By the declaration of its founders, the movement was created as a counterbalance to anti-Ukrainian colonial and Russophile trends in Ukrainian society of the period.
Prosvita was founded in 1868 in Lviv by 65 delegates from different regions and groups of intellectuals, mostly from the same city. Anatole Vakhnianyn was elected the first head of the Prosvita Society. By the end of 1913, Prosvita had 77 affiliate societies and 2,648 reading rooms.
In 1936 alone, when Western Ukraine with the city of Lviv were part of the Second Polish Republic, the Prosvita Society opened over 500 new outlets with full-time professional staff. By the end of the interwar period, Prosvita has grown to include 83 affiliates, 3,210 reading rooms, 1,207 premises, 3,209 libraries (with 688,186 books), 2,185 theater clubs, 1,115 choirs, 138 orchestras, and 550 study groups.
In 1939 the society was shut down and banned by the newly arrived Soviet rulers. Prosvita operated only in Western Europe and America up to 1988. The first Prosvita society established in the United States was in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania in 1887.
The Prosvita Society was renewed in Ukraine during the Soviet period of Glasnost of 1988–89, and since then takes an active part in social life of independent Ukraine. In modern times it was headed by Dmytro Pavlychko and Pavlo Movchan (at present).
Currently, almost all higher education institutions in Ukraine have Prosvita affiliations with teachers and students as members. Also active are the Young Prosvita youth organizations.
During the 2014 pro-Russian conflict in Ukraine two Prosvita members were kidnapped (one died of a heart attack during his captivity) and one was murdered by Russophil armed separatist in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.
Official goals of the Prosvita Society:
- Promoting Ukrainian language as the only state language in Ukraine
- Maintaining principles of humanity, mutual understanding, religious and civil consent in society
- Contributing to building and strengthening of Ukrainian state and its economic development
- Propagating economic, legal and other kind of knowledge
- Contributing to raising of Ukrainian language and culture authority abroad
- Preserving and revitalizing natural environment and biodiversity
- Prosvita at the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 3 (1993).
- "Celebration of 90th Anniversary of "Prosvita"", Quebec - Ukraine Portal
- Prosvita at the Encyclopedia of Ukraine
- "Rol vuzivskih oseredkiv prosvity u vprovadzhenni ukrainskoi movy yak derzhavnoy u VNZ", Savoyska Svitlana, Institute of Ukrainian Studies
- (Ukrainian) In Luhansk kidnapped university historian, Ukrayinska Pravda (24 June 2014)
- (Ukrainian) Caught by militants died in Luhansk historian, leader of the "Prosvita", Ukrayinska Pravda (1 July 2014)