Our History

In 1829 our founders brought an enterprising vision to the prairie and changed the face of education in the region. Presbyterian missionary Rev. John H. Ellis drew the attention of Congregational students at Yale University with plans for the College, prompting one of the famous “Yale Bands” to move westward to help found the College. The state’s first two college graduates earned degrees from Illinois College in 1835.

Notably, Illinois College was a center of the abolitionist movement. A grand jury indicted a group of students for harboring runaway slaves and two campus houses are believed to have been part of the Underground Railroad. Additionally, the first president of Illinois College, Edward Beecher, was an outspoken opponent of slavery and brother to influential anti-slavery author Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Among the visitors and lecturers on campus during the College’s early years were Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Mark Twain, Horace Greeley and Wendell Phillips. The best-known alumnus, William Jennings Bryan, class of 1881, was a three-time candidate for U.S. president, secretary of state and congressman. U.S. senators, congressmen, state governors and federal judges are among the many Illinois College graduates who have led influential careers in public service.

The College became co-educational in 1903 by incorporating the Jacksonville Female Academy. In 1932 the society of Phi Beta Kappa established a chapter at Illinois College and it remains one of only 11 in the state.

For more than 180 years, Illinois College has continued the tradition of excellence in liberal arts education. The rich history and sense of heritage is widely celebrated and is a sense of pride among students and alumni.

Next Steps