While in Dayton for the Scopes Trial, William Jennings Bryan expressed to friends his dream that a prep school and junior college to be founded in the town. Bryan had long believed that a Christian school, emphasizing the Bible and other subjects, should be established in the United States, and George Washburn, a friend of Bryan, suggested that such a college be erected in Dayton. Bryan enthusiastically responded by pledging twenty-five thousand dollars to help establish the college that would bear his name.
Following Bryan’s death in July 1925 within days of the close of the arduous trial, a group called the Bryan Memorial Association solicited funds for the proposed university. Groundbreaking took place in May 1927. Pledges for the university reached seven hundred thousand dollars, but the stock market crash in 1929 ended construction. Undaunted, the founders opened William Jennings Bryan University on September 30, 1930. Holding classes at Rhea Central High School in Dayton, the university enrolled few students but nonetheless held its first graduation in 1934. Bryan experienced serious financial problems during the 1930s and 1940s. Occasionally the faculty received no salaries except in food provided by local merchants and students. From its beginning Bryan’s curriculum included courses for majors in the liberal arts, religion, and related areas, culminating with bachelor degrees. A nondenominational Christian college, Bryan has always boasted a faculty and student body reflecting diverse Christian backgrounds, including Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, numerous members of independent Bible churches, and a few Catholics.
In the 1960s, during the administration of Dr. Theodore Mercer, Bryan University received accreditation from the Southern Association and changed its name to Bryan College to more accurately reflect its course offerings. Currently, the college employs approximately thirty faculty and has an enrollment of 450 students.