For more than 120 years, Bryn Athyn College was content in its role as one of the smallest schools in the nation.

Enrollment was typically between 120 and 160. Students lived a college life surrounded by other members of a religion based on the writings of a Christian mystic.

But trustees have made a move that confirms a new era in the Montgomery County college's 132-year history. They have hired its first president to lead it beyond the boundaries of religion.

"It's just basically too expensive to provide all the services a college needs for a handful of students," said Christopher Clark, who took over as president in the fall. "And if we really want our students to adopt a more global view of the world, with a deeper appreciation of the strength that comes from diversity, then we need to be larger and more diverse."

Clark, 67, called the process a transformation from invisible to visible and unsustainable to sustainable. When the college hit an enrollment low of 112 in 2000, officials began to worry about its future and the expansion effort began in earnest.

Many church members, however, want to make sure the college's theology isn't watered down.

The coed liberal-arts college is affiliated with the General Church of the New Jerusalem, also known as the New Church. The denomination's international headquarters is in Bryn Athyn, a two-square-mile municipality where virtually all 1,350 residents are followers of the 5,000-member church.

The denomination's doctrine is based on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist, philosopher, and mystic. He believed in Jesus, but also held that people of all faiths could go to heaven if they were true to their beliefs and performed charitable works.

Since its founding in 1877, the college has been an educational homeroom for students whose families are part of the church. It offers undergraduate degrees in six subject areas, including biology, education, English, and history. The graduate program offers two degrees in religion as part of the college's theology school.

Because of Bryn Athyn's size, even small shifts in enrollment or the economy can have a major impact on operations, said Joe Moore, an admissions expert and chief executive officer of Alloy Education, a division of Alloy Media & Marketing, which compiles college statistics for books and Web sites.

Bryn Athyn shares a $300 million endowment with the denomination's high school, the neighboring Academy of the New Church. The economic downturn took a $50 million bite out of the endowment, which is rising again.

Plans to expand the college, thus making it less susceptible to economic changes, have included five new residence halls for upperclassmen last year, and a new student life building and environmentally friendly science center this year. More residence halls are coming.

For years, little recruiting was done. This year, the admissions department was increased from four to 10, and staff members are aggressively pursuing potential students, said Stefanie Niles, the new vice president for enrollment management.

Admissions officers attend college fairs, and host receptions and campus visits year-round. Officials have listed the school on Web sites popular with college students, and purchased an expanded list of names for direct-mail solicitations.

Enrollment has risen to 190 undergraduates, up from 120 two years ago. Most new students are not members of the church. The goal is to add 100 new students next year.

Freshman Katie Gravatt, 18, a Methodist from Elkton, Md., chose Bryn Athyn because she liked the small-college atmosphere, and called the focus on spirituality and ethics a plus.

Undergraduates must take religion classes all four years.

Students such as senior Dale Zecher, 22, want to make sure New Church doctrine is not lost in the effort to appeal to a broader pool of students.

"I'd love to see the college grow," said Zecher, director of student government, who grew up in the New Church. "But at the same time, I want to see the beliefs we hold here manifested in the process. Make it right up front."

Clark knows the tradition well. He was baptized in the New Church in the mid-1970s. Raised Roman Catholic, he was introduced to the New Church by his wife, Tryn, who grew up in the denomination and in Bryn Athyn.

Clark served on several of the college's committees before becoming president. A Fulbright scholar, he was a professor of education at Michigan State University, led the University of Delaware's School of Education, and helped develop a doctoral program at Arizona State University.

Clark said he was figuring out how to be a college president while the college staff is figuring out how to have one. Much of his work, he said, will involve changing the perception of Bryn Athyn College.

He said he wanted to change the image from an apologetic "You never heard of us, but . . ." to a proud "We're the most amazing college you never heard of."

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.