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Duty and Doctrine: The Origin Story of Southwestern University

Part duty, part doctrine and all drama, Southwestern’s story of origin begins before Texas became a state. For many years—perhaps ever since another university 75 miles to the north opened its doors—questions about charter dates and legitimate claims to “first in Texas” have clouded the rich story of the beginning of Texas’ top undergraduate liberal arts and sciences university.

In 1872, the Texas Legislature officially recognized “…the Georgetown university as the successor to its four predecessors: Rutersville, Wesleyan, McKenzie, and Soule.”[1]; therefore, today Southwestern celebrates Feb. 5, 1840—the date Mirabeau B. Lamar, president of the Republic of Texas, granted the original charter to Rutersville College—as the foundation of the Southwestern Experience. From those humble beginnings on the frontier, the University and it’s founders have envisioned a place to engage the minds and transform the lives of those who seek to embrace the challenges and opportunities of the future.

In 2006, Southwestern Professor Emeritus of History William “Bill” Jones published To Survive and Excel: The Story of Southwestern University 1840–2000, a 600+ page tome on the history of Southwestern University.[2] More recently, in celebration of the 175th anniversary of that original charter, Milton Jordan ’62, summarized the University’s storied history for the Texas Historical Foundation in an article titled “Higher Education on the Texas Frontier” which follows in full.


“Higher Education on the Texas Frontier”

By Milton Jordan ’62

Almost from the day that Stephen F. Austin’s colony settled along the Brazos River in 1821, a variety of schools and colleges were planned for the new republic by different religious denominations.

Rutersville Catalog

Catalog information from Rutersville College. Lectures on Moral Science and Natural Philosophy were to be delivered by the President semiweekly before all students.

Rutersville College in the Fayette County settlement of Rutersville was the first religious affiliated school to gain recognition from the Republic of Texas. The college was named for Martin H. Ruter, the former president of Allegheny College in Pennsylvania and one of the first Methodist clergymen sent to the new republic. Ruter died before the college opened, but the Rev. Chauncey Richardson—another early Methodist minister in Texas—obtained a charter for Rutersville College signed by President Mirabeau B. Lamar on February 5, 1840.

The school enrolled 61 students in the first year, and that number grew to 100 the following year. In 1844, six students finished their studies. They were the first students to graduate from an institution of higher learning in Texas. From 1844 to 1856, Rutersville College awarded diplomas to 32 individuals, more than the total from all other colleges in Texas at that time. Although some in the Rutersville community sought to keep the institution going in one form or another, 1856 was its last year of existence.

In the years that Rutersville College existed, a Methodist effort to establish a university had come and gone in San Augustine. From early pre-Republic days through the first decades of statehood, San Augustine County was the scene of numerous and often violent feuds. Denominational conflict between Presbyterians and Methodists was often a factor in this violence. When the Wesleyans heard that the local Calvinists were planning to open San Augustine University, they quickly announced the founding of their own institution of higher learning.

Wesleyan University received a charter from the Republic of Texas signed by President Sam Houston on January 16, 1844, and the school was officially opened on March 1 of that year. But the competition between Presbyterians and Methodists, which had never been friendly, soon escalated into open, armed conflict. Each group for a time published rival newspapers in the small community. In August 1847, the editors of these competing papers, Presbyterian James Russell and Methodist Henry Kendall, fought a duel in the San Augustine streets. Neither was able to wound the other, but the following day Kendall shot and killed Russell. These events effectively brought an end to the effort to establish Wesleyan University in the East Texas city.

Methodist clergyman John Witherspoon Pettigrew McKenzie began classes in a small log structure attached to the side of his home.

Methodist clergyman John Witherspoon Pettigrew McKenzie began classes in a small log structure attached to the side of his home.

Even before these events, Methodist clergyman John Witherspoon Pettigrew McKenzie had begun a school on his plantation, Itinerant’s Retreat, near Clarksville in Red River County. In the fall of 1841, classes were held in a small log structure attached to the side of his home.

The school grew steadily, and by 1845, 63 students were enrolled in three departments−elementary, female, and college. Two years later, McKenzie College received a charter from the Texas State Legislature, probably in the name of McKenzie Institute. A second charter was granted to the school in 1853. By then, the campus had grown to four large buildings, and courses in Latin, Greek, moral and natural philosophy, chemistry, and math were offered, in addition to electives in music and modern languages.

