Northfield Mount Hermon was founded by 19th-century evangelist Dwight Lyman Moody as two institutions: Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies in 1879 and Mount Hermon School for Boys in 1881. The schools aimed to educate young people who had limited access to education because they were poor. Moody hoped to create generations of committed Christians who would continue his evangelical efforts.
The Bible was the primary classroom tool in the early days, but religious instruction was accompanied by a challenging academic program similar to that of other private secondary schools of the era.
Another factor that distinguished the schools (and continues to do so today) was the manual labor required of all students. At Northfield, girls worked 10 hours per week, helping prepare meals or cleaning dormitories. At Mount Hermon, boys performed janitorial, laundry, kitchen, and farm work. The work requirement has shrunk over the years (it is now four hours per week), and while students still help in the dining hall and on NMH's farm, they perform a variety of other jobs as well.
The schools matriculated students from all races and ethnicities: 16 Native Americans were among the first 100 students at Northfield, and Mount Hermon's first graduates included a former slave as well as students from China, Sweden, England, Ireland, Canada, and Japan. NMH maintains this commitment to diversity, with students of color making up 19 percent of the student body and 25 percent coming from other countries.
After Moody's death in 1899, his eldest son, William, continued his father's work at the schools. The younger Moody pushed for consolidating the two schools into a single corporation called the Northfield Schools. Throughout the 20th century, a new Christian view was taking hold, stressing social justice and good works in place of personal salvation. Working to find opportunities for students of color, the schools first established a relationship with the National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students in the 1940s, then with A Better Chance in the early 1960s, and for the past 40 years, with Upward Bound.
In 1971, Northfield and Mount Hermon became a single coeducational school. The school consolidated to the Mount Hermon campus in September 2005, and the Northfield campus was sold in 2009.