Before the Texas Revolution, the official religion of the area was Roman Catholicism according to Spanish law. Landowners were required to espouse the Roman Catholic faith and many did so in order to obtain title to their land. However Protestant families moved to the area prior to and following the Texas Revolution. R. E. B. Baylor, a Baptist, came to Texas in late 1839. By then, there were already a number of Baptist families in Texas. After a couple of failed efforts, the Baptist Union Association was formed in the fall of 1840 and included churches from La Grange, Travis and Independence. Baylor was a circuit judge and was an ordained minister. By about 1845, there were hundreds of fellow Baptists in the area. Among other things, the Association had been concerned about education and formed an Education Society of which R. E. B. Baylor was selected to be President.
In early 1845, the society petitioned the Congress of the Republic of Texas to charter a school, largely through the efforts of Baylor and Rev. William M. Tryon. It is speculated that Baylor and Tryon likely collaborated on the actual drafting of the charter document, with Baylor likely being the author of the majority of it. Tryon had suggested that the institution be named for R. E. B. Baylor, over the judge’s objections. The charter was approved in January 1845 and named the first board of trustees including Baylor, Tryon and thirteen other individuals. Judge Baylor referred to the original trustees as “Instruments of Providence.”
The above painting (image credit baylor.edu) depicts Tryon, Baylor (standing at the end of the table), James Huckins, President Anson Jones, Texas Senate President Kenneth Anderson and Speaker of the House John Lewis on the occasion of the signing of the charter.
Tryon had come to Texas from New York as a representative of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. He settled near Washington-on-the-Brazos and served as the pastor of the church at Independence from 1841 to 1846. His dream was to see the establishment of an educational institution. He did indeed live to see the establishment of Baylor at Independence, but unfortunately, Tryon passed away shortly thereafter in 1847 as a result of a yellow fever epidemic.
R. E. B. Baylor had been born in Kentucky in 1793. He began his basic education at a country school and then studied law with an uncle. Baylor served in the Army in the War of 1812. He was elected to the Kentucky state legislature before moving to Alabama for a number of years. In Alabama, he served in the state legislature. He was also elected a U. S. representative. He joined the Baptist church while living in Talladega, Alabama and then moved to Texas in the fall of 1839. He was again active in politics, serving in the Texas Congress. Baylor was a delegate to the Texas Convention of 1845, called by President Anson Jones to consider the joint resolution of the United States Congress that proposed the annexation of the Republic of Texas to the United States. The convention met in July 1845 and voted 55 to 1 in favor of the proposal. Other delegates to the convention included Thomas J. Rusk, James P. Henderson, Isaac Van Zandt, Hardin R. Runnels and José Antonio Navarro. As a result of this action, Texas was admitted to the Union as the 28th state on December 29, 1845.
Following Texas statehood, Baylor served as a judge in the Texas Supreme Court and as a circuit judge. He was an avocational preacher around Washington County, traveling on horseback with his rifle in the sling of his saddle and his Bible stowed in a saddlebag. Judge Baylor would often hold court during the day and preach at night. The area was far from being secure and ministers of that day were known to preach with their pistols and rifles close by, in case the congregation were to be attacked.
European settlers had started in earnest around 1820, though in the 25 years that followed, conditions were still very much frontier-like. Save for their own communities, the settlers were somewhat isolated, since there were no major roads, no railroads nor other convenient means of communication. Higher education was still somewhat of a “hard sell” as in the 1840s, as many families were struggling just to get by. Nevertheless, the university at Independence and a few others around the state managed to gain a foothold.
Judge Baylor served on the Baylor University faculty at no salary and also served as a trustee for a number of years, at least though 1861. He was a long time Mason, as were many of the university presidents at least up through the 1980s, and was a member of the Gay Hill Lodge in Washington County. Judge Baylor never married although he came from a very large family, many of whom lived in Texas. The reason for his remaining single is unknown, although he was close to his extended family and was regarded as a deeply emotional man. He once witnessed his former childhood sweetheart and her fiancé be dragged to death by a horse, and it was something that he never got over.
He was a man of many “firsts” and is said to have preached the first sermon and held the first court in Waco. He is also credited with having contributed the first $1,000 to the university that bore his name. However, yet he became nearly destitute in his later years. Among his other difficulties, he was denied a U. S. veteran’s military pension upon the accusation that he was disloyal (to the Union) because he had served as a Texas judge during the Civil War. This was despite his having served in the War of 1812 and also in the Creek Indian troubles of 1836. U. S. veterans pensions were limited to Union veterans, but Baylor did not serve on either side during the Civil War, as he was already 70 years old by the time that the war began. Judge Baylor resided in Washington County until his death on January 6, 1874. He was initially interred on the old Baylor campus in Independence, Washington County, but in 1917 his remains were relocated to a place of honor on the Belton, Texas campus of Mary-Hardin Baylor, a sister school of Baylor University created in the late 1880s when Baylor relocated from to Waco from Independence.
On a lighter note, the judge may be the only such university founder to have an insect named after him. In the early 1970s, a Baylor associate professor, Dr. Julian F. Watkins II, collected an ant on the side of the Sid Richardson Science Building on the Waco campus. Dr. Watkins examined it and found that it was an “undescribed species” and so he named it neivamyrmex baylori in honor of the founder.
In 1936, the university selected the sculptor Pompeo Coppini to design and complete a statue of the judge. It was installed in 1939 and remains a centerpiece of Founder’s Mall on the campus.
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