Henry Merritt Wriston was born July 4, 1889 in Laramie, Wyoming, one year before the state was admitted to the Union. Wriston joked about this while presenting "Education for Democracy" at Amherst College, Amherst, MA in 1939: "I was not only born in Wyoming, but I was responsible for it becoming a state. I was born there when it was a territory... I practically delivered Wyoming to the United States as a State wrapped up in cellophane."
Laramie's town history was colored by its geographical position along the Overland Trail, the Pony Express route, and the first transcontinental railroad. Wriston's father, Henry Lincoln Wriston (1861-1955), was a Methodist minister originally from West Virginia. He attended Ohio Wesleyan University for two years and completed his studies at the University of Denver, graduating in 1889 with a Bachelor of Arts. Henry Lincoln Wriston met and married Wriston's mother, Jennie Amelia (Atcheson) Wriston (1862-1944), while serving as a part-time minister in Colorado. The couple married December 29, 1885 in Denver, Colorado where they had their first son George (July 28, 1887 - December 21, 1973). The family moved in 1889 to Laramie, Wyoming where Henry Lincoln Wriston led the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Laramie, and once more in 1890, this time to Massachusetts.
To Wriston and his brother George, their parents passed down essential elements of their own experiences that remained with them throughout their adult lives. Among these were their experiences with the Western frontier, strong religious beliefs, and an unwavering respect for education. Wriston's mother wrote A Pioneer's Odyssey [Menasha: Priv. Print [George Banta Pub. Co.], 1943] documenting her family's journey westward. It is no wonder that the strong pioneer roots of his parents always made Wriston feel more attached to his Western roots than his New England upbringing. The son of a Methodist minister, Wriston was raised in a family where religion was a central part of the home. Both he and his brother integrated the testaments of Christianity with their lives and became familiar with the teachings of the Bible as boys. Wriston's father, a minister, scholar, and teacher, and his mother, also a teacher, instilled a strong sense of dedication and respect for education and a desire to continually improve oneself through learning. This sentiment became a central part of Wriston's educational philosophy later in his career as seen in his writings and speeches.
Wriston and his family continued to move around Massachusetts during his boyhood years as Henry Lincoln Wriston accepted appointments at different churches in the region. Wriston began his formal education in Everett, MA at age six and also attended schools in Gloucester and Holyoke, before entering Classical High School in Springfield, MA in 1903. His educational and extracurricular interests growing up greatly foreshadow those he continued as an undergraduate. Wriston excelled in History, Latin, and English and participated on the debate team, wrote for the school newspaper, and edited the annual.
Throughout his high school years, Wriston took a variety of jobs earning money that eventually helped him fund his time at Wesleyan University. He had jobs as a bellhop at a resort hotel, a bootblack, a delivery boy, a hand printer, a pressman, and a part-time reporter. He gained notable success as a door-to-door salesman of a one-volume encyclopedia that he sold for $3 - $5 throughout the region. Finding this job so enjoyable and lucrative, Wriston continued it throughout his college summers. These activities also foreshadowed his aptitude for fund-raising and writing which he excelled at later in life.