The University first opened its doors in 1878 in Lebanon, Missouri, as Southwest Baptist College. In 1879 the college was chartered by the state of Missouri and moved to Bolivar. Early writings recount a legacy of sacrificial giving and extraordinary efforts by Baptists in southwest Missouri to establish and maintain the college. The founders, James R. Maupin and Abner S. Ingman, faced many difficulties as they rode horseback seeking funds, students and an ideal college site.
The college faced many hardships in its early years and actually closed from 1910-13 to regain financial solvency and to recover from a devastating fire that destroyed the colleges only building. The efforts and prayers of area supporters and Missouri Baptists brought results, and the college reopened in 1913 as a two-year junior college.
The University has maintained its strong Baptist heritage through its affiliation with the Missouri Baptist Convention, which provides financial support for the University and elects the 25-member board of trustees which governs the institution. The Missouri Baptist Convention approved plans in 1964 for the college to become a senior liberal arts college. The first baccalaureate degrees were awarded in 1967. Bolivar citizens donated a 102-acre farm on the southern edge of the city that allowed the college to expand beyond the small 10-acre campus located near downtown.
Another milestone occurred in 1981 when the college name was changed to SBU. In 1995 the University entered a joint nursing education agreement with St. John's Regional Medical Center in Springfield, Missouri, to form St. John's School of Nursing of SBU. The school became the St. John's College of Nursing and Health Sciences in 2005. St. John's changed its name in 2012, making the name of the college Mercy College of Nursing and Health Sciences.
Today, SBU is a thriving higher education institution with more than 3,600 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled annually. The 152-acre main campus is located in the southern portion of Bolivar, a community of about 10,300 residents that serves as the county seat of Polk County. There are 44 buildings on the main campus. The University also operates Mountain View, Salem and Springfield, Missouri.