Our History

A Proud Legacy

Elmhurst College traces its history back to 1871, when the German Evangelical Synod of the Northwest founded the Elmhurst Proseminary to prepare young men for theological seminary and to train teachers for parochial schools.

Fourteen students enrolled that first year. They studied music, mathematics, science, history, geography, religion, German and English—all disciplines that remain in the curriculum today—along with Latin and Greek. All courses, including English, were taught in German.

In 1924, the school formally took on the name Elmhurst College and began conferring the bachelor of arts degree. The first leader of the new four-year college was a 1912 alumnus, H. Richard Niebuhr, who went on to become one of the premier theologians of the 20th century.

Niebuhr, who envisioned Elmhurst as “an ever-widening circle,” undertook dramatic reforms. He built laboratories, hired a talented and progressive faculty, strengthened course offerings across the disciplines, and expanded library holdings.

The circle continued to expand in the post-Niebuhr years.

  • Women first enrolled in 1930.
  • In the early years of World War II, the College opened its doors to Japanese-American students who had been sent to relocation camps.
  • Evening classes for adult students were introduced in 1949, and the College’s first graduate students enrolled in 1998.

Over the years, the College has welcomed an extraordinary array of renowned speakers. In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel. Other speakers have included Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, writer Joyce Carol Oates, social activist Jesse Jackson and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Elmhurst College Today

As the College prepares to celebrate its sesquicentennial in 2021, U.S. News & World Report ranks it among the top 20 regional colleges in the Midwest as well as the region’s best values. Offering 60 majors and 15 graduate programs, Elmhurst College is deeply committed to helping students define their values, explore the world and prepare to reach their full potential—in college and in the world beyond.

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