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Established as Mossy Creek Missionary Baptist Seminary in 1851, the school began by holding classes in a local Baptist church. Within a few years the institution became Mossy Creek Baptist College and occupied its own buildings on the site of the present campus.
In 1880, the University was named Carson College for James Harvey Carson (1801–1880), who left $15,000 of his estate to the school,. For several years it existed alongside Newman College, a separate facility for the education of women named for William Cate Newman, who had donated money to the women's college. In 1889, the two colleges united as one of the first coeducational institutions in the South. The institution operated as Carson–Newman College until 2012 when the board of trustees voted to acknowledge recent organizational changes by changing the name to Carson-Newman University.
Carson-Newman is a member of the South Atlantic Conference and fields sixteen varsity teams in National Collegiate Athletic AssociationDivision II competition. Men's varsity sports at Carson-Newman are: Baseball, Basketball, Cross Country, Football, Golf, Soccer, Swimming, Tennis, and Track & Field. Wrestling will no longer be offered due to budget cuts. Women's sports are: Basketball, Cross Country, Golf, Soccer, Softball, Swimming, Tennis, Track & Field, and Volleyball
The college's athletic facilities include Roy Harmon Field at Burke-Tarr Stadium, the Ken Sparks Athletic Complex, McCown Soccer Field, the Silver Diamond Baseball Complex, six tennis courts, a softball complex, Holt Fieldhouse, and Butler-Blanc Gymnasium. Head football coach Ken Sparks who is a graduate of the school and has been coaching the team since 1980 ranks fourth in most wins among active NCAA coaches.
In 2007, the C-N baseball team won the South Atlantic Conference Tournament after defeating Tusculum College, who had won more than 20 games in a row, twice in one day. The team traveled to Tampa, Florida, to compete in the NCAA Division II Regional Tournament. The baseball team returned to Tampa for the NCAA Regional Tournament in 2008 after receiving an at-large bid and finished third, again eliminating Tusculum College. In 2009 the C-N football team won the NCAA Division II South Regional Championship in Florence, Alabama to advance to the Final Four.