On January 1, 1918, 12 students from four states met with Nora Chambers in an upstairs room of the Church of God Publishing House in Cleveland, Tennessee. This first class meeting of the Church of God’s Bible Training School (BTS) led to the founding of Lee University. Initially Chambers served as the only faculty member, and the dozen students made up the entire student body. The first two graduates earned their diplomas in April 1919, and a correspondence program was initiated in September 1919, which increased the school’s overall enrollment to 788 students. During the following decades, BTS enlarged its faculty and curriculum and moved to a campus in Sevierville in 1938.
In 1947 BTS moved back to Cleveland, occupied a recently purchased larger campus, and was named Lee College in honor of Flavius J. Lee, an early leader in the denomination and second president of the school. The college expanded its emphasis to include both biblical studies and traditional liberal arts in a four-year curriculum. In 1959 Lee’s Bible College was accredited by the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges, and in 1960, a junior college was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). In 1969 SACS granted Lee full accreditation as a four-year liberal arts college. From the 1970s into the early 1990s, Lee experienced tremendous growth, increasing its enrollment to more than 2,600 students, making it one of the largest and fastest growing private colleges in Tennessee. In the 1990s the college added its first graduate program, a Master of Church Music, to its twenty-eight undergraduate majors. In 1996 students from forty-six states and twenty-seven foreign countries attended classes on the sixty-acre campus in downtown Cleveland.
In 1996 the Lee College Board of Directors resolved to change the school dramatically by launching a plan for the institution that called for reorganization and designation as Lee University. On August 1, 1997, Lee University was formally in place; it included four academic units: a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a School of Music, a School of Ministry, and a College of Education. The board left unaffected the mission, institutional goals, policies, and operation procedures of the institution. Thus, Lee University’s strong ties to its parent denomination and its commitment to providing a high-quality, affordable education in a Christian context continue to guide the institution’s priorities. Lee University has remained coeducational since its founding and, in keeping with its Pentecostal heritage, operates the Pentecostal Research Center, which boasts the most extensive collections available on Pentecostalism. Determined to maintain its more broadly based Christian identity, Lee University identifies itself as “A Campus Where Christ Is King.”