Abilene Christian University opened on September 11, 1906, with twenty-five students. The school was founded by A. B. Barrett and named Childers Classical Institute, after J. W. Childers, who sold the board five acres and a large house at a reduced rate for a campus. During the first six years the college had four presidents: Allen Booker Barret (1906–08), H. C. Darden (1908–09), R. L. Whiteside (1909–11), and Alonzo B. Cox (1911–12). In 1912 Jesse Parker Sewell, an energetic young preacher who had originally come from Tennessee to West Texas because of tuberculosis, accepted the presidency. He served from 1912 to 1924 and solidified the school. Batsell B. Baxter was the next president, from 1924 to 1932. During his administration the college grew steadily. The institution was officially renamed Abilene Christian College on April 16, 1920, though from the beginning it had been known as the Christian College or the Abilene Christian College. In February 1976 the name of the institution was again officially changed, this time to Abilene Christian University.
The college was originally beside the railroad tracks in what was then the west part of Abilene. The 5½-acre campus became 6½ acres, and several good buildings were erected. By the 1920s the board of trustees saw that the growing institution would have to have additional land. They bought 680 acres of open ranchland on the northeast edge of Abilene and received some additional acreage by donation. They set aside a tract of land for a campus and subdivided the remainder of the property into residential and commercial lots. In 1928 and 1929 eight new buildings were erected, and in the fall of 1929 the twenty-fourth session opened on the new campus. To finance the move the trustees voted bonds totalling $500,000. The crash of 1929 impeded sales of the bonds, and lots that had been sold were turned back to the college by buyers who were no longer able to pay for them. Abilene Christian College was faced with possible foreclosure. But in 1934 John G. Hardin and his wife, benefactors from Burkburnett, gave the college good securities that retired the entire debt. This one act put the institution on a sound footing.
Since its founding, Abilene Christian University has been governed by a board of trustees composed of members of the Church of Christ. Its principal support and the majority of its students have always come from that church. Many of its benefactors, however, have not been affiliated with the Church of Christ; the ACU student body includes members of many faiths.
In its earlier years the college was referred to as an ungraded educational institution; that is, classes were offered at all levels from elementary through junior college level. A student could enroll in one course at the high school level and another at the college level and receive credit for both. In 1912 the institution officially became a junior college. Senior college status was attained in 1919, and the graduate school was added in 1953.
In 1940 Don H. Morris was elected president. He was the first alumnus of the school to assume that post. During his tenure of twenty-nine years a trio of long-time administrators headed the institution. Walter H. Adams was dean for thirty-seven years, and Lawrence L. Smith was business manager for forty-one years. Great growth came to the college after World War II. Within a short time enrollment jumped from about 500 to 3,000. Great efforts had to be made to acquire a faculty and physical plant adequate to the students' needs.
For the first forty-five years the institution was unaccredited. Its graduates were admitted to outstanding graduate and professional schools, but frequently their admission was conditional. In 1951 full accreditation was granted by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
The university has from its beginning been primarily a liberal arts institution with a strong emphasis on biblical studies. At the same time, it has been noted for its offerings in education and teacher training and for its programs in the sciences and preprofessional studies. In 1944 ACC became the first church-related college in the Southwest to open an agriculture department, which included a 225-acre experimental farm. In 1988, in addition to the graduate school, ACU comprised five colleges: liberal and fine arts, natural and applied sciences, professional studies, business administration, and biblical studies. Nursing education was provided through a dual degree program offered in conjunction with the Abilene School of Nursing.
In addition to membership in the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, ACU is accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the American Chemical Society, the American Industrial Arts Association, the National Association of Schools of Music, the Council on Social Work Education, the Texas State Board of Nurse Examiners, and the National League for Nursing. Royce Money became the tenth president of ACU in 1991. In 1998 ACU had 4,643 students hailing from fifty states and forty foreign nations on its 208-acre campus.