U. S. Departments of Religion
A Brief Historical Sketch

In the United States, there are Departments of Religion (or Religious Studies) in many public universities as well as in most private colleges and universities that have a historical connection to some Protestant Christian denomination, and in some private institutions from a nominally secular origin. Most of these departments, however, are of relatively recent origin. The greater number of them are no more than a half-century old.

Some of these departments were founded anew, while others resulted from restructuring of programs previously limited to the study of the Bible or Christianity. The main professional society for academic study of religion mirrors these departmental histories. It was founded as the National Association of Biblical Instructors (NABI). But by the 1960s, it had become more inclusive and was renamed the American Academy of Religion (AAR).

Most of these departments for a long time retained signs of a predominantly Protestant Christian background. Two other influences that were particularly significant through the 1960s were Yale University and the Ralston-Purina Company. Yale produced ambitious and visionary scholars who founded, led, and taught in most Departments of Religion throughout the country. Ralston-Purina created a fortune for members of the Danforth family, and they donated part of it to support the study of religion. Danforth support made possible fellowships for graduate study, an exclusive-membership scholarly society, and endowed professorships at several colleges and universities. The scholarly society, now called the Society for Values in Higher Education, continues to publish an interdisciplinary journal called Soundings. The Danforth Foundation currently restricts its support to the city of St. Louis and its environs.

At one public institution, the University of Florida, a Department of Religion was established in 1946. During a little more than a half-century of activity, the department has been led by just five people. The founding chair was the late Delton L. Scudder, trained at Yale. He was succeeded in the 1970s by Samuel S. Hill who was recruited from a similar post at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The third chair, a long-time member of the deparment who also did his graduate studies at Yale, was Austin B. Creel. The fourth chair, Azim A. Nanji, reflects the wide-ranging national, ethnic, and religious complexity of the department's faculty and students at present. He came from a family that was descended from emigrants from India to East Africa, completed his graduate studies in Canada, and then settled in the United States, eventually coming to the University of Florida after several years on the faculty of Oklahoma State University. The fifth and current department chair is Sheldon R. Isenberg, educated at Columbia and Harvard. He is a notable contributor to Jewish renewal and inter-religious activities, and a scholar of comparative mysticism.

Roman Catholic institutions, many of them established by religious orders, have had a separate and distinctive history in the study of religion. The typical pattern in Catholic colleges and universities has been for religious studies to be housed in a Department of Theology. Such departments tend to be large and populated by faculty members who study and teach most aspects of religion under the heading of one or another type of theology -- such as dogmatic, historical, moral, or practical. In that context, the designation 'theology' refers to thinking and study done on the basis of dogmatic truth preserved and transmitted by the authority of the church. Moreover, most faculty members are priests or practicing religious or lay Catholics. Faculty writings in many instances have been subjected to examination by church authorities prior to publication in order to assure doctrinal correctness. There are parallels to this in some conservative Protestant denominational colleges and universities, too. In those settings, the test of faith is prior to any test of research adequacy. Clearly that is not the case in government-supported colleges and universities, such as the University of Florida, where all research is evaluated independently of personal religious preferences.

In summary, higher education in the United States has been heavily influenced by diverse elements of Christian culture, which perhaps disproportionately have influenced the study of religion in U.S. colleges and universities. However, contributions of American Jewish institutions (especially JTS-Hebrew Union College and Brandeis University) to Religious Studies deserve particular mention and are of growing importance. And, in future, institutions that represent the interests of forced immigrants (traditionally African-American colleges and universities) and of more recent and more voluntary immigrants to this country are likely to become an ever greater factor in shaping the academic study of religion, too.


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