizations, ritual events, and practices, a vibrant liturgy of Baptist discipleship and formation comes to life in the period of 1931-1940.

Cathedrals of Learning: The Atmosphere of Baylor

The idea of an institution’s “atmosphere” or, perhaps the other experiential elements of a university experience, is central to the formation a student will experience at a university, beyond one’s vocational path or course of study.  In his book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, James K.A. Smith writes, “The university remains a charged religious institution not (only) because of the epistemic conditions that undergird knowledge and research, but (also) because the university is a formative, liturgical institution, animated by rituals and liturgies that constitute a pedagogy of desire” (Smith, 2009, p.112).  Smith refers to universities as “cathedrals of learning,” and posits this because “the Cathedral testifies to the material conditions for formation, for the pursuit of the university’s telos, and is the incubator for the practices that will shape students into a certain kind of people” (Smith, 2009, p. 113).  Neff understood this, and went so far as to contend, “[The university] should pulsate with intellectual health and religious thinking.  What is taught in a university is not as important as the atmosphere in which it is taught” (Neff).  Neff went to great ends to ensure that the Baylor “atmosphere” was grounded in religious vitality.

Baylor Publications on Espoused Religious Beliefs

Under the “Religious and Moral Influences” section of the Baylor Bulletin in the 1930s, it is continually reiterated that, “Our comfortable and attractive surroundings, combined with the general atmosphere of Baylor, and our high standards are conducive to a harmonious development of the individual.  These influences, unusual in boarding schools, are a source of much happiness and profit to the students (Baylor University, 1932, p. 44).  The chapel programs, course offerings, student organizations, and church engagement opportunities promoted on Baylor’s campus bring to life the vision of Baylor’s spirit consistently championed in campus publications: “making lives through the medium of all-round education, developing body, mind, and spirit, while contending for the highest scholarship” (Baylor University, 1938, p. 24).  The Baylor Bulletins of the 1930s reliably maintained sections detailing Baylor’s spirit, atmosphere, and purpose, and well as its religious and moral influences, in addition to the staple elements of religious activities and general chapel requirements.  This is notable because the articulation of a vision and credo for Baylor University as a Christian institution was of paramount importance to Baylor’s identity.  This sense of Christian mission at Baylor permeating the campus culture, as Baylor sought to set itself apart in the educating and equipping of Christian students.

Baylor Student Religious Organizations, Rituals, and Practices

Smith brought two sets of questions to his cultural exegesis of a university: “(1) What telos does it glorify?  What way of life or vision of the good life does it foster?  What does the university want us to love? (2) What are the rituals and practices that constitute the…liturgy of the university?” (Smith, 2009, p. 114)  Both informal and formal rituals and practices are key conduits of an institution’s ethos.  At Baylor in the 1930s, rituals often took the form of annual or weekly events, held by the university or student organizations.  Student organizations and church groups constituted much of the religious and spiritual programming at Baylor, as well as university-led programs such as daily chapels and Baylor Religious Hour.  Baylor Religious Hour, often called BRH, met on Wednesdays from 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and offered “an hour of quiet devotion and inspiration to all who choose to attend” (Baylor University, 1938, p. 76).  The Baptist Student Union was the largest student organization on Baylor’s campus in the 1930s, with membership composed of students who had membership in either religious organizations on the campus or in Baylor churches (Daniel, 1931, p. 138).  It also encompassed the Sunday School Classes, the BYPU’s Ministers’ Group, Mission Volunteers, and the Soulwinners’ Group (Daniel, 1931).  The Baptist Student Union Council promoted their calendar for the academic year, which included freshman orientation, the All-Southern Baptist Student Conference, the annual campus revival led by Southern Baptist Convention President Dr. L.R. Scarborough, various revivals in campus churches, Sunday School and BYPU training schools, a campus-wide Mission Study Class, Vocational Emphasis Week, Evangelistic Week, and a Student Retreat to Ridgecrest, North Carolina (Daniel, 1931).  Students took on a strong sense of ownership in leading and orchestrating student organizations and events; by 1937, the annual campus revival was held by students themselves, rather than abiding by the tradition of having a visiting minister host the event (Armstrong & Gurley, 1937, p. 60).

Courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University
Courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University

A number of other religious student organizations populated the campus terrain.  The Baylor Volunteer Band raised awareness and funds for foreign missions, and hosted a daily prayer meeting (Daniel, 1931).  The Fidelis Bible Class, in association with First Baptist Church, claimed to be “one of the largest college women’s classes to be found anywhere in America” and had committees for benevolence, social, room, extension, music, religion, personal service, and transportation.  Beyond business meetings, they also held social activities, class activities, and weekly Bible lessons (Daniel, 1931).  A joint venture for men was the Century Baraca Class of First Baptist Church.  Seventh and James Church also offered similar Baylor student organizations; the Fidelis Class for women, and the Berean Class for males.  The Fidelis page asserted that, “the religious phase of college life is outstanding in Baylor” (Daniel, 1931, p. 142).  The Seventh and James Church BYPU Department had a strong emphasis on religious training for students and planned for the development of an extensive training school, and the First Baptist Church BYPU also offered a medley of opportunities for students to engage in programs and social activities.

Campus publications made it evident that students were expected to engage in such organizations and activities.  In the Baylor Bulletin, the clear articulation is that, “Every young woman is expected to attend Bible school and church service at least once on Sunday.  All are urged to identify themselves with the organized religious work of the student body” (Baylor University, 1932, p. 44).  Baylor also sponsored a Ministerial Association and had conjoined efforts with the YWA, Volunteer Band, Gaston SS Class, Baylor Bible Class, and the SMU Council, to name a few (Daniel, 1931, p. 316).  The religious student organizations at Baylor emphasized a balance of religious training and evangelism with fellowship and socializing.  Collaboration between Baylor students and local churches was celebrated in the pages of the Baylor Round Ups and other campus publications.  These joint efforts were vividly portrayed in the various outreaches and missions conducted locally and abroad.  This took on a variety of forms.  Locally, weekly Sunday services were held across Waco, ranging from the Country Farm to locations such as the Old Ladies Home, the county jail, and various street corners.  Programs, mostly orchestrated by the Volunteer Band, were also held in various churches and communities throughout central Texas (Baylor University, 1932, p. 45).  Baylor also sponsored work at the Mexican Mission and the Working Boys’ Club, and supported an array of missionary efforts.

Chapel and Student Reflections on Spiritual Formation at Baylor

Chapel at Baylor in the 1930s was paramount.  Every absence from chapel resulted in a certain number of  “marks,” and once a student reached 22 marks, they were placed on probation; at 25 marks for a given quarter, they could be suspended indefinitely (Baylor University, 1932, p. 56).  Students were required to daily attend chapel in Waco Hall to listen to various speakers, except for on Wednesdays, which was a chapel service specifically for freshmen (Baylor University, 1938).  The chapel program was meant to “serve as the tie that binds all the varied aspects of Baylor life into the one spirit that the world knows so well” and its purpose to “combine academic excellence with Christian ideals, [which] has resulted in an army of Christian leaders now serving in a worldwide ministry” (Baylor Chapel, 1930).  More than a mere obligation to check off the list of daily expectations, chapel was, for alumni Harry Provence, “a varied program of inspirational and entertaining material” (Armstrong & Gurley, 1937, p. 64).

In his essay entitled, “The Chapel Hour: What It Meant to Me,” Provence went on to argue that there were few Baylor students who would honestly contend that they “received no benefit or pleasure from the Chapel services” (Armstrong & Gurley, 1937, p. 64).  Chapel was a well-received ritual program at Baylor, entrenched in the strong vision of holistically developing Christian women and men.  It seems to have had a lasting impact as well.  Provence writes, “In light of testimony from ex-students of Baylor who have long since passed from the campus scene, the Chapel services are remembered by graduates and former students far more vividly, far more readily, and with more genuine satisfaction than is any other aspect of Baylor life” (Armstrong & Gurley, 1937, p. 65).  Alumna Edna Boothe Mitchell writes of her chapel memories, “From the daily devotions, the inspirational music, the common-sense lectures of the chapel hour, Baylor’s family altar (and may it never be discontinued), [students] absorb, often unconsciously, lofty ideals and deep appreciations that stay with them through life” (Armstrong & Gurley, 1937, p. 60).  Provence, in reflecting on his personal experiences at Baylor, further asserts, “in my own experience, the daily Chapel period has had a stronger tendency to deepen and broaden my own life than any other single phase of Baylor’s touch upon me…I think that the Chapel hour can be characterized as perhaps the most vital part of Baylor’s influence upon the students” (Armstrong & Gurley, 1937, p. 65). Ritualistic attendance at chapel services proved to be a valued and fond experience.

