50 years of Relgious Studies at IU

Photo of the Religious Studies Faculty

Before there was a Department of Religious Studies

Religious Studies at Indiana received the Trustees’ stamp of approval to become a department in 1971. But to tell the full story, we have to start in 1910. That year, Bloomington pastor Joseph Todd founded a Bible chair and began teaching non-credit courses about religion to university students. By 1917, he had given up his pastoral duties and dedicated himself to teaching full time and renamed his project “The Indiana School of Religion.” Todd directed the School of Religion, which sat nestled among university buildings, until 1952. When Douglas Rae, another local pastor, succeeded Todd that year, he approached Indiana University’s College of Arts and Sciences with a proposition: they should have an academic program in religion, and his School of Religion could offer courses toward it. Already existing courses in anthropology, classics, English, philosophy, and others would be included if they had sufficient content related to religion. School of Religion classes in Old Testament, New Testament, and World Religions, despite their official place outside of the university, would also count toward the program. In 1953, IU’s administration agreed, and the Program in Comparative Religion was born.

But the School of Religion was not part of the university. For many faculty, this was a good thing because the arrangement upheld the distance between Protestant doctrine and higher education. But for others like D.J. Bowden at the School of Religion, it was regrettable that Religious Studies didn’t have a secure institutional position. As the program grew—and it grew quickly, proving popular among students—both the School of Religion and departments within the College of Arts and Sciences added course offerings. The School hired more faculty, some with PhDs. As the 1950s continued, with the growing popularity of the School’s courses, the academic credentials of its faculty, and the commitment of Bowden and others to integrate the School’s academic offerings into the College, the question of the place of religious studies at the university became pressing. In 1961, the College asked the executive committee of the Program in Comparative Religion to consider a question: What might it look like if the university had a religious studies program? Philosophy professor and executive committee member Henry Veatch, Dean of the Graduate School John Ashton, and their fellow committee members all agreed that IU should have a Religious Studies program. But a handful of faculty members not on the committee dissented. The issue was, in the words of Veatch, “a hot potato.” Occasionally heads butted, details and requirements were disputed, more reports were called for, and committees changed members, but religious studies was slowly becoming part of the university. In 1961, the university had offered a joint appointment to a School of Religion faculty hire, and in 1963, the College sought a full-time director of the Program and approved an undergraduate minor in Comparative Religion.

It was no surprise, then, when the faculty supported the committee’s recommendations in 1963. That summer, Supreme Court Justice Thomas Clark wrote in the Schempp decision about bible reading in public schools: “One’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.” (for more about the historic Abington S v. Schempp case and how it changed the course of religious studies in the US visit our website and read about the IU Schempp Conference, 2013) Ashton, Bowden, and others were delighted to see one of their own sentiments in the mouth of a Supreme Court justice. Ashton quoted him to assure the faculty of the rightness of its decision; Bowden quoted him in his final letter to Indiana School of Religion donors, dated Christmas Eve 1964, which thanked them for all their past support and informed them that the university had officially taken over the School’s courses and the finances. The Indiana School of Religion closed, and the College set about building its academic Program in the Study of Religion.

By the time the executive committee had completed its plan and the faculty and trustees had approved it, the College had already hired the inaugural chair of Religious Studies, William May. The program grew quickly. In its first five years, enrollment jumped from about 500 students each semester to nearly 2,000. A Master of Arts program started in 1968. Student interest and growing class sizes demanded the hiring of more faculty. While growth and popularity were a source of pride, they came with a few growing pains. In particular, the faculty had ongoing discussions about the place of theology in the program. Was it a valid form of Religious Studies, or did it belong in private colleges and seminaries? Clearly confessional modes of instruction were never appropriate, but did any theological inquiry have a place at IU? There were no simple answers, but ongoing reflection on the faculty’s own part and the growing field of religious studies quickly became a tradition that continues to today.

-Sarah Imhoff