University History & Background

Offering the personal attention of a small liberal arts college, coupled with the breadth and global relevancy of a leading research institution, Wake Forest claims the distinction of being the nation’s premier collegiate university. Its mission is to educate the whole person, graduating students who seek purpose-filled lives while building a community dedicated to serving humanity in the spirit of its motto, Pro Humanitate (For Humanity).

Wake Forest College was organized in 1834 on a former farm north of Raleigh. Founded by the North Carolina Baptist Convention, the school was established to train Baptist ministers at a time when few institutions of higher learning existed in the South. The college’s first president, Samuel Wait, worked tirelessly to raise money to organize the academic curriculum. The school remained relatively small throughout the remainder of the century and, like many Southern institutions, was fortunate to survive the fiscal and manpower shortages resulting from the Civil War. It took almost 20 years for the school’s endowment to return to prewar levels.

Enrollment grew in the post-war years and increased from 17 in 1866 to 534 in 1909. As education became more specialized, new schools were added to the curriculum. The School of Law was founded in 1894, and the School of Medicine was organized in 1902.

For many years, the social life of the college was organized around two literary societies: the Euzelians and the Philomathesians. All students were required to join one of these organizations. These literary societies were focused on engaging their members in debate, literary work, and essay. Interest in the societies declined in the 1920s when the college legalized social fraternities. To maintain student enrollment during World War II, women were admitted to the college beginning in 1942. As a Baptist institution, daily chapel services were required for all students for many years. By the 1940s, mandatory chapel services were reduced to three days per week. Compulsory chapel attendance ended in 1968.

The town of Wake Forest grew up around the college. Many of the students and college staff lived in private homes in the area, which led to special and long-lasting relationships between the townspeople and the college community. The future of the college and the town was changed in dramatic fashion in 1946 when the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation announced a gift of $350,000 annually and in perpetuity if the college would relocate 110 miles west to the city of Winston-Salem. The medical school had previously moved to Winston-Salem in 1941. Following much debate and controversy, construction of the new campus began with a groundbreaking ceremony attended by President Truman in 1951. The move to the new campus, which was completed in 1956, was traumatic for both the college and the town, but it led to continued growth in the academic programs of the college. The trustees of the college changed the name of the institution to Wake Forest University in 1967.

Since the 1960s, the university has changed from a regional institution into a nationally recognized university. The Board of Trustees entered into a new relationship with the North Carolina Baptist State Convention in 1986. This relationship allowed the school to establish a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees, while Wake Forest relinquished any claims to additional financial support from the convention.

Athletics are integral to the college experience—and at Wake Forest, there are plenty of occasions to wave the black and gold. Competing in the NCAA Division I Atlantic Coast Conference, Wake Forest teams are consistently among the leaders both athletically and academically. In recent years, the Demon Deacons have won national championships in field hockey (three times) and men’s soccer, achieved a No. 1 ranking in men’s basketball, and played in four football bowl games, including the Orange Bowl.

Today, Wake Forest enrolls over 7,500 students and is consistently ranked in the top 30 national universities by US News & World Report. The Reynolda campus is situated on 340 acres, which also includes Reynolda Gardens and Reynolda Village for shopping, restaurants, and other services.