The founder of McMurry University 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.
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 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. Until Dr. Gordon Bennett assumed the presidency in 1958, all presidents had been Methodist ministers.
The presidents of McMurry have been Dr. J. W. Hunt, 1923–34; Rev. O. P. Clark, 1934; Rev. Cluster Q. Smith, 1934–35; Dr. Thomas W. Brabham, 1935–38; Dr. Frank L. Turner, 1938–42; Dr. Harold G. Cooke, 1942–58; Dr. Gordon R. Bennett, 1958–70; Dr. Thomas K. Kim, 1970–1993; Dr. Robert E. Shimp, 1993-2002; Dr. Roy B. Shilling, 2002; Dr. John H. Russell, 2002-2013; Dr. Sandra S. Harper, 2013 to present.