Augustana was founded under the auspices of the Augustana Synod, a national Lutheran church body then comprised almost exclusively of recent Scandinavian immigrants to the U.S. The school's first president was the Rev. Lars Paul Esbjörn, who, having previously served as chair of Scandinavian language and literature at the young Illinois State University in Springfield, opened the Augustana Seminary in a small frame building in Chicago on September 1, 1860.
In 1863, Esbjörn returned to Sweden and the early leaders of the Augustana Synod decided to move their school to an agrarian setting. In response to an offer of land from the Illinois Central Railroad, Augustana relocated to Paxton, Illinois, under the presidency of the Rev. Dr. Tuve Nils Hasselquist. A graduate of the University of Lund, he served as Augustana's leader until his death in 1891. Hasselquist strove to solidify the school's place in the life of its church. By 1875, when the initial dream of creating a Swedish pioneer community in Paxton proved to be unrealistic, Augustana moved to Rock Island, a more central location among the growing number of Augustana Synod congregations. During these years the institution began to develop as a liberal arts college. At the time of the move, the faculty included eight professors and enrollment totaled 90 students; two years later, the first class to receive the Bachelor of Arts degree was graduated.
Dr. Olof Olsson, a clergyman, teacher and musician, became Augustana's third president in 1891. He, too, had been educated in Sweden, receiving his Ph.D. from Uppsala University. He brought to the presidency a strong emphasis on academic freedom, which was a boon to Augustana's development as a liberal arts college. Olsson accepted the call to the college presidency only reluctantly, because of tenuous health and a significant challenge which faced the college in the form of competition from colleges in maturing Swedish immigrant communities in Minnesota, Kansas and New Jersey, which had been founded by regional conferences of the Augustana Synod. The resulting decline in support for the Rock Island school meant considerable trials for its leaders, and the strain became too much for Olsson. He was given a leave of absence for health reasons in December of 1899 and died soon after.
His successor was Dr. Gustav Andreen, who became Augustana's youngest president when he was called to the school in 1901 at the age of 37. Having graduated from Augustana in 1881, he was the first alumnus to serve as president. He was also the first to have his Ph.D. from an American institution, Yale. He left a promising career at New Haven in order to accept the leadership of the financially struggling college and theological seminary in Rock Island.
Andreen's exuberant vitality stood in contrast to the frail health of his predecessor, and during his 35-year presidency he devoted his considerable energy to securing the fiscal health of Augustana. Five new buildings were added to the campus and an endowment was established, thanks to his tireless travels to Synod congregations across the U.S. and Canada. In the last years of his presidency, Augustana faced the loss of its accreditation due to substandard facilities for science instruction; but in spite of the Great Depression, he secured funding for the then state-of-the-art Wallberg Hall of Science.
A 1915 Augustana alumnus, the Rev. Dr. Conrad Bergendoff, succeeded Andreen in 1935 and guided the college for 27 years. Holder of an M.A. in history from the University of Pennsylvania, a B.Div. from Augustana Seminary, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Bergendoff became recognized nationally as an educator and internationally as a theologian. Bergendoff's tenure was highlighted by dramatic growth of the campus, the enrollment and the strength of the faculty. Six major buildings were erected during his presidency, but no achievement was of greater satisfaction to him than the securing of an Augustana chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in 1949 - just 15 years after the threatened loss of accreditation for lack of science facilities. Today, roughly a tenth of American colleges and universities can boast such the Phi Beta Kappa distinction.
In 1962, Dr. Clarence Woodrow Sorensen became Augustana's sixth president. An alumnus of the University of Chicago - where he also earned the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees - Sorensen's academic career had made him an internationally-respected scholar, having written extensively on geography and international relations, and having earned the status of Fellow in the Royal Geographical Society in London. During his tenure, the enrollment doubled in size and several new buildings were added, including the Roy J. Carver Center for Physical Education and the John Deere Planetarium. The former Augustana Book Concern, which also relocated in a merger precipitated by the creation of the LCA, was purchased by the college and was later renamed Sorensen Hall.
On July 1, 1975, Dr. Thomas Tredway became president after having served for five years as dean of the college and 11 years as a member of the history faculty. A 1957 graduate of Augustana, Tredway earned his M.A. at Illinois and his B.Div. at Garrett before completing his Ph.D. at Northwestern. While his tenure may be remembered for the unprecedented growth of academic facilities - including the College Library, the Science Building and the Franklin W. Olin Center for Educational Technology - a more lasting legacy will be the strengthening of Augustana's faculty and academic program as well as the college's endowment. As Tredway wrote in a recent President's Report, "No amount of new construction or success in fundraising will compensate for an inferior academic program. We do well to remember that a college is really about teaching and learning, about faculty and curriculum and students." In recognition of his service, the College Library was dedicated on May 24, 2003, as the Thomas Tredway Library.