Rhodes had its origin in the Clarksville Academy, founded in 1837. The Academy conveyed its property in 1848 to the Masonic Grand Lodge of Tennessee and was merged into the new Masonic University of Tennessee, a degree-granting institution of higher education located in Clarksville, Tennessee. This institution became Montgomery Masonic College in 1850, and in 1855 its name was again changed, to Stewart College, in honor of its president, William M. Stewart. Under President Stewart’s leadership the operation of the College passed from the Masonic Lodge to the Presbyterian Synod of Nashville.
Under the Plan of Union of 1873, the Presbyterian Church reorganized Stewart College after the Reconstruction Era to operate it as the single Presbyterian college for the entire area which was at that time considered to be the Southwest.
In 1875 Stewart College became Southwestern Presbyterian University, developing alongside the undergraduate curriculum a School of Theology, under the leadership of Dr. Joseph Wilson, father of Woodrow Wilson. The School of Theology remained in operation until 1917.
Under the leadership of President Charles E. Diehl, the College moved to Memphis in 1925 and adopted as its name Southwestern, denoting a liberal arts college. In 1945, the official college name became Southwestern At Memphis.
On July 1, 1984, the name of the College was changed to Rhodes College in honor of Peyton Nalle Rhodes, president from 1949 to 1965, who joined the faculty in 1926 and served the institution until his death in 1984. John David Alexander served as president from 1965 to 1969; William Lukens Bowden, from 1969 to 1973; and James Harold Daughdrill, Jr., from 1973 to 1999. William Earl Troutt became the nineteenth president of the College on July 1, 1999.