The Early Years
By 1906 when the University of Texas was twenty-three years old, four churches–the Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Christian–had established meeting places near the campus just north of the downtown area of Austin, Texas. A Baptist church in the University neighborhood had long been the dream of several members of the First Baptist Church. In the spring of 1907, interested persons held meetings to discuss how to make that dream become reality.
The group decided to buy a lot for a church at the corner of Twenty-first and Guadalupe streets, at the southwest perimeter of the campus. Lack of funds thwarted the effort, but this setback did not deter these determined Baptists. In the fall of 1907, the First Baptist Church organized a separate Sunday school for University students. In January of the following year, FBC reached agreement with the Highland Presbyterian Church, located on Nueces between Twenty-second and Twenty-third Streets, to rent space in that church’s building on Sundays and Wednesdays for UT-area Baptist students and professors to meet for Bible study and worship.
Soon, about forty Baptists began preparing to organize a separate church. This they accomplished on Sunday, September 27, 1908, with eighty charter members, sixty-five of whom were from the First Baptist Church. They continued, for the time being, to worship in the Presbyterian facilities.
The first deacons included the dean of UT’s law school and a professor in the University’s English Department. The women of the church organized a Ladies’ Aid and Missionary Society, with the widow of UT’s first president as leader.
At first, local ministers and visitors filled the pulpit, but UBC soon called its first pastor, the Rev. C. C. Pugh, of College Park, Georgia. He served from March 6, 1909, until 1912. He was succeeded by the Rev. Charles S. Pearce in 1913.
The next three years witnessed growth in numbers and ministry at the young church. By 1915, there were 369 members of the church, which the previous year had absorbed the members of the defunct Central Baptist Church. At about this time the Presbyterians moved out of their building, selling it to UBC for $3,750.00. In 1915 the Baptist General Convention of Texas endorsed a movement to found a Bible Chair near the University to offer college-credit Bible courses to university students. It was the first such Baptist Bible chair at a publicly-supported college or university in the South (perhaps the nation). It began classes in 1919. In that same year, the first Baptist Student Union in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention was organized at UBC. BSUs, which serve Southern Baptist college and university students (now under a different name), soon existed on campuses throughout the South.
This growth in numbers and ministries put a severe strain on the church’s small church plant. As a result, the church purchased lots at the corner of Twenty-second and Guadalupe Streets in 1916 for a new, spacious home for UBC. The church hired as architect Albert Kelsey of Philadelphia. Kelsey, an Episcopalian, first met with the building committee on December 14, 1916, in the YMCA building across 22nd Street on Guadalupe. A lay leader urged the architect “to remember that water is an important element in our service.” Kelsey took that charge seriously and made the baptistry the center of architectural interest.
The church Kelsey designed was in the Spanish Colonial Revival style to complement the architecture of the university buildings across the street. The sanctuary was designed to seat 1,100 worshipers. The architect envisioned it as a “Baptist cathedral for Texas.” He hoped that Guadalupe Street would be known for the beauty of the University Baptist Church and that the building would be known for its baptistry. (For more about the architectural features of the sanctuary and other church [including photographs], see House of the Lord by Carlyle B. Joy, member, deacon, and unofficial photographer of UBC.)
A Very Brief Look at Subsequent UBC History
By the decade of the 1930s, between 300 and 400 University of Texas students were attending Sunday school and worship at UBC on a regular basis. Its growth in various ministries had made University Baptist one of the leading churches in Austin. The latter ’30s was probably the time of UBC’s largest active membership and highest attendance in Bible study and worship.
In 1943, Dr. Blake Smith, the UBC pastor with the longest tenure to date, began his ministry with the church. He remained the church’s senior minister until his retirement in 1969. During the early years of Dr. Smith’s pastorate, the church continued to grow. The sanctuary was often filled with worshipers on Sunday mornings, most of them UT students. Dr. Smith soon became known as one of the nation’s outstanding preachers.
