Religious Diversity and the Presidency of Pat Neff

by Molly DePew

During the 1930s, Baylor University was a place of immense religious activity and participation. Students were often heavily involved in religious activities, clubs, and local churches, and nearly every document, newspaper, yearbook, and speech from this era had some reference to religion. Since its early beginnings, Baylor University was very closely tied to the Baptist church. This close tie was especially evident during the 1930s through Baylor University’s close working relationship with the Baptist General Convention and through the strong campus presence of the Baptist Student Union (B.S.U.).

Pat Morris Neff served as the president of Baylor University from 1932 until 1947. Pat Neff left a strong legacy at Baylor, and was highly respected by a majority of the students. Like the university itself, Neff had close ties to the Baptist church and worked closely with the Baptist General Convention.

Pat M. Neff, 1939 Photo Courtesy of Baylor Texas Collection
Pat M. Neff, 1939
Photo Courtesy of Baylor Texas Collection

During his presidency, Neff was highly influential in the religious life of Baylor University and its students. He made numerous changes to the chapel program and was outspoken about his religious views, especially concerning the evils of alcohol, smoking, and hazing. Despite his close ties to the Baptist church, Neff worked to make religiously diverse students feel comfortable at Baylor, and also encouraged students of various denominations to attend Baylor. He did this through inviting diverse people to speak in chapel and through reaching out to local churches of all denominations. However, despite Neff’s willingness and attempts to encourage religious diversity, the campus itself remained heavily Baptist and there were very few opportunities for students of other denominations to be involved on campus.

Religious Life at Baylor

Students at Baylor University during the 1930s were constantly exposed to religion. Life at Baylor was “essentially religious. Everything on her campus is here because of religious devotion” (Baylor Bulletin, 1939, p. 58). An example of the religious devotion of Baylor University was the requirement that all students attend chapel services (Baylor Bulletin, 1938). Chapel was held every day, although only freshmen were required to attend on Wednesdays. Chapel services were generally conducted by Pat Neff, but occasionally guest speakers, professors, or campus music groups were invited to lead the services.

Many students greatly appreciated chapel, and enjoyed the way it was conducted by Pat Neff (Baylor Century, 1939). Students particularly enjoyed the variety of programs and speeches conducted in chapel (Kraemer, 1935). However, according to a student in the mid-1930s, “The philosophy of going to Chapel is that we are there because we have to be there. We go because we prefer it to going home” (Kraemer, 1935, p. 3). Students also disliked the fact that there were seating rules separating the sexes (Baylor Century, 1939).

In addition to the chapel services, there were numerous other opportunities for students to get involved in the religious life on campus. There were many religious clubs available for students to join, although they were all managed by the B.S.U. The B.S.U. claimed to be “the connecting link between the campus and the Church” (Round-Up, 1932, p. 81). Membership in the B.S.U. was based on membership in one of the religious organizations under the B.S.U. Therefore, the B.S.U. was the biggest student organization on campus.

Baptist Student Union Council, 1932 Photo Courtesy of Baylor Texas Collection
Baptist Student Union Council, 1932
Photo Courtesy of Baylor Texas Collection

The B.S.U. was led by the Baptist Student Union Council. The council was made up largely of the presidents from each religious club on campus. Some of the requirements of being on the council included membership in a local church, attending meetings each week, and “BE A BAPTIST [sic]” (Qualifications, c. 1934-1938). From that information, it can be assumed that the presidents of all of the religious clubs at Baylor were Baptist, although that is not directly stated.

There were numerous religious clubs under the umbrella of the B.S.U., which was considered “the executive organ and clearing house” of all religious clubs on campus (Baylor Bulletin, 1935, p. 48). The Ministerial Alliance, the Volunteer Band, and several Sunday school classes were the most popular of these clubs. The purpose of the Volunteer Band was to “spread interest in foreign mission work” (Round-Up, 1931, p. 139). Members of the Band held a daily prayer meeting, raised funds for foreign missionaries, and put on plays to teach their classmates about missions. The B.S.U. also partnered with several local Baptist churches to have Bible studies and Sunday school opportunities on campus. In 1934, there were approximately 450 students who participated in Sunday school classes at Baylor (B.S.U. Report, 1934).

The B.S.U. also held a yearly revival on campus. In 1934, the revival was held in January, and was considered “one of the most inspiring in recent years” (Round-Up, 1934, p. 119). The revivals were generally led by popular pastors of local Baptist churches. According to the B.S.U., the messages preached at the revivals “succeeded in touching the very depths of student problems…and every student without exception gave his hand to the minister in a seal of rededication of himself to a better Christian life” (Round-Up, 1934, p. 119). The purpose of these revival meetings was to create an opportunity “for the winning of those that are unsaved and for the further enlistment of the saved in definite religious service” (Baylor Bulletin, 1939, p. 59).

Students were also expected to attend local churches on Sunday mornings. According to the Baylor Bulletin (1935), “Every young woman is expected to attend Sunday school and church service at least once on Sunday. All are urged to identify themselves with organized religious work of the student body” (p. 48).

