East Texas Baptist University originated as the College of Marshall, chartered in 1912 as a result of the work of W. T. Tardy. The charter was amended later to conform to requirements of the Education Board of the Baptist General Convention. In 1913 Thurman C. Gardner became the first president of the college. The first building was completed in 1916, and the institution opened as a junior college in the summer of 1917. By action of the board of trustees on January 31, 1944, the name was changed to East Texas Baptist College and the institution was reorganized as a four-year school. In 1945 the first eight baccalaureate degrees were granted. In 1949 the plant consisted of seven buildings on a campus of 100 acres. Enrollment was 643.
In 1972 the school received accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools; it offered a program of teacher education as well as a four-year liberal-arts curriculum. Assets of the institution in 1965 stood at $5,388,664, which included $1,113,541 in endowment and annuity funds, in addition to a plant of eleven permanent buildings on a 100-acre campus. The operating budget was more than $900,000 in 1965. The library held more than 65,000 volumes in 1969. Student enrollment was 771 during the regular session of 1974–75. The Baptist General Convention approved organizing the college as a university in November 1982 and in 1984 renamed it East Texas Baptist University. ETBU is an undergraduate university with a background in liberal arts and Christian teaching.
In 2001 the school was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. It is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas and operated by a board of trustees. Past presidents include Frank Shelby Groner (1928–42) and Harvy Daniel Bruce (1942–60), the two executives with the longest tenure. In the fall of 1998 enrollment at the school was 1,221, and the president was Bob E. Riley.