Three small antebellum Presbyterian schools in Texas—Ewing College (founded in 1848), Chapel Hill College (1849), and Larissa College (1855)—were the antecedents of Trinity University. After they failed during the Civil War, Cumberland Presbyterians began in 1866 to make plans to establish a single institution of higher learning in Texas. Trinity University opened on September 23, 1869, in Tehuacana. As early as 1888 the question of transferring the university to a large and more advantageous location was discussed, but it was not until 1902 that Trinity was moved to Waxahachie, where it remained for four decades. While there, Trinity became a member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and began to accept graduates of the defunct Fairemont Female Seminary at Weatherford as alumnae. On February 25, 1942, the Synod of Texas voted to accept an invitation of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce to move Trinity University to the city of the Alamo. In order to facilitate the move, the Southwest Texas Conference of the Methodist Church and the board of trustees of the University of San Antonio transferred the property of the University of San Antonio without restriction to the board of trustees of Trinity University. All credits and degrees given by the University of San Antonio and its predecessors, San Antonio Female College and Westmoorland College, were acknowledged by Trinity University, which likewise accepted their former students as alumni.
In February 1945 Trinity obtained an attractive new site of more than 100 acres on the north side of San Antonio. Construction was begun in 1950, and on May 13, 1952, the university officially moved to its new skyline campus overlooking the city. On this site, once a rock quarry and later intended for a public park, consultant William Wurster of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and architect O'Neil Ford designed a campus that gained international recognition. Howard Taubman, who described Ford in the New York Times as "the region's most imaginative . . . architect," praised the appearance of Trinity University, declaring that its bell tower "would be a credit to an Italian hill town," and lauding the chapel for its "soaring simplicity" and the main dining hall for its "lofty, sedate quality." Over a thirty-year period, more than forty buildings have been constructed on the 107-acre campus; the physical plant was worth some $150 million in the mid-1980s. Financial resources for construction have often come from well-known Texas foundations, and buildings that bear such names as William L. Moody, Jr., and Sid W. Richardson testify to their origin. The Chapman Graduate Center memorializes Mr. and Mrs. P. A. Chapman, and the James A. and Leta M. Chapman Charitable Trust has provided the largest portion of the university's endowment. The auditorium is named in honor of the two-decade administration of James Woodin Laurie, under whose leadership most of the campus was constructed. Trinity served a full century as "the college of the Synod of Texas," first of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and, after 1906, of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. One hundred years after its founding, in 1969, the university and the synod adopted a covenant that dissolved the legal ties between the two. Although an independent university, Trinity maintains its pursuit of its original purpose, and the church renders reciprocal allegiance.
The institution is managed and controlled by a self-perpetuating board of trustees, thirty-six in number. The official Statement of Institutional Purpose declares: "Trinity believes that its destiny lies in remaining a relatively small university in the liberal arts tradition, with a balance among the humanities, fine arts, social sciences, and natural sciences, and with the inclusion of limited and carefully selected professional programs which meet the needs of its constituency." While Trinity holds fast to its independent status in an environment of academic freedom, it continues to emphasize the values and ideals of its Christian heritage. The requirement that entering freshmen present SAT scores in the 1960s and the establishment of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter a decade later, during the presidency of Duncan Wimpress, represented significant academic progress. Before 1979 such national media attention as Trinity had received focused on either its championship tennis team or its architecture, but the arrival of President Ronald Calgaard in 1979 signaled a new emphasis on academic achievement. In 1985 a faculty of 229 served some 2,400 undergraduate and 500 graduate students. In 1990–91 the enrollment was 2,538, and the faculty numbered 234; ten years later those figures were 2,622 and 205 respectively. At that time, the university offered undergraduate degrees in thirty-four areas of study and master's degrees in five. Trinity is accredited by the Commission on Colleges and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. John R. Brazil became the seventeenth president of the university in 1999.