The religious aspects of Baylor University were not simply relegated to chapel, religious organizations, and local churches. It was expected that there would be a connection between religion and academics, as well. According to one student, “Religion is the “plus” in Dean Allen’s oft repeated statement that Baylor stands for “education plus” (Round-Up, 1933, p. 164). These details make it clear that religion was an incredibly important aspect of life at Baylor University. However, Baylor’s dedication to religion does not necessarily show that they had a strong commitment to religious diversity.

Religious Diversity at Baylor

Before examining the attempts made by Pat Neff to promote religious diversity, it is important to know and understand the number of religiously diverse students at Baylor during the 1930s. A 1931 issue of the Baylor Lariat provides statistics that were collected by the B.S.U. They claimed that the summer class was composed of students who attended nine different churches, and a few who were not affiliated with a church (Daily Lariat, 1931). In addition, there were three students who claimed not to be Christians. According to their records, 305 students were Baptist, 86 were Methodist, 24 were Christian, 23 were Presbyterian, seven were Episcopalian, one was Lutheran, and one was Jewish. Although this information is about a small group of summer students, these statistics seem to fit well with additional sources from the 1930s, such as reports from the B.S.U.

The B.S.U. filled out monthly reports that were submitted to the Department of Southern Baptist Student Work. These reports ask for various statistics related to the student body. In the September report from 1934, the B.S.U. claimed that there were 1006 Baptist students enrolled at Baylor University (B.S.U. Monthly Report, 1934). The Daily Lariat (1934) from that same month mentions that total enrollment at Baylor was 1552 students. From that information, it can then be calculated that there were approximately 546 non-Baptist students at Baylor in 1934. If these statistics are correct, it would mean that over a third of Baylor students were not Baptist. The report also mentioned that there were 30 “unsaved students”, and that there had been three conversions that month and one “change of faith”.  These statistics show that Baylor University was heavily dominated by Baptist students during the 1930s. However, there were quite a few students who were affiliated with other denominations, and even several students who claimed to be “unsaved”.

Treatment of Religiously Diverse Students

Through the examination of numerous discussions of chapel during the 1930s, there is no reason to believe that the Baptist students were concerned by the exposure to the ideas and speakers of different denominations. There is also no reason to believe that non-Baptist students were treated badly by their Baptist peers. However, non-Baptist students were heavily restricted in their ability to participate in religious clubs on campus. All of the clubs were under the umbrella of the B.S.U., and were generally led by Baptist leaders. Students who were not Baptist, but were members of a different denomination, had very few options for involvement on campus. Many of these students were active members in their local churches.

There were also several “unsaved” students at Baylor during the 1930s. In looking through the monthly reports of the B.S.U., it is easy to imagine that the non-Christian students at Baylor felt very targeted. The B.S.U. not only kept a record of how many unsaved students were at Baylor, but they also recorded how many conversions had taken place that month. They also created a plan of evangelism, which included the student revival, personal contact, and faculty interviews with unsaved students (B.S.U. Monthly Report, 1934). The fact that there was an organization at Baylor so focused on converting the non-Christian students makes it easy to assume that the few non-Christian students at Baylor often experienced the evangelism techniques of their classmates. This information is necessary to keep in mind when examining the efforts of Pat Neff to nurture a religiously and denominationally diverse university.

Pat Neff and Religious Diversity

Pat Neff was well liked by the Baylor community, and was generally viewed as a strong president. However, he also served as a spiritual leader for the campus community. In the middle of his presidency, Neff submitted a report to the Baptist General Convention of Texas (Neff, 1938) claiming, “It is the unanimous verdict of those who have been for years closely connected with Baylor University that the religious spirit of the institution is at this time at its highest level” (p. 1). The religious fervor at Baylor was largely due to the influence and efforts of Neff.

In a note to Baylor students, Pat Neff wrote, “Baylor University is the oldest institution in Texas that combines these two great forces, religion and education, in the making of a citizenship [sic]…The highest objective of the University is to make men and women Texans all, worthy to live and to serve in the affairs of both church and state” (Round-Up, 1939, p. 9). Neff made numerous changes and contributions to Baylor University in an attempt to make this goal a reality.

Neff also worked to cultivate a sense of denominational diversity on campus. One way that Neff attempted to do this was through the utilization of chapel services. For Neff, chapel was a way to unify the various elements of Baylor University. He hoped that it would inspire students to create worthy objectives for their futures (Baylor Century, 1939). According to one student, “We find the president faced with the problem of bringing to the student body things that will satisfy curiosity, tickle the intellect, and claim attention of those who are not directly interested in the things that he is presenting” (My Interpretation, c. 1935-1937, p. 3). Neff faced the immense challenge of keeping the entire population of students interested in chapel services, whether they were Baptist or not.

During the 1930s, there were numerous chapel services that could be considered diverse. A March 27 chapel service from the mid-1930s attempted to utilize new technology to interest the students. According to Galen H. Bushey, a student at Baylor who wrote summaries of numerous chapel services during the 1930s, “This morning the talking pictures were presented for the first time in the Waco Hall” (Bushey, c. 1935-1937, p.1). The students seemed to truly enjoy that chapel service. Another service was led by “Henry, that puzzling magician” (Bushey, c. 1935-1937), and was a favorite chapel of many students. Both of these chapel services represent a way that Pat Neff created variety in chapel services in order to interest more students.

