King College began when the leaders of the Holston Presbytery in Northeast Tennessee set forth its vision in a declaration of purpose on April 9, 1866: "The presbytery is deeply impressed not only with the importance of establishing a classical school, but one of such high order as will greatly elevate the standard of classical and scientific instruction in East Tennessee, and which with such instruction, will combine that strict discipline and the thorough religious training that will fully develop the moral as well as the intellectual man."
The Reverend James King, a prominent landowner and Senior minister of the denomination in Northeastern Tennessee, came forward with a gift of land for a campus near the town of Bristol. The location, a rounded hill crowned with towering trees, was personally meaningful to King, for it was the site where he had made his own Christian commitment and to which he had been accustomed to retire with his Bible for personal meditation. King called it his "glory grove," and, in appreciation of the gift, Holston Presbytery voted to name the new institution King College in his honor.
A campaign among local citizens provided funds for the erection of a large three-story building, with a central Victorian tower, while the Reverend George A. Caldwell, minister of the Bristol Presbyterian Church, embarked on a campaign to develop a permanent endowment, soliciting donations from locations as far away as New York City as well as within Northeastern Tennessee. The Reverend James Doak Tadlock, a graduate of Princeton Seminary and a member of Holston Presbytery, was chosen as the founding president of the College, which matriculated its first students and began classes in August, 1867.
A man of faith and dedication, Tadlock had well-defined views as to the proper character of a collegiate education, believing it should conform to the strict classical model of the liberal arts set forth by Yale College. Course offerings were limited to the classical languages, mathematics, and science, but the instruction was thorough and demanding. Tadlock maintained close personal relationships with his students and inspired his young men to accept personal commitments to lives of service to their God and fellow men, and he encouraged the formation of student-led literary societies, in which the students honed their skills in public speaking and debate.
During the 18 years of his presidency, Tadlock produced only 63 graduates, but they went forth to make their mark in the world. From this number would come 40 ministers, seven of whom were missionaries in foreign lands. Ten became lawyers; another 10 were college professors, five becoming college presidents; three were editors of magazines and newspapers; and others went into business. More than 70 percent of Tadlock's alumni had graduate or professional training, and half were recipients of honorary degrees. Eight had national careers of such prominence they were chosen for inclusion in Who's Who in America. As one graduate would write later of his beloved president, "We were proud of him. The sacrifices we knew he was making to remain with the little college endeared him to us, and the fact that we had such a president made every man of us feel that King College out ranked any college in the land."
Tadlock's successors in the presidency broadened the curriculum and increased the range of course offerings but continued his emphasis upon developing young men who could provide both intellectual and moral leadership to their communities. By the early twentieth century, however, King College was facing new challenges and opportunities. The growth of the town of Bristol had transformed the rural environment of the campus into an urban setting of city blocks filled with houses and commercial buildings, and the advent of regional accrediting associations mandated uniform standards of quality. It was essential, then, that King should become an accredited institution.
The Reverend Tilden Scherer, who assumed the presidency of the institution in 1912, made these concerns the major goals of his administration. Fortunately he was to have the financial support of a number of business leaders in the city of Bristol, including Edward Washington King, who would be a steady and reliable benefactor for half a century.
Throughout the Southern mountains there were other Presbyterian leaders who were convinced the time had come for the church to assume a greater responsibility for humanitarian concerns in the Southern highlands. The result was the formation in 1915 of the Synod of Appalachia, encompassing Presbyterian congregations throughout Eastern Tennessee, Southwestern Virginia, Western North Carolina, and neighboring portions of West Virginia and Kentucky.
King was given official recognition as the synod's college and thereby gained that larger constituency which would be necessary to its future development. In the following year the Reverend Isaac S. Anderson, a member of the class of 1875 and a grandson of James King, offered a wooded tract of 60 acres east of Bristol as a new campus site. The College immediately launched a campaign to raise funds for buildings and, with the completion of Bristol Hall in 1917, moved to its new location in the fall term. Over the course of the next decade, six major buildings would be erected on the new campus.