Pat Neff, in his speech entitled “The Invisible in a University”, reminisces, “I have long since forgotten at least four-fifths of the things I learned out of books as a student in Baylor, but I breathed in out of the atmosphere lessons of life that will not be forgotten until memory’s tablets have been forever broken” (Neff).  Alumni recollections in the Baylor Bulletin Alumni Number speak to a similar sentiment, offering tributes to their spiritual growth while at Baylor.  Alumna Edna Boothe Mitchell further writes,

I doubt if there is a school in all the land where one will find a better balance of these necessary things plus the additional and pungent emphasis squarely placed on character and soul growth, on the ability to sift values and preserve only those most worthwhile- the genuine things. (Armstrong & Gurley, 1937, pp. 59-60)

The deeply engrained prominence of Christian spiritual formation and preparation for a life of Christian service, evident in campus rituals such as chapel programs, evidently contributed to the lasting spiritual development of students in the 1930’s.

Baylor’s Enduring Christian Identity

In the Baylor Century of December 1938, Southern Baptist Convention President Dr. L.R. Scarborough’s Christmas wish for Baylor concluded with this admonition:

Baylor must build more and must have a greater endowment, but with it all it must stay Christian.  More than evangelical, it must stay evangelistic.  I wish the administration to continue to have courage and conviction in the maintenance of the high standards of character and conduct, and that a persistent effort on the part of administration and faculty and student body to hold Baylor to the highest standards of Christianity and spirituality, compassionate missions and world-wide constructiveness for the Kingdom of Christ will be kept up.  Unless our Christian schools stay Christian, there is no reason why we should have them.  Their contribution is educational and evangelistically Christian.  May God bless all those that love Baylor. (Scarborough, 1938, p. 19)

This strong evangelical pulse permeated student activity and translated from course and chapel requirements to voluntary student participation in religious organizations and churches.  By the end of the 1930’s, Baylor boasts that it had, “hundreds of students training for Christian vocations; educated more ministers and other church workers than any other Baptist university; [and]…educated one out of seven Southern Baptist missionaries since 1845” (Baylor Chapel, 1930s).  Moreover, Baylor supplied the Southern Baptist convention with approximately 18% of its staff for foreign missions, and Baylor sent more students to seminary than any other American university (Baylor Chapel, 1930).  Campus publications reinforce the religious and evangelical culture of student life and student organizations.  Central to the telos of Baylor University in the 1930’s is a clearly articulate mission: “The highest purpose of Baylor University is to develop men and women of Christian culture and character” (Baylor University, 1938, p. 24).  The formative experiences of Baylor, exemplified through the writings of Neff, campus publications, student religious organizations, and Christian rituals and practices on campus, give shape to the atmosphere of Baylor during the 1930’s.  This atmosphere was most assuredly an “incubator for the practices that will shape students into a certain kind of people”- a kind of people who embody Christian culture and character (Smith, 2009, p. 113).


Armstrong, A.J., & Gurley, N.W. (Ed.). (1937). “Alumni Number”.  Baylor University Bulletin.  Waco, TX: Baylor University.

Baylor Chapel. (1930).  “For God, For Country, For the World”. [pamphlet].  Vertical file, The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Baylor University. (1932).  Baylor University Bulletin.  Waco, TX: Baylor University.

Baylor University (1938).  Baylor University Bulletin.  Waco, TX: Baylor University.

Daniel, P. (Ed.). (1931). The Round-Up 1931. Jefferson City, MO: The Senior Classes [of] Baylor University, Waco-Dallas; Hugh-Stephens Printing Co.

Neff, P. (1932).  “The Invisible in a University”. [Speech].  Pat Neff Series V (Box #15, Folder #5).  The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Scarborough, L.R. (December 1938).  The Century.  Waco, TX: Baylor University.

Smith, J.K.A. (2009).  Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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