Located in Jackson, Union University is a private institution of higher learning affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention and traces its lineage through two earlier institutions. Jackson Male Academy opened in 1823 and was chartered by the state in 1825. It offered a college preparatory course for the children of Jackson's more affluent citizens. In 1844, the school was reorganized and rechartered as West Tennessee College. The 1806 settlement of a public lands dispute between Tennessee, North Carolina, and the U.S. government resulted in a property endowment of one hundred thousand acres for each of two colleges to be located in the east and central portions of the state. In 1846 the federal government provided the state with title to certain public lands for the purpose of endowing West Tennessee College.
West Tennessee College operated until the Civil War, when both Confederate and Union troops used its facilities as a military hospital. After the war, classes reopened and continued until 1874, when the Tennessee Baptists acquired the campus. In an effort to foster statewide unity, representatives from the General Association of Baptists in Middle Tennessee, the East Tennessee Baptist General Association, and the West Tennessee Baptist Convention met in Humboldt on March 15, 1873, and adopted a resolution favoring the establishment of a first-class college. On April 10, 1874, an Educational Convention met in Murfreesboro, where the first Union University had operated from 1842 to 1873, and appointed a committee to select a location for the proposed college. After considering several sites, the committee recommended the acceptance of the Jackson offer, which included the buildings, grounds, and endowment funds of West Tennessee College.
The new institution, named Southwestern Baptist University, opened its doors to preparatory students in September 1874, and college courses followed the next year. The general assembly granted a charter in June 1875. On September 17, 1907, the Board of Trustees changed the institution's name to Union University out of sentiment for an older institution of that name which had operated in Murfreesboro from 1842 to 1873. Many of the early faculty and trustees of Southwestern Baptist University were either associated with or had graduated from this former Union University.
In the years since the school adopted its present name, the institution has maintained its strong liberal arts program and distinctive evangelical emphasis in the face of many challenges. A major fire on January 20, 1912, destroyed College Hall and Powell Chapel. In 1925 the board of trustees deeded all Union University property to the Tennessee Baptist Convention and secured a new charter. Hall-Moody Junior College, located in Martin, was consolidated with Union when it closed its doors to students in 1927. In 1975 the university abandoned its College Street campus in favor of a new campus located in North Jackson along the U.S. Highway 45 by-pass.
Union alumni include U.S. Senator and Supreme Court Justice Howell E. Jackson; Progressive era judge and founder of the juvenile justice court system in America Benjamin Barr Lindsey; and John Dancy, senior correspondent with NBC News's Moscow Bureau.
James A. Baggett, So Great a Cloud of Witnesses: Union University, 1823-2000 (2000); Richard Hiram Ward, A History of Union University (1975)