St. Lawrence University was founded in 1856 by leaders of the Universalist Church, who were seeking to establish a seminary somewhere west of New England and were enthusiastically courted by the citizens of Canton. The denomination, which has since merged with the Unitarian faith, was part of the liberal wing of Protestantism, championing such ideas as critical thinking and gender equality-attributes that surfaced in the new seminary, which was progressive in its teaching philosophy and coeducational from the beginning. The University as it exists today was created as a "Preparatory Department" to provide a foundation for theological study. That department became today's liberal arts University, while the seminary closed in 1965 with the Unitarian/Universalist consolidation. The University of the 19th century was a relatively cheerless place, with students putting all their energies into their studies. But as the century drew to a close, sports teams began to be fielded (men's basketball and track were the first intercollegiate sports; hockey was not introduced until 1926, with a 1-0 loss to arch-rival Clarkson), a student government formed and organizations for music, drama and the literary arts began to draw attention. At this time, the first Greek-letter organizations, today's fraternities and sororities, took root.
Early in the 20th century, the University's graduate program in education came into being; it has since served hundreds of North Country school teachers and administrators. Following a difficult period during the Great Depression and World War II, the student body increased quickly, and with it the physical plant. A four-building campus serving around 300 students in the early 1940s became a 30-building campus serving 2000 students within 25 years, partly through acquisition of the adjacent state school of agriculture campus when that facility relocated across town. The mid-60s also saw the birth of one of St. Lawrence's key components today, its international programs. As the 21st century dawns, the University is embarked upon another facilities upgrade program that aims to take advantage of the electronic revolution in higher education, as well as a curriculum reform to tailor its educational programs to the demands of the next millennium.
Among St. Lawrence's distinguished alumni are communications magnate and diplomat Owen D. Young, for whom the Young Plan for European war reparations was named; Olympia Brown, the first woman in U.S. history to be ordained a minister; author Lorrie Moore; United States Senator Susan Collins; and actors Kirk Douglas and Viggo Mortensen.