Orange Alert

Religion Department History

archival image of the Syracuse University Hall of Languages shortly after it was built.

Foundations: 1870-1970

The history of the Department of Religion as a distinct departmental unit within the Liberal Arts dates from 1895, but the enterprise we now refer to as the study of religion dates to the founding of Syracuse University in 1870 when --- as a Methodist Church-related institution – the mission of the University was to teach “Christian learnings, literature and science… and the knowledge of the learned professions.”1 In such a context it is not surprising to see courses offered in “Christian Evidences” (presumably biblical studies), ethics and moral philosophy, and the Biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek -- though it might be a bit surprising to find the University’s Chancellor listed as an instructor! Underlying the centrality of such instruction, these courses played a central role in the “classical curriculum” of the “Liberal Arts Curriculum”2 and evidence suggests that the University’s first endowed Professorship (1871) was the Eliphalet Remington Professorship (in religion).3

While it certainly cannot be denied that this enterprise – focused as it was on Christian foundations and thought – served Church-related interests, there was not only a self-conscious decision on the University’s part not to let such study develop into a seminary,4 but there was a clear desire by the faculty to maintain a remove from religious training and vocations, and to pursue these subject matters in a scholarly manner. The Department’s first Chair, the Rev. Dr. Ismar Peritz (act. at SU 1895-1933), perhaps said it best when – in 1945 – he wrote that “The point of view of the Department was from the beginning critical, scientific and evolutionary.”5

Indeed, throughout the first one hundred years, and notwithstanding a close and continuing relationship between individual faculty and the Church in various ways, it cannot be doubted that the key players (see Appendix I) were committed to the scholarly enterprise: All were active in research and scholarly publication, and some were even foundational to national scholarly organizations such as the National Association of Biblical Instructors (the precursor to the American Academy of Religion) and the Society of Biblical Literature (still active today). Moreover, ample evidence exists indicating a rich tradition of visiting professors and guest lecturers of significant reputation – a tradition underlined by the establishment of the local honor society Theta Chi Beta in 1915.6

The Department per se was established in 1895 as the Department of Semitics and Archeology, with Peritz appointed as its first Chair.7 Its program (undergraduate only at this time) replicated Dr. Peritz’s own graduate training at Harvard (Ph.D. ca. 1890) in the languages and literatures of the Biblical world, though in a short time the focus shifted more clearly to biblical studies and closely related sub-fields8 as the following Department name-changes indicate: In 1901 it became the Department of Semitic Languages and Biblical Literature, and in 1913 the Department of Biblical Languages and Literatures.9 Relatedly, in 1905 the Willard Ives Professorship in English Bible was established, and Peritz became the first person to hold it.10

For the first 75 years (ca. 1870-1950) biblical studies (especially Old Testament) was central, with the attendant sub-fields of languages, histories, ethics and religious education playing supportive roles. Only from around the early 1930’s does the word “religion” begin to appear more frequently – perhaps most importantly in another Department name-change (to the Department of Bible and Religion in 193311), but also in the offering of courses such as “Aspects of Religion.” Indeed, Peritz announced in the Daily Orange in 1932 that “for the first time in the history of the University the (Department) has been broadened to include religion and its applications to modern problems.”12

These foundations are not unlike similar enterprises being established at the same time in other Church-related universities such as Yale, Harvard and Princeton. For obvious reasons, all such enterprises took on the appearance of a (Christian) seminary education, but – just as at Syracuse University – many such studies sought increasingly to distinguish themselves from parochial purposes, and located themselves clearly within academic, scholarly vocations and disciplines. (Some schools also established separate seminaries in addition to religion departments, though Syracuse was not one of them.) In this broad sense, then, the Syracuse department evolved in very similar ways as others in North America into what we now call the academic study of religion (or religious studies).

This evolution continued on through the “Beck years” (after Dr. Dwight M. Beck, biblical scholar and Department Chair from 1933-1959), and name-changes again signal that fact (to the Department of Bible and Religion in 1933, and to the Department of Religion in 195913). By 1960 such studies included (other than Christian studies) Judaism, Hinduism, and shortly thereafter Islam14, and religious thought. Robertson reports, for example, that in seeking new faculty hires in 1959 the Department listed the following possible areas of competence: “Religious Education, Church History and/or Religious Thought, History of Religions, (and) Christian or Social Ethics.”15 Similarly, such studies were available at both the undergraduate level and (now) at the graduate level through a Departmental M.A. degree (since 1955) and a Ph.D. in both the Humanities and the Social Sciences (with a Religion emphasis).

Such an expansion in subject matters called for an expansion in the number of faculty, and it is thereby no surprise to see a growth from 6 members in 1955 to 12 in 1965, and to see an increasing use of Visiting Professors and outside guest lecturers. Enrollments in courses at all levels also increased as the faculty and the number of courses offered increased.16

These changes did not necessarily mean any decrease in linkages to the Methodist Church or to church-related interests: Indeed, the Department continued to service Church needs in the form of continuing education programs for regional clergy, and a renewed effort (by ca 1960) to mount a Ph.D. (Ed.D.) degree program in Religious (Christian) Education through the School of Education (with an emphasis in religion).17 Similarly, faculty continued to have professional degrees from seminaries, as well as the now requisite Ph.D.’s, and often to have close relationships with local churches and/or the University’s own Hendricks Chapel. Such a notable Visiting Professor as Rudolf Bultman (1959-60) underlines the issue: The distinction between the scholarly study and the religious life itself was not always easy to maintain with clarity.