In the late 1940s, Dr. Smith led UBC to begin welcoming African Americans to the church, first to worship, soon as members. Many church members resisted this then almost unheard of attitude and practice among Southern Baptist churches, and some left the church. The pastor and a core of lay leaders, however, believed that UBC was doing the right thing and stuck by their position. The Austin Baptist Association was so scandalized by UBC’s stance that it expelled the church from the organization. Eventually the ABA rescinded the action.
In 1948 UBC entered into partnership with the Baptist General Convention of Texas to provide space on the church’s property for the UT Baptist Student. This resulted in the construction of the Student Building immediately behind the Sanctuary Building. The church and the BSU shared the facility to the mutual benefit of both for many years. Eventually, however, some Baptists in Austin came to believe that UBC and the BSU were too closely related. This led to the latter organization moving to other quarters and UBC’s purchasing the BGCT’s share of the building’s ownership.
In the latter years of Dr. Smith’s ministry, membership began to decline, as many students now had their own cars, and more and more of them no longer lived on or near the University campus. Also, the area to the south, west, and north of the church property was fast losing its traditional residential character.
In the 1970s, under Dr. Gerald Mann’s leadership as pastor, the church became one of the first in the Southern Baptist Convention to ordain women as deacons. As had happened earlier, some members objected and left the church. God continued to bless UBC, however, with new members, including many families.
By the latter part of the decade, the church faced crisis once again. Dr. Mann urged that UBC sell its property and move into an area to the west of Lake Austin, where it would seek to minister to the suburban population that was rapidly filling that part of Greater Austin. Many church members agreed to the proposal, but many others did not. After a vote in 1979 showed that a majority of the members believed that the church should remain where it was and continue its ministry to University students (as well as to others), Dr. Mann resigned and founded River Bend Church. More than 100 active members joined him in the new venture.
This split in the membership was a difficult time for UBC. The coming of Dr. John Shouse as pastor in 1980 and the prayers and faithfulness of the members who remained began a process of healing, renewed confidence, and growth in membership and ministries.
The late 1980s brought our current pastor, Dr. Larry Bethune, to UBC. Under his leadership, we have become an even more inclusive congregation and one that seeks to minister to the mission needs of the inner city of which UBC is a part, as well as to students and the community at large. Several specific ministries have been inaugurated to provide food, shelter, and other necessities for the homeless and others who have special physical, emotional, and spiritual needs .
Recent years have also seen changes in UBC’s ties with other Baptist bodies. During the decade of the ’90s, UBC became affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the American Baptist Churches of the USA. In the fall of 1995, the Austin Baptist Association again expelled UBC, this time for ordaining a gay man as a deacon in 1994. In the fall of 1997 the church voted to disaffiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention because of ramifications of the fundamentalist takeover of that organization. UBC’s welcoming of homosexuals led, in February of 1998, to the Executive Board of the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ action to stop receiving mission funds from UBC and to request that the church remove mention of its affiliation with the BGCT from its publicity. In 2001 the church disaffiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship after that organization had taken an official position not to expend funds for organizations or causes that condoned or affirmed homosexual practices. UBC’s acceptance of homosexuals in the worship, work, and fellowship of the church has cost additional members but has also attracted others to take a stand with the congregation by becoming members. The church’s primary denominational affiliation is now with the American Baptist Churches of the USA.
The history of the University Baptist Church of Austin illustrates that God indeed moves in mysterious (some might even say, at times, mischievous) ways to accomplish God’s will. In only a few more years, Austin’s Progressive Voice of Faith since 1908 will be celebrating its centennial of worship and ministry in the capital city of Texas.
The pastors of UBC
C. C. Pugh
Charles S. Pearce
Charles E. Maddry
A. L. Aulick
Walter H. McKenzie
John W. Shouse
(1987 to the present)
This history is based on materials in the Archives of the University Baptist Church of Austin. The author is grateful to Carl Joy, UBC member, for his excellent research on the subject. It filled in some important gaps.
– Roger A. Griffin, Ph.D., Professor of History Emeritus at Austin Community College & UBC Member