King College also achieved national prominence for its prowess in athletics during this period. The College football team seemed unbeatable in the early years following World War I, and the highlight of its triumphs came in 1921 when the King College team defeated a North Carolina rival by 206 to 0, a record score which still stands in the annals of collegiate football as one of the highest ever won on the gridiron. The newspaper reporter covering the event wrote that the King team ran the ball with the ferocity of a "tornado" and thus was born the name that has ever since been applied to all the sports teams of the school: the King College Tornado.
In 1931, Stonewall Jackson College, a Presbyterian institution for women in Abingdon, Virginia, closed its doors, and King responded by becoming coeducational. When the Reverend Thomas P. Johnston assumed the presidency in 1935, he made financial stability his foremost goal. Gathering about him dedicated ecclesiastical and lay leaders throughout the Synod of Appalachia, he launched a comprehensive fund-raising drive that enlisted the united support of Presbyterians in the Southern mountains. Their efforts were remarkably successful, permitting the College to face the future with confidence.
The post-World War II years were a time of remarkable growth and achievement for King College. In March 1943, the Reverend Robert Todd Lapsley Liston assumed the presidency and began a twenty-five year tenure. Liston was determined that King must achieve in the fullest measure the academic distinction which had been the goal of its founders, and he turned to the task with vigor and bold determination.
Given strong support by a Board of Trustees whose leaders during this period included Dr. Huston St. Clair, James C. White, and Frank W. DeFriece, Jr., he made academic quality his first priority. New moneys were poured into faculty salaries, the library, and laboratory equipment, while Liston personally recruited bright high school graduates to fill the classrooms. Major campaigns were launched to build a larger permanent endowment fund. By 1948 King had won accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and by 1960 King was recognized in leading graduate and professional schools for the high academic quality of its alumni.
Initially Liston had concentrated his energies upon academic achievements, but he soon recognized the need for physical improvements to the College, and the 1960s decade witnessed a building program that transformed the appearance of the hilltop campus. A major campus plan completely redesigned the physical appearance of the school, and a grassy central lawn known as the "Oval" was developed, about which the chief academic buildings were placed. New roadways and college entrances were constructed, and during the decade Liston added five major buildings: the E. W. King Library/Administration Building, dormitories for men and women, an astronomical observatory, and the F. B. Kline Gymnasium.
The programs Liston had carried out were continued and expanded during the 1970s in the presidencies of Powell Alexander Fraser and the Reverend Roy Kinneer Patterson, Jr. The James C. White Building offered state-of-the-art facilities for scientific instruction and laboratory work in the natural sciences, and a new home for the College president was constructed. Athletic fields were upgraded, and renovations to existing facilities provided larger and better-equipped classrooms. The academic curriculum was broadened to meet changing curricular needs, with special emphasis given to pre-professional programs such as teacher preparation. In 1979, the College completed a transition in legal ownership. A new Board of Trustees assumed control of the institution, and King became an independent school. The Reverend Donald Rutherford Mitchell, who served as president from 1979 to 1989, led the faculty and trustees in a careful refinement of the College's statement of purpose, strengthening its emphasis upon the mission of King to bring together faith, learning, and living in an educational setting of academic challenge and Christian nurture.
Enrollment doubled during the early years of Mitchell's administration, and greater emphasis was placed upon the recruitment of international students. The increased enrollment necessitated construction of a new dining hall-student union, Maclellan Hall, an additional residence hall for women, and remodeling of the College chapel to increase its seating capacity. Mitchell's programs were given solid support by the Trustees under the leadership of Board Chairman Hugh O. Maclellan, Jr., whose unwavering dedication provided assurance of financial stability during this period of growth.
The presidencies of Charles E. Cauthen, Jr., and Richard J. Stanislaw from 1989 to 1997 built upon former achievements. Major campus renovations continued, with improvements in heating and air conditioning of buildings, and maintenance facilities were improved. President Cauthen was instrumental in establishing a campus-wide computer network, known as KingNet, which linked computing facilities throughout the campus to central academic and administrative systems.
Also at this time the Holston Associated Libraries was formed, which provided King with an electronic cataloging system that linked its library with those of other regional colleges, thus greatly expanding access to reference and research materials. During the administration of President Stanislaw the largest financial campaign in the history of the school, for $12.5 million dollars, was launched, coming to a successful conclusion in 1998 with an over-subscription of $15 million dollars.
