Religion at Baylor 1931-1940

More than eighty years after the original founding of Baylor College, Baylor University in the 1930s remained steadfast in its fundamentally Baptist roots as an institution of higher education. The denominational heritage of the university manifested itself on the campus in a number of ways central to the student experience following the Great Depression. Most noticeably, the student publications, organization, and administrative practices of President Pat Neff point to the pervasive presence of the Baptist influence in everyday life at Baylor.

In his book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, James K.A. 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.

During his tenure as Baylor’s president, Neff attempted to create a balance between the Baptist students at Baylor and students of other denominations. He worked 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 very few opportunities for students of other denominations to be involved in the religious life on campus.

Pat Neff, as a prominent figure in Baylor history, is remembered for rescuing the University from the financial turmoil of the Depression. However, close evaluation of Neff’s presidency reveals a more accurate truth about Neff the man. He no doubt had a positive impact on the university as a whole, but he also used his office to enforce some questionable policies. Neff used religion at Baylor as a means of keeping order over students and encouraging the religious community to give charitably.

The Baptist Student Union (BSU), a student-led organization emphasizing and forwarding Baptist interests on campus, grew in size and influence during the 1930s. As the threat of war grew across the Atlantic Ocean, the BSU mobilized the Baylor student body to become active in the college student peace movement that stretched across the United States and around the world. Supporting peace was presented as the responsibility of any institution that claimed the distinction of being “Christian” and was therefore a religious obligation. Baylor institutionally supported this stance in its allowing the peace movement to organize and mobilize on campus in the years leading up to World War I.

Under the leadership of Pat Neff and the steering of the BSU, religion flourished on the Baylor University campus in the 1930s. However, that flourishing did not extend beyond the Baptist denomination and its influence on campus. The influence of religion was felt pervasively in the moral direction and leadership of Neff and the campus-wide attitude of religious pacifism in the face of what would be the second great war.


The Drums of War: Baylor and the Global Peace Movement in the 1930s

(by Lisa Perry)

The “Invisible in a University”: An Exegetical Exploration of Student Religious and Spiritual Experiences at Baylor from 1931-1940 

(by Megan Lamb)

Religious Diversity and the Presidency of Pat Neff

(by Molly DePew)

“Saint” Neff: Christian Leadership in Higher Education

(by Pierce Shivers)

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