McMurry University, in Abilene, was founded by the Northwest Texas Conference of the Methodist Church and opened in 1923. It was named for Bishop William Fletcher McMurry. The founder of the college was James Winfred Hunt, a Methodist minister and former president of Stamford College. Hunt was unwilling to relinquish his dream of a West Texas Methodist college after Stamford College closed. He began to urge the establishment of a school in Abilene, where the Baptist Church had founded Simmons College and the Church of Christ had established Abilene Christian College. In 1920 the education board of the Northwest Texas Conference voted to establish a college in Abilene; Stamford residents put up a spirited fight to have the college located in their community instead. Abilene, however, offered money, land, free water, and streetcar connections. The conference ratified the education board's decision in the fall of 1920 and appointed Hunt commissioner of the new college; he set about raising funds. Citizens of Abilene raised $100,000, and three donated land. By November 1921 sufficient money had been raised, and the conference elected a board of trustees and named Hunt the school's first president. The college charter was signed on November 21, 1921.
McMurry College opened on September 20, 1923, with twenty-two faculty and staff members and 191 students. The first buildings were the administration building (still standing and known as Old Main) and a dormitory. The first senior class, of four students, graduated in 1926. The school was accredited as a senior college by the Texas Association of Colleges and the Educational Board of the Methodist Church in the same year. Though founded as a liberal arts college, McMurry added teacher training and business administration in its first decade. The fine arts division of the college began to offer degrees in 1928. The college has continued the pattern of liberal arts education with some vocational programs. It has served the Methodist Church by educating potential clergy and laity. The ties with the United Methodist Church have remained strong. Until Dr. Gordon Bennett assumed the presidency in 1958, all presidents had been Methodist ministers. The two owning conferences-Northwest Texas and New Mexico-provide most of the members of the board of trustees. The presidents of McMurry have been J. W. Hunt, 1923–34; O. P. Clark, 1934; Cluster Q. Smith, 1934–35; Thomas W. Brabham, 1935–38; Frank L. Turner, 1938–42; Harold G. Cooke, 1942–58; Gordon R. Bennett, 1958–70; and Thomas K. Kim, 1970–1993.
The college's existence was imperiled during the 1930s by the financial distress of the Great Depression. McMurry severely cut expenses, paid the faculty partial salaries, and survived by stringent economies and federal money from National Youth Administration and Work Projects Administration. The college had a difficult time in the 1940s also because so many of the male students left to serve in World War II. In the postwar years McMurry began to grow, along with Abilene. Enrollment increased, budgets stabilized, and more faculty with doctorates were hired. The college enjoyed a building boom in the 1950s and 1960s with the addition of classroom buildings, a library, science laboratories, an auditorium, and an administration building. The fine arts building, physical education center, and campus center were completed in the 1970s.
McMurry is one of the founding colleges of the Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association, a nonscholarship conference, which began competition in 1975. The college has five intercollegiate sports programs for men and four for women. McMurry operates a branch at Dyess Air Force Base that offers a full range of courses. McMurry has generally drawn its students from Abilene and the surrounding area; after the 1970s, however, students from larger metropolitan areas in Texas enrolled in increasing numbers. McMurry College was the first college in Abilene to admit black students, a change of the early 1960s. In the 1980s an increasing number of part-time, second-career students enrolled. Fewer than half of the students were Methodists, considerably fewer than in the early years of the school. In the fall of 1986 enrollment reached a twenty-four-year high of 1,703 students. The student body was 54 percent male and 46 percent female; the Dyess branch accounted for the larger number of male students. McMurry University had seventy-four faculty members and 1,522 students in the 1992–93 regular term, plus 835 in the 1992 summer session. In 1986 the college offered eight baccalaureate degrees and three associate degrees. Students could major in fine and applied arts, education, business, humanities, social sciences, science, or mathematics. In the 1980s McMurry joined Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene Christian University, and Hendrick Medical Center to form the Abilene Intercollegiate School of Nursing, which awards the bachelor of science in nursing degree. In 1990 McMurry College became McMurry University. McMurry is fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the Texas Education Agency, the National League for Nursing, the Texas State Board of Nurse Examiners, and the University Senate of the United Methodist Church. Its teacher-training and nursing programs are separately accredited. In the fall of 1998 McMurry University had an enrollment of 1,366 students and a full-time faculty of seventy-three. Robert E. Shimp was the president of the university in 2001.