In 1997, the Reverend Gregory Doty Jordan was elected president of King College, and his efforts have extended the work of his predecessors. Dr. Jordan and the Trustees undertook a year-long study, which resulted in the preparation of a comprehensive strategic plan for the future of King. The statement of purpose of the institution was clarified and made more explicit. Specific developments which have been undertaken since then include the redesign of the College's core curriculum, together with a totally new curricular calendar.
A nursing program was inaugurated after careful planning revealed the critical need for nurses in the years ahead. The Peeke School of Christian Mission was opened in the fall of 2001. The Center for Graduate and Professional Studies offered a total of four adult-oriented degree programs: Master of Business Administration, RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Bachelor of Business Administration, and Post- Baccalaureate Teacher Licensure. A new emphasis was placed upon providing an international focus for the College. The computing network was enhanced with the installation of fiber optic cabling in all dormitories and classrooms of the College, permitting a full range of facilities for transmitting audio-visual information.
Major changes were made to the appearance of the campus. The adjoining golf course, which had been leased for years, was appropriated for College use and redesigned for new athletic fields, a new campus gate and entrance to the College, and for the construction of additional buildings in the near future. A new athletic Student Center Complex was dedicated in December 2002. The new complex seats 1,200 for convocations and sporting events. In addition, it houses an indoor running track, a weight training room, exercise space, a hospitality room, and faculty offices for athletic personnel.
A campaign for $50 million dollars, well beyond any former goal in the institution's history, was completed. This campaign positioned the College to play a significant role of service and leadership in the 21st century with the promise to fulfill and carry forward the vision laid down by its founders more than 130 years before.
The Buechner Institute was founded at King College in 2007 in honor of writer and theologian Frederick Buechner. Through its thought-provoking lecture series, the Buechner Institute aims to address issues of faith and culture not only for the King community but for audiences throughout the region as well.
In July 2010, King College was formally accepted as an NCAA Division II member, a process the Board of Trustees and other members of the King community pursued for more than three years. The NCAA requires Division II members to be well-conducted intercollegiate athletic programs, based on sound educational principles and practices. A concern for the educational welfare of the participating student-athlete is a key element of the NCAA Division II members. King College was also granted admission into Conference Carolinas as the 13th institution to become a member and the only member located outside of North or South Carolina.
The athletic department moved 19 intercollegiate sports to the NCAA Division II ranks, baseball, softball, men's and women's basketball, men's and women's cross country, men's and women's golf, men's and women's soccer, men's and women's swimming, men's and women's tennis, men's and women's track and field, men's and women's volleyball, and men's wrestling. King also offers athletic opportunities in cycling, women's wrestling, cheerleading and dancing which are not sponsored by the NCAA.
During his tenure as president, Dr. Jordan has guided King’s transformation to a master’s level, comprehensive college, offering a large range of degree programs in arts and sciences, business, nursing, and education. As a result of his dedication to the College’s mission of improving economic and workforce development in the region, King has created eight Graduate and Professional Studies programs offering more than 11 locations from Richlands, Virginia to Knoxville, Tennessee.
Since 2005, the overall student body at King has more than doubled. Fall 2011 marked King’s 12thconsecutive year of record-breaking enrollment with 2,127 students registered, a nine percent increase over the fall 2010 semester.
During the summer of 2008, King became a wireless campus. Students, faculty and guests can take advantage of the wireless internet with their computers and/or cellular telephones.
In the fall of 2011, the School of Nursing officially began offering the Family Nurse Practitioner concentration as part of the Master of Science in Nursing degree. Recognizing the need for educational opportunities beyond the traditional brick-and-mortar options, King also now offers busy professionals an accessible way to earn a college degree through a convenient online learning format. In May 2011, King made both the Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) and Bachelor of Information Technology (BTech) available to students online. Beginning spring 2012, the Bachelor of Science in Nursing for Registered Nurses (RN-BSN) and Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees were added as an online option.
On June 1, 2013, King College became officially known as King University.
In 2014, the Rev. Dr. Richard A. Ray was elected interim president of King University. Alexander Whitaker became the 23rd president of King University in August, 2016.