In the early 1940s, L. Nelson Bell returned from his work as a medical missionary in China to Asheville, N.C. On his return, he found theological liberalism threatening the very Presbyterian denomination that had sent him out as a missionary. He founded a new magazine, the Southern Presbyterian Journal, in an effort to return the church to its biblical moorings. In the 1950's, the Journal was read beyond Presbyterianism for its reporting on the church scene and its analysis of ecumenical liberalism. Dr. Bell also used what he had learned about magazine publishing to play a lead role in the formation of yet another magazine, Christianity Today.

By 1981, the board of the Journal had taken on a new assignment: a series of current events papers for children, patterned after the long-popular Weekly Reader. In just two years, the circulation of this new publication was already double the circulation and volume of the parent magazine. The board of directors changed its corporate name to God's World Publications, Inc., ceased publication of the Journal, and in 1996 launched WORLD magazine to provide adults with news and commentary from a Christian perspective. In March 1987, Joel Belz became the editor and publisher of World magazine.

In 1998 Belz, Marvin Olasky, Nick Eicher, and Robert Case had informal conversations in Atlanta and discussed the need for God's World Publications to have its own training school for Christian journalists. Case, because of his interest, training and time, took on the responsibility to mount such a training program. In the summer of 1999, 22 students gathered in Asheville to study journalism from a Christian worldview. These serious students were the first of many classes in Asheville and then New York City, with occasional courses as well in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Austin. The World Journalism Institute also offered weekend conferences throughout the country, published monographs on the intersection of Christianity and journalism, and made presentations at national journalism conventions.

In early 2011, Dr. Marvin Olasky became dean of WJI and began offering an annual mid-career course for talented non-journalists who loved World and hoped to write for it on a part-time basis. In 2012 WJI had its first training course abroad, for African journalists who assembled in Uganda. In 2013 Bob Case retired as director of WJI; Lee Pitts became associate dean in 2014.

In 2017, WJI partnered with Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa. Hosting the college institute on Dordt's campus provides more classroom, dorm, and cafeteria space, allowing WJI to teach and mentor more future journalists.