In 1838, at a time when formal education for women was rare, several people of extraordinary faith and vision garnered support for a school for young women in Marion, Alabama. Businesswoman Julia Tarrant Barron and General Edwin Davis King, with the support of other members of Siloam Baptist Church, enlisted the help of Dr. Milo P. Jewett, a recent graduate of Andover Theological Seminary, who had come to Alabama with the goal of establishing a school for young women that would provide them with the same quality of education that young men received at Harvard and Yale.
These founders believed that educating young women in a Christ-centered environment was key to the improvement of their society. Education, they believed, should provide young women with opportunities to discover and develop their God-given intelligence and talents, and then to feel a deep responsibility to make choices that would glorify God and benefit society. The founders chose to name their school The Judson Female Institute after Ann Hasseltine Judson, the first American woman to serve as an international missionary, whose life they believed embodied these principles better than any other woman of their time.
Judson first held classes on January 7, 1839. The nine students who attended met in a home rented by Julia Barron. Barron also gave the new school a nearby piece of land where Judson has now stood since 1840, when a grand, four-story building was constructed. A year later, the Alabama legislature granted Judson an official charter of incorporation.
From its earliest days, Judson alumnae were known as women who, led by their deep faith and their refined intellect, worked to improve their world. Caroline Frances Smith, who became Judson’s first graduate in 1841, was later known for her efforts to improve conditions for enslaved people and factory workers. Emera Frances Griffin (Class of 1860) became a suffragist and temperance leader so widely known that she was invited to speak at Alabama’s 1901 Constitutional Convention, making her the first woman to address a legislative body in the state.
Judson survived the Civil War, Reconstruction, a smallpox outbreak, and the loss of its main building to fire in 1888. Construction of a new and impressive Jewett Hall, named after the first President, began in 1889. A time of growth and expansion followed, and, in 1904, The Judson Female Institute changed its name to Judson College.
Judson students, faculty, and staff members demonstrated both their patriotism and benevolence during World War I and World War II. In 1914, Judson students contributed their Christmas money to funds raised by College employees to benefit people suffering in war-torn Belgium. On December 8, 1941, Judson students listening to a radio in the college chapel heard President Franklin D. Roosevelt announce that war had been forced on America by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Many Judson students and graduates served their country during WWII, including Atomic City girl Jane Greer Puckett ‘42, and many others who volunteered as WACS, WAVES, nurses, and Red Cross workers.
In 2005, Judson established its Office of Faith-Based Service and Learning to further reflect its students’ commitment to serve the people in their community and the world. Through FBSL initiatives and service projects, 21st-century Judson students followed the example of Christ (and their college’s namesake) and made a profound difference in the lives of their neighbors in Perry County, Alabama, and beyond.
In December 2020, financial difficulties resulting from declining enrollment, the recession of 2008, and the COVID-19 pandemic came to a head, beginning a months-long period of uncertainty for the Judson community. Though the college launched multi-million-dollar emergency fundraising efforts over the next few months, the funds needed for the college’s continued operation ultimately failed to materialize.
On May 3, 2021, the Judson College Board of Trustees voted to close the college. Judson suspended its academic operation July 31, 2021.
At the time of its closure, Judson offered residential undergraduate programs for women and selected online undergraduate programs for men and women in over 20 areas of study. The College remained in Marion throughout its existence and kept its affiliation with the Alabama Baptist Convention throughout its history.
For 183 years, the women of Judson College have made a significant impact on the world outside Judson’s halls. Judson’s mission of educating and empowering women to use their gifts, for the good of others to the glory of God, is still advanced through each graduate’s life and will continue to make an impact in the world after Judson.