Neff also invited a variety of speakers to lead chapel services. One service was conducted in Spanish, and in the following chapel, Latin American Day was celebrated. The Mexican consul of Dallas led the celebration of Latin American Day (April 14). Mr. Yonan Shahbaz, a native of Persia, led another chapel service. In another service, “Two Indian chiefs in Baylor at the present time, Dan Tilden and Oscar Pete, gave the program” (Bushey, c. 1935-1937, p. 1). There was even a chapel service that was led by a “roaming traveler from New Zealand” (Bushey, c. 1935-1937).

Although these are not necessarily examples of religious diversity, it is still very important to note that a significant number of chapel speakers during the 1930s were not outwardly Baptist. There was a wide variety of preaching in chapel, and some of the more diverse services may have been directed at non-Baptist students. According to Finnis Shockler (c. 1935-1937), a student during the mid-1930s, “One must not jump to the conclusion that everything about Baylor chapel is already made perfect by any means. It is impossible to please all with any one program” (p. 3). Neff had to balance the diverse chapel speakers with traditional Baptist preachers who would resonate more closely with Baptist students, who made up a significant majority of the student population.

Neff invited many local Baptist preachers to speak in chapel services, as well as other Baptist leaders from Texas, and many Baylor professors. Quite often, Neff himself would lead chapel services. Generally, those services consisted of preaching directly from the Bible. Neff also occasionally publically disciplined students during chapel. During one chapel service, “three students were indefinitely suspended from the university, for kidnapping and transferring the sophomore president from the city” (Bushey, c. 1935-1937). In another service, Neff suspended three students “in order to tone up the university” (Bushey, c. 1935-1937). Neff also utilized the chapel pulpit to occasionally preach on the dangers of alcohol and smoking (Bushey, c. 1935-1937).

Pat Neff and Local Churches

In addition to chapel services, Neff’s views on denominational diversity can be interpreted by observing his interaction with local churches of numerous denominations. In both 1932 and 1935, Neff reached out to a majority of local pastors of churches in Waco. The letters written to and from Neff show his respect for various denominations, his desire to work closely with a variety of denominations, and his wish to attract numerous students to Baylor University.

In 1932, Neff sent representatives of Baylor University to every church in Waco, except for the Evangelical Lutheran church, as they only allowed ordained Evangelical Lutheran pastors to preach (Neff, c. 1932-1935). In 1935, representatives visited seven Baptist churches, two Methodist churches, one Presbyterian church, a Lutheran church, a Seventh Day Adventist church, and a Jewish synagogue. The representatives were asked to speak about the importance of “denominational education” (Neff, c. 1932-1935). Neff’s correspondence with the church leaders demonstrates marked respect for their religious work in Waco. The pastor of Herring Avenue Methodist Church, in his response to Neff, mentioned that “our church has had for several years a number of young people in Baylor and that gives us a direct contact that engenders a most wholesome and friendly interest” (Herring, 1935).

Among the letters written to and from local pastors was a list of topics for the representatives of Baylor to mention during their sermons. This list offers a glimpse into Neff’s views on other denominations. He asked that the representatives mention Baylor’s superb athletics and the fact that Baylor was the oldest educational institution in Texas. The representatives were also to say, “Baylor University is a Baptist institution, loyal to the great brotherhood that fosters it. Yet, in the best tradition of its founders, Baylor welcomes all men and women of good will who come to seek what it has to give” (Neff, c. 1932-1935). Neff desired that Baylor would be a university that was attractive to students of all denominations, but still loyal to the Baptist church.

Although Neff made efforts to embrace other denominations, Baylor remained heavily Baptist during the 1930s. Neff was in a very difficult position as the president of Baylor University. He had to satisfy the Baptist church, Baptist students, and Baptist alumni. He did this through working closely with the Baptist General Convention and through favoring Baptist speakers over other denominations. An example of this is the 1938 Baccalaureate service, where only Baptist preachers participated in the service. However, Neff also tried to make Baylor appealing to other students, especially students of other denominations. Neff did this largely through a wide variety of chapel services. Neff also reached out to local pastors of all denominations and formed close ties with them. In these ways, Neff was attempting to make Baylor more attractive to a diverse group of students.


During the 1930s, Baylor remained very dedicated to its Baptist roots. A strong majority of its students were Baptist, and the Baptist Student Union controlled all religious groups on campus. Pat Neff attempted to create a balance between the Baptist students at Baylor and students of other denominations. He worked to appease these students through diverse chapel services. He also worked closely with local pastors of many denominations, in order to advance the cause of “denominational education”.

In these ways, Neff attempted to placate non-Baptist students and to persuade non-Baptists to attend Baylor. However, fostering religious diversity does not appear to have been a priority for Neff or Baylor University in the 1930s. Baylor remained heavily Baptist, and there were still very few opportunities for students of other denominations to be involved in the religious life on campus.


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