The school was established in 1885 by Emily Prudden and was originally named Oberlin Home and School. Emily was a seventh generation descendant of Methodist minister Peter Prudden. Emily helped to establish fifteen parochial home schools for young people in the Carolinas from 1885 to 1909. The Oberlin Home and School was located at Lick Mountain and in 1903 the Women’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church began managing the school. Soon after, the school was renamed Ebenezer Mitchell Home and School in honor of Mary A. Mitchell’s stepson who helped advance the schools property. After a 1908 fire, the school relocated to Lenoir and in 1910 the school moved to its current location in Misenheimer, North Carolina. Three years later the school awarded high school diplomas.
In 1928 a junior college program was added to the school. In 1934 Mitchell Junior College was accredited by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. The following year, the school was named Pfeiffer Junior College after Henry and Annie Pfeiffer who funded four facilities and the Presidents House in 1935. Henrys Pfeiffer’s brother was an additional benefactor, who helped the school develop into an upper-division college named Pfeiffer Junior College. The name was first used in the 1935-1936 academic year. In 1942 the school was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, and the University Senate of the Methodist Church. In 1954 the curricula was expanded to senior college programs. With grants from the Gustavus and Louise Pfeiffer Foundation, the school accumulated more than $1,500,000 in endowment.
In 1960, the four-year program was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. In 1961, the university joined the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. Upon admission the Woman’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries and the United Methodist Women of the conference contributed substantial donations over the next ten years.
In 1977, Pfeiffer University offered graduate courses at a satellite campus in Charlotte and offered undergraduate courses in criminal justice. By the mid-1990s the school had incorporated a graduate curriculum and accepted international students. The school started a graduate program in 1985 offering an MBA program as well as a Masters in Christian Education in 1989.
In 1996 the school’s Board of Trustees voted to rename the school Pfeiffer University to reflect the school’s expanded programs. In 2004 the Research Triangle Park Campus opened and offered graduate programs. In 2010, U.S. News and World Report, Pfeiffer University was listed as a “selective” school. Pfeiffer’s MBA program has also been named one of North Carolina’s top enrolling programs in the state.