十九世紀中葉以後，清廷不敵英法俄日等國侵略，被迫簽下數紙不平等條約。戰事連連潰敗使政府及百姓喪失了信心，社會呼籲改革及學習列強之長的聲浪日增。在這樣的時代背景下，美國基督教會來到中國興辦教育事業。監理會（The Methodist Episcopal Church, South）是美國基督教重要差會之一，1846年成立，本部設於田納西州。1879年起該會先後在蘇州創辦博習書院（Buffington Institute）、宮巷書院（Kung Hang School） ，在上海創辦中西書院（Anglo-Chinese College）。1900年決議合併三書院，以宮巷書院為基礎，在蘇州天賜莊博習書院舊址，擴建為大學。1900年12月制定校董會章程，推林樂知（Young J. Allen）先生（萬國公報創辦人）為董事長、孫樂文先生（David L. Anderson）為校長。二十世紀初中國第一所民辦大學東吳大學正式誕生。
Since the middle of the 19th century, after having suffered repeated defeats by foreign powers, more and more voices in China demanded revolutionary changes and stressed the need to learn from the outside world how to make China strong. It was under such circumstances that the Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the most influential churches in America, arrived in China to start its missionary and educational programs. In 1879 and the years following, the Church founded the Buffington Institute and the Kung Hang School in the city of Soochow (now spelled Suzhou), in Jiangsu Province, and the Anglo-Chinese College in Shanghai. In 1900, it was decided that the three schools should be merged and form a university, set up at Soochow. In December 1900 the charter of the university board of trustees was drawn up, and Dr. Young J. Allen (founder of Globe Magazine) was appointed Chairman of the Board and Dr. David L. Anderson university President. This was the birth of the first private university in China.