In his study The Development of Education in Texas, Frederick Eby considered McKenzie College to be the most successful institution of higher education in the Southwest. The school had campus newspapers and journals, debating societies, musical groups, and other extracurricular activities similar to those in the East. By 1854, McKenzie had nearly 300 students taught by a faculty of nine—surely the largest school in the region. Students came not only from Texas, but also Arkansas, Louisiana, the Territories (now Oklahoma), and even Missouri. These years were the high water mark for McKenzie College.

The Civil War brought an end to that successful era. It emptied the school of male students, reduced the number of females enrolled, and severely depleted the faculty. Reverend McKenzie tried to keep the college going on a smaller scale through the war and for a few years after, but by the end of the decade, he had given up.

During the years of McKenzie’s greatest success, Methodists began another undertaking to establish a university more than 200 miles to the south. In the early 1850s, Chappell Hill was a growing community of mostly Methodist residents in Washington County. Leaders of the town were committed to establishing a university of the highest rank along the lower Brazos River. Their first step was to obtain a charter for Chappell Hill Male and Female Institute, which was granted in February 1852. In its inaugural years, though the governing board and leaders were Methodist, the institute had no denominational affiliation. In 1854, however, the children of Martin H. Ruter took over control of the Institute and began to formalize its Methodist connections.

Originally Chappell Hill Institute, Soule University was named for Bishop Joshua Soule, a leader of the southern branch of Methodism.

Originally Chappell Hill Institute, Soule University was named for Bishop Joshua Soule, a leader of the southern branch of Methodism.

Two of the Institute’s early presidents were brothers Philander S. and Alexander Ruter. Their sister Charlotta was one of the teachers. The siblings and the school’s trustees worked to gain the support of the Methodist Texas Annual Conference. In 1855, the Annual Conference gave up on the struggle to keep Rutersville College open and began an official relationship with Chappell Hill Institute. Working with some of the local administrators, the Conference reorganized the operation and named the newly formed school Soule University in honor of Bishop Joshua Soule, a leader of the southern branch of Methodism. The Texas Legislature granted Soule University a charter in February 1856.

Almost from the beginning, the school found itself facing multiple problems. The main building was always in need of repair. Other facilities and equipment were never completely adequate, and payment of the small faculty salaries was sometimes late. Then, as some stability seemed to develop in 1859 and 1860, the Civil War broke out. Soule University was able to survive the loss of students and faculty, but what little financial support they had dried up.

In the aftermath of the war, severe economic distress throughout the South made recovery nearly impossible. A yellow fever epidemic along the Texas coast and subsequent medical scares reduced the population. On more than one occasion, the university was forced to suspend operations entirely. Several faltering efforts were made to stabilize the situation, but with little success. At least three, perhaps five, persons were named as president or offered the position.

After twice turning down the proposition, Francis Asbury Mood accepted the presidency of Soule University and assumed his duties in November 1868. Following a year of mostly futile attempts to re-establish the school on a solid footing, Mood suggested to the board of trustees that they turn their energies toward a united undertaking by all Texas Methodists to form one new university for the Southwest. On October 4, 1869, this proposal was adopted by the trustees. The majority of the board likely expected the school to be located in Chappell Hill. The efforts that resulted, however, led to the opening of Southwestern University in Georgetown four years later.

Mood immediately began to travel across Texas to gain approval for his plan to form one central university. Because Texas now had five Methodist Conferences representing competing regions of the state, most thought his chance of success very small. He visited sessions in Henderson, Paris, Weatherford, Goliad, and LaGrange. After these arduous journeys, Mood received approval from all the conferences, establishing a Joint Education Convention involving delegates from each of the five regions. That group held its first meeting at Galveston in April 1870.

W. P. McKenzie was one of the early supporters of these efforts. As the dean of Texas educators and a highly regarded leader in North and East Texas, his support was essential to Mood’s success. McKenzie was an alternate delegate to the first session of the convention. At a later meeting in Waxahachie, he was a delegate and elected to preside. At that time, the Education Convention named the planned school Texas University and formed the Texas University Company in Corsicana in November 1871.

