A forerunner of Baylor University, Waco University served as one of the earliest and most influential institutions of higher learning following the founding of Waco Village in 1849.
When Waco incorporated in 1856, Baptists already held a significant presence in the small town. Seeking to establish a preparatory school for the provision of education for young Baptist men, First Baptist congregants banded together with the Trinity River Baptist Association in 1856 to create Trinity River Male High School, later called Trinity River Classical School. The small school held its first classes in 1857 in temporary quarters at First Baptist Church on Fourth Street. Hoping to expand the reach of the school, trustees purchased a 7 ½-acre tract of land south of the city plat between Fifth and Sixth Streets in 1859. With assistance from the local community, the school constructed two large brick buildings.
The year 1860 brought a series of new changes to the school, beginning with the formation of Waco Baptist Association, a voluntary group of nine Baptist churches organized to provide support to the local Baptist community. Taking control of the school from Trinity River Baptist Association, the Waco group renamed the institution Waco Classical School.
In 1861 a bitter dispute at Baylor University, still located in Independence, concerning teaching methodology and a coeducational dance brought former and future Baylor president Rufus Burleson and four new faculty members to Waco Classical School. Following the resignation of school head John C. West, trustees offered Burleson the presidency. Burleson adjusted the scope of the school and in September of that same year, it reopened as all-male Waco University.
Tuition at the Waco school ranged from ten to twenty dollars throughout the university’s years of operation, although the children of poor ministers and young men in training to become preachers often received their education for free. Budgetary concerns, a constant concern for the short-lived university, were underscored by large numbers of young men enrolling in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Enrollment increased and coursework expanded at the university in the years following the Civil War, aided by the addition of a female department in 1866. Although one of the first coeducational universities in the nation, classes remained segregated by gender.
The growing Waco school soon began to compete with Baylor University for students and the two universities, supported by separate Baptist associations, coexisted for several years. However, the growth of Waco, bolstered by the recent arrival of the railway, signaled the gradual decline of Baylor in Independence. When the general and state associations which supported the two universities consolidated to form The Baptist General Convention of Texas, it was decided to consolidate Waco University and Baylor University in Waco, utilizing Baylor’s name.
Waco University held its last classes in the spring of 1886, although Baylor retained many of the university’s policies, course offerings, and faculty for many years after the consolidation. As the Baylor campus expanded, the former Waco University structure was transitioned into a dormitory, and later phased out completely.
Today, Waco University’s contribution to educational life in the city is lived out through the operations of Baylor University.