Bethel University was founded in 1842 in McLemoresville, Tenn., as Bethel Seminary operating under the fostering care of West Tennessee Synod of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Bethel College was granted a charter by the State of Tennessee in 1847 and operated as Bethel College until 2009 when its trustees voted to change its name to Bethel University.
Reuben Burrow was Bethel’s first president. He served for 20 years, during which time he also served as fundraiser, member of the Board of Visitors, head of the Theology Department, and teacher.
The Civil War brought hard times for Bethel and for McLemoresville. When the war was over, Bethel had lost its endowment leaving little hope for a bright future. The Rev. Mr. B.W. McDonnald led the successful attempt to reopen Bethel in 1865, allowing for the first time women to attend the school.
In 1872, Bethel President W.W. Hendrix led the initiative to move Bethel from McLemoresville to nearby McKenzie, the crossroad of the N.C. & St. L. and the L. & N. Railways. This is the school’s current location.
In 1906, nine of ten Cumberland Presbyterian Schools were closed because of harsh economic times leaving Bethel College as the sole Cumberland Presbyterian school. To this day, it is still referred to as the Cumberland Presbyterian school.
During the 20th century Bethel College made a name for itself as a solid church-affiliated school that produced many graduates headed for the clergy, for the classroom as educators and for many other career paths. Bethel had lean enrollment years and very prosperous ones as well with enrollment rising to around 800 in the 1960s and leveling off in the late 70s to around 500 students. The early 1990s were difficult years for the school with enrollment dipping to as little as 300 students. Innovative programs like Bethel’s Success Adult Degree program and the IBM Thinkpad Laptop initiative bolstered new prospects for Bethel, and enrollment began to rise as a result.
The Success program gave adults who wanted to go back to school the opportunity to continue working and go to school one night a week to earn a bachelor’s degree. Bethel was one of the first schools to provide such a learning platform. Bethel was also the first college in Tennessee to offer a laptop initiative – where each full-time student would be provided with a laptop computer.
Since that time, other innovations have spurred a steady and consistent growth. The Renaissance Performing Arts Experience was developed and offered performing arts students scholarships patterned the same as athletics. This broadened the base of prospective students as did the introduction of a number of non-traditional athletics programs including inline roller hockey, bowling and bass fishing just to name a few. Master’s degree programs including a master of arts in education, a master of science in physician assistant studies, a master of business administration and a master of arts in conflict resolution have been added through the years as have options in learning platforms for the master’s degree where students can choose to learn face-to-face in the classroom, online or even via both platforms.
In 2009, the Bethel Board of Trustees voted unanimously to change Bethel College’s name to Bethel University to best reflect the momentum the school was experiencing. Three colleges currently operate under the Bethel University umbrella: The College of Arts and Sciences; The College of Professional Studies; and The College of Health Sciences.
In 2016, there are 47 courses of study across all colleges at Bethel University, and enrollment is approximately 7,600. In addition to its main campus in McKenzie, Tenn., Bethel University has satellite campuses across Tennessee in Memphis, Nashville, Clarksville, Jackson, Paris, and Chattanooga.