For many years after statehood, Arkansas had few schools and no colleges. More settlers came to believe that developing institutions of learning was the way to promote the future strength and prosperity of the state. As such, civil leaders in the state’s masonic lodges organized St. Johns’ College, the first college in Arkansas.

In the 1840s, leaders of the masonic orders in Arkansas began planning to build a college to make up for the state’s serious deficiencies in higher education. In December 1850, the state Legislature granted a charter to the masons to begin St. Johns’ College. As a Christian organization, masonic lodges typically dedicated their buildings to St. John the Evangelist or to St. John the Baptist. Masonic leaders noted that naming the college after both these important early figures in the faith seemed appropriate.

Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado, where he lives with his wife and six children. He is also resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society, based in El Dorado. Bridges can be reached by e-mail at

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