Elizabethtown College was chartered in 1899 by members of the Church of the Brethren who were interested in establishing an institution of higher education for their denomination in eastern Pennsylvania. As expressed by the founders in the charter, the purpose of the College was "to give such harmonious development to the physical, mental, and moral powers of both sexes as will best fit them for the duties of life and promote their spiritual interests." While expressed in different words, the purpose of the College today still embodies the essence of this educational philosophy.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania granted a charter on September 23, 1899. Classes were held for the first time the following year. Supported initially by contributions from individual churchmen, the College in time became the responsibility of the Eastern (now the Atlantic Northeast) and Southern District of Pennsylvania of the Church of the Brethren. The Church Districts officially assumed the responsibility for operating the College in January 1919. With the advancing years, the College grew in the size of its enrollment, the extent of its physical facilities, and the quality of its academic program.
Formal accreditation was granted in 1921 by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction and in 1948 by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. The rate of growth increased significantly from the end of the Second World War. Student enrollment has more than quadrupled since that time. The academic program has been expanded and is continually revised to meet changing needs of students.