TUC elected F.A. Mood as regent (or president) of the school on December 21, 1872. He did not, though, resign his position at Soule until three months later. In the interim, between April 1871 and summer 1872, Mood sought out support for the new institution and considered proposals for its location from several Texas communities. Georgetown was one of these and may have already been Mood’s choice. The city’s proposal included the deed to a large two-story building designed as a school structure. Construction of the facility was already completed, and the community contributed additional property and gifts. The strength of this offer eventually enabled Mood to convince the Texas University Company to name Georgetown as the site in August 1872.

Texas University opened its doors to 32 young men in October 1873. They were instructed in that first term by three male faculty members, including Mood. The two-story building was adequate for this number, but the equipment, especially for science classes, was not, and the library was far short of satisfactory. However, Mood had laid the foundation for this institution. For two-and-a-half years, the school operated as Texas University. Though this founding name was used in the Company’s proposed charter as submitted to the State Legislature in 1872, that governing body sought to reserve that title for an anticipated state-supported institution. Therefore, legislative approval, which was granted on February 6, 1875, came with a name change to South Western (originally two words) University. In section seven of the new charter, the Legislature officially recognized the Georgetown university as the successor to its four predecessors: Rutersville, Wesleyan, McKenzie, and Soule.

During the interval between opening and gaining the charter, Southwestern University survived its birth pangs and began a period of stability and growth. Enrollment increased, the faculty grew in number, and the school was accepted across Texas (except possibly in Chappell Hill) as the central university for Methodism. Within 10 years, the teaching staff was increased to nine from the original three, a third story was added to the main building, and a Female Department was built on a site a few blocks to its west. Additionally, a home was purchased for President Mood and his family, freeing up space for the growing student body.

In one decade, Mood developed a unified educational effort among often competing Methodist factions and overcame attempts to derail the work and remove him from its leadership. His determination, though, likely caused irreparable damage to his health. He was often bed-ridden or at least homebound in the late 1870s and early 1880s. In November 1884, Mood died in Waco while attending one last Methodist Conference session. He was 54 years old.

[1]  Texas HERITAGE, Volume 4 2014, pp. 8-13. Texas Historical Foundation, www.texashistoricalfoundation.org
[2]  To Survive and Excel: The Story of Southwestern University 1840-2000, William B. Jones, Georgetown, Texas: CS Graphics, 2006

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  1. Kristina Moore

    Alumnus Milton Jordan ’62 sent the following letter to the editor:

    Thank you for including my essay on the Root Colleges and early years of Southwestern University in the Magazine. With Bill Jones’ TO SURVIVE AND EXCEL, which you mentioned, let me mention two other important sources for information on our history.
    1. Ralph W. Jones book SOUTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, 1840-1961, first published by Jenkins Publishing, Austin, 1973, reprinted in a special edition by the same press with a helpful index by Norman Spellmann.
    2. The Special Collections in Southwestern’s A. Frank Smith, Jr. Library Center has informative primary source files and numerous images on the four Root Colleges and Southwestern’s early years. Kathryn Stallard, Special Collections Librarian, and Doreen Prevost, Administrative Assistant, are very helpful in the use of this material.
    Along with Bill Jones book, these are essential sources for Southwestern history.
    Milton Jordan, Class of 1962

  2. Jim Croley


    Thanks for a great essay. It made the time line and characters easy to follow.

    Jim Croley
    Class of ’62

  3. Michael Alexander

    Thanks for publishing that fascinating story. The conflict between Methodists and Presbyterians sounds like the Shia/Sunni conflicts today, although on a smaller scale.

  4. Thank you for such a wonderful piece! I have always been a Texas history geek and am in the process of applying for membership in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, so this has a special timeliness for me. My Texas ancestors were Methodists (OK, so some of them were Baptists too … but I don’t think any of them were Presbyterians, haha) so I can envision some of them in the backgrounds of this story. (Southwestern Class of 1985)

  5. Ann Martens

    Very interesting article and I’m happy to report that my grandson William Lamar Devine – a sophomore is a direct descendant of Mirabeau B. Lamar so the Southwestern tradition continues.

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