William Carey Crane, Baptist pastor, editor, and college president, was born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 17, 1816, the son of William and Lydia (Dorset) Crane. After receiving lessons from private teachers he attended Mount Pleasant Classical Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Virginia Baptist Seminary (now Richmond College). In 1833 he moved to New York and attended Hamilton Literary and Theological Institute and Madison (now Colgate) University. In 1834 he entered Columbian College (now George Washington University), from which he received an A.B. degree in 1836 and an A.M. in 1839. Crane taught in Georgia from 1837 to 1839 and was ordained to the Baptist ministry in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1838 at the age of twenty-two. During this period he married Alcesta Flora Galusha of Rochester, who died in 1840. In March 1839 he accepted a pastorate at Montgomery, Alabama, where he became acquainted with the family of Margaret Lea Houston. In Alabama Crane also met William Milton Tryon and James Huckins, who, together with Robert Emmett Bledsoe Baylor, later became the major organizers of Baylor University. Crane married Jane Louisa Wright, also of New York, in 1841. Three years after her death in 1842, he married Catharine Jane Shepherd of Mobile, Alabama. The couple had nine children, eight of whom lived to maturity. During the 1840s Crane held pastorates in various communities in Mississippi, including Columbus, Vicksburg, and Yazoo City. He served as president of Mississippi Female College (1851–57), Semple Broaddus College in Mississippi (1859–60), and Mount Lebanon College in Louisiana (1860–63). At Mount Lebanon he was also coeditor of the Mississippi Baptist. He was the cofounder and vice president of the Mississippi State Historical Society and for two years was the general agent of the American Tract Society. He also served as secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1851 to 1863 and as its vice president four times in the 1870s and 1880s.
In 1863 Crane moved to Texas to accept the pastorate of the First Baptist Church in Houston, but at the urging of supporters of Baylor University he visited Baylor at Independence and was offered the presidency of the university, effective January 1, 1864. He subsequently refused the pastorate of the Houston church and served as Baylor president for twenty-two years until his death in 1885. Crane's leadership and the expenditure of his own funds enabled Baylor to survive hard times during the Civil War and Reconstruction. During the last years of his presidency, Texas Baptists debated whether to merge Baylor and Waco universities. Crane and the Baylor "Old Guard" fought to keep the school at Independence, although it became obvious that a move was inevitable.
Crane served as pastor of the Independence Baptist Church for eighteen years (1864–67 and 1869–84) and was active in the Texas Baptist State Convention. He was a prolific author and wrote a classic biography of Sam Houston. Crane was the first president of the Texas State Teachers Association and was chairman of the committee that recommended the founding of Sam Houston Normal Institute (now Sam Houston State University). He was a leader in the reorganization of the Texas public school system after Reconstruction. In 1866 he was invited to address the Texas legislature and urged it to establish a graduate and professional school at Austin, where graduates of existing universities could pursue higher learning. He also served on the committee of teachers that drafted the resolution in favor of establishing a state university, but was absent at the vote and opposed the resolution. He favored state support of both public and private higher education, an idea strongly opposed by many of his fellow Baptists, but he believed state funds should be allocated to existing schools rather than spent on a state university that would undermine them.
Crane died on February 27, 1885; he was the first Baylor president to die in office. He was originally buried in Independence, but in 1937 the Texas Centennial Commission had his body reinterred in the State Cemetery at Austin. Crane County is named in his honor.