Although the Catholic Church was the established religion of Texas until March 1834, by the summer of 1820 Joseph L. Bays, a North Carolinian Baptist reared in Kentucky and a friend of Moses Austin, was preaching regularly in Texas. He was arrested in 1823 and escaped en route to San Antonio to stand trial. About that same time Freeman Smalley, an Ohio Baptist minister, entered Texas and apparently preached at old Pecan Point, near the site of present Clarksville. In 1825 Thomas Hanks, a Tennessee parson, delivered the first Baptist sermon west of the Brazos River, near San Felipe. Thomas J. Pilgrim traveled from New York in 1828 and established the first Baptist Sunday school in Texas. Mexican officials suppressed the venture, but Pilgrim resumed his efforts and worked to propagate Baptist Sunday schools in Texas until his death in 1877.
The Mexican government gave Texas settlers religious freedom in 1834. The first Baptist church in Texas was organized in Illinois in July 1833 and moved to Texas as a body, called the Pilgrim Church of Predestinarian Regular Baptists, in January 1834. It was led by the antimissionary Daniel Parker. Providence Church, founded in March 1834 twelve miles south of Bastrop, was the first Baptist congregation actually formed in Texas. Under the leadership of Zachariah N. Morrell, a major figure among early Texas Baptists, another congregation emerged in November 1837 at Washington-on-the-Brazos. In May 1838 the Union, or Old North, Church was organized four miles north of Nacogdoches, and in 1839 the Plum Grove Church began just south of Bastrop.
A bitter controversy from the divergent views of Parker and Morrell plagued these early congregations. Parker, a "Primitive" or "Hardshell" Baptist, objected to organized mission societies, Sunday schools, Bible societies, and seminaries as both unscriptural and a threat to congregational independence. Morrell, by contrast, applauded the cooperative ventures of locally autonomous congregations. Though intensely aggressive in the 1830s and 1840s, antimissionary Baptists steadily lost ground to Morrell, whose heirs forged the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1885, the largest Baptist body in Texas.
Texas Baptists have always been intensely evangelistic. Beginning in the 1840s they proselytized in the German communities of Central Texas. J. Frank Kiefer, a young German immigrant converted under the influence of Rufus C. Burleson, in turn made significant headway among the Germans in the 1860s.
Baptists educational and eleemosynary institutions have been important since the days of the Republic of Texas. William Milton Tryon and Robert E. B. Baylor convinced the republic to charter Baylor University at Independence on February 1, 1845. The university was consolidated with Waco University in 1885 and moved to Waco. By 1860 Baptists operated at least a dozen colleges, most of them for women and many of brief duration; by the turn of the twentieth century Baptist colleges were in operation in Waco, Brownwood, Abilene, Jacksboro, Decatur, Rusk, Greenville, Waller, and Belton. Baylor Theological Seminary was begun in Waco in 1905 and moved to Fort Worth in 1910 to become the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It has since become the largest seminary in the world.
Robert Cooke Buckner opened the Buckner Orphans Home (see BUCKNER BAPTIST CHILDREN'S HOME) at Dallas with three children in December 1879. A century later the Buckner Baptist Benevolences operated major facilities in Dallas, Lubbock, Beaumont, Burnet, and San Antonio and provided an array of services, such as adoption, resident child and foster care, assistance for unwed mothers, in-home mother's aid, family counseling, and retirement and nursing care. Along with James B. Cranfill and George W. Truett, Buckner also encouraged Baptists to build a hospital in Dallas; it opened in March 1904. Baptists in Houston established another in September 1907. Baptists currently provide medical care in Dallas, Beaumont, San Antonio, Abilene, Amarillo, Waco, and Harlingen.
On such specific social issues as racial discrimination and prohibition, Baptists have generally mirrored their environment. Texas was a slave state, and most Texas Baptists supported slavery and justified secession. After the Civil War, White churchgoers were divided over whether to allow Blacks in their congregations. In 1866, after a heated discussion, the Colorado Association voted to keep Black members, convinced they would succumb to error without "the superior intelligence of the Whites." While Whites debated, however, Blacks resolved the matter by withdrawing en masse from White-controlled congregations. The first Black Baptist church in Texas was organized at Galveston in 1865 with Israel S. Campbell as pastor. The next year the state's first Black Baptist association was formed. By 1890 Black Baptists totaled 111,138 statewide, and in 1916, 72 percent of the state's Black churchgoers were Baptists.
Baptists enthusiastically endorsed the Anti-Saloon League when it came to Texas in 1907. The league's presidents from 1907 to 1918 were prominent Baptist leaders: Benjamin F. Riley, 1907–09; Joel H. Gambrell, 1910–15; and Arthur J. Barton, 1915–18. Involvement in the prohibition crusade led to broader social awareness. In 1908 the Baptist General Convention of Texas concluded that the saloon was "so interlaced . . . into commerce, politics, society, and the . . . law" that the organization challenged Baptists to become politically active and socially alert. Texas Baptists, contrary to some opinion, took part in the social gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1915 the BGCT formed the Social Service Committee, which directed attention to conflicts between labor and capital, disputes between landowners and tenant farmers, and the need of prison and child-welfare reforms. The principal advocate of applied Christianity in these early years was Joseph Martin Dawson, longtime pastor of the First Baptist Church in Waco.
Though distracted in the 1920s by John Franklyn Norris, the flamboyant fundamentalist (see FUNDAMENTALISM) and pastor of the First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, socially concerned Baptists persevered, and in 1950 the BGCT formed the Christian Life Commission to attend to race relations, economic matters, family life, church and state relations, political involvement, and such public moral issues as alcoholism, gambling, and pornography. In 1961 the Mexican Baptist Convention of Texas and the BGCT were united.
When the Civil War began Baptists were a distant second to the Methodists. By 1906 the Baptist Church had become the largest church in Texas. In 1980 Baptists numbered approximately 4,500,000. The majority were Southern Baptists affiliated with the BGCT, whose membership totalled 2,600,000. The rest were divided among the American Baptist Association, American Baptist Churches of the U.S.A., the Baptist Missionary Association, the North American Baptist Conference, the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference, and various Black conventions. In 1994, despite an ongoing intramural struggle between fundamentalists and progressivists, Baptists continued their numerical lead in the state.