Significant changes were in the wind, however, as alternate visions about the study of religion and its future at Syracuse University took hold through the efforts of such people in the early 1960’s as Professors Gabriel Vahanian, H. Daniel Smith, James Wiggins, T. William Hall, and Isma’il al Faruqi (the latter being SU’s first Islamicist). Around 1965 the Department went through some serious self-study, and came out of it looking quite different in terms of organizational structure (e.g. standing committees, a rotating Chair with administrative skills, and more democratic decision-making procedures) and identity or sense of mission. Faculty meeting minutes of October 23, 1967, for example, described the interests of the Department as the study of religions, of religion and culture (e.g. literature), and of religion and society (e.g. social ethics). It remains for the second section of this short history to show how that new identity gets implemented.

Elaborations: 1970-2007

A number of significant changes took place after 1965 that culminated in the implementation in 1969-70 of the Department’s own Ph.D. program (the MA having already been available since 1955) and the redefinition of the Ledden Chair from religious education to religion, with the latter position filled by Dr. Stanley Hopper of Drew University – an established scholar in religion and literature, religion and culture, and hermeneutics.18 With Vahanian spear-heading the effort and helping to secure the appointments of Hopper (from 1968) and another arrival from Drew, David L. Miller (from 1967; mythologies, religion and culture, depth psychology), the department established and shaped a new program and provided foundations that are still playing themselves out. (Other key players at this time include those mentioned in the paragraph above plus those new in the later 1960’s such as James Williams, Ronald Cavanagh and Thomas Finn.)

Perhaps indicative of the dramatic turn of events at this time, all references to – and courses in – religious education disappeared from the Department descriptions (see fn. #18), and the Department began to describe itself around the study of religions (featuring Christian studies but offering others as well), religious thought (even “theology”), and cultural forms or contexts (e.g. literature and the arts). Indeed, while the graduate program was initially (1969-70) defined around “the broad study of religious phenomena in their cultural context focusing either in the area of religion and culture or in the area of Christian thought” (see flyer in Appendix II), very quickly (perhaps by 1970-71) it was described in terms of the “two tracks” of Religious Symbol Systems and Cultural Symbol Systems (very roughly the study of religions and of cultural contexts), with textual, historical, and theology studies closely related to both.19

More generally, Robertson offers an excellent “snapshot” of the Department and its programs in 1968 which marks the new face of things (see Appendix II). Here he lists and addresses the nature of the faculty (and its independence from outside religious groups), the undergraduate program (including enrollments), and the graduate program as of 1968-69. The faculty named here (on the flyer) for the most part remain important to the growing program for several years (retirements and new faculty notwithstanding).

Indeed, it is basically this faculty’s graduate program about which the following is said in the first ever evaluation of the program in 1976: “The 1971 Welsh report on Graduate Education in Religion classified Syracuse as among the ‘new and promising programs, some of which are potentially of the first rank.’ The (evaluation) committee has found nothing that would lead it to disagree with that classification. We believe that the Department has set interesting and reasonable goals, and has taken significant steps toward achieving them. The approach to graduate education is individualized and flexible, and does not compromise quality.”20

The Department continued to be blessed through these years (ca 1970) by the reception of endowed monies (both in the name of Chancellor Tolley, and in the name of the Methodist Church), and two endowed professorships from the Watson family – the Thomas J. and the Jeanette K. Watson professorships in religion.21 These and other funds not only allowed the Department to make significant faculty appointments over the subsequent years (e.g. Professors Gabriel Vahanian [already on the faculty], and Charles Long as Jeanette K. Watson professors; and Professors Huston Smith, Charles Winquist and John Caputo as the Thomas J. Watson professors), but also to carry on a rich tradition of visiting professorships, guest lecturers, special colloquia, and annual “retreats” for graduate student/faculty conversations – and all of this in addition to the on-going Rudolph Lecture Series in Judaic Studies (from 1963) and the annual Theta Chi Beta lectures.22

As the Department evolved from 1970-1985, new faculty such as Professors Richard Pilgrim (from 1970), Huston Smith (from 1971), Katherine Havice (from 1972), Alan Berger (from 1973), Amanda Porterfield (from 1976), Patricia Cox Miller (from 1977), Michael Novak (from 1977), Susan Shapiro (from 1982), and Ernest Wallwork (from 1983) were brought on board and both literally and figuratively the face of the Department began to change. That is, not only were women increasingly important to the make-up of the faculty, but faculty strengths in historical and non-Western studies, Jewish Studies, American Religion, and studies of antiquity increased. These strengths complemented those already extant such a religious thought and theology, religion and culture, and textual studies as represented by the continuing faculty as of 1985 (Professors H. Daniel Smith, James Wiggins, T. William Hall, James Williams, Ronald Cavanagh, and David Miller).

In reference to Jewish Studies, which to date had not been independently offered (by a designated scholar in this area), Alan Berger became the Department’s first hire explicitly in that field. With his help and the Department’s blessing, the College of Arts and Sciences established the Jewish Studies program in 1980, with Berger as its first Director. With the establishment of the Rudolph Chair in Jewish Studies in 1993, and the coming of Professor Ken Frieden to fill it, the Judaic Studies program (and continuing Rudolph Lecture Series) became a permanent fixture closely allied to the Department as an interdisciplinary program of the College.

The picture we have of the Department in 1985 is nicely expressed by the report of an external review committee in 1984 (see Appendix III23). While the full report has some concerns and suggestions, the summary in Appendix III offers a picture of excellence across all programs and underlies the “bold” and “avant garde” nature of the program in relation to similar programs at other leading institutions.

The 1980’s saw some other changes as well: On the one hand, some key faculty were now leaving or retiring (Professors Novak in 1978, Huston Smith in 1983, Vahanian in 1984, Hall in 1986), or shifting roles in the University (Professor Cavanagh to the upper administration from 1980 – 2006), while others were arriving (Professors Long in 1983 as a Visiting Professor and 1988 as a Chaired professor, Merkur in 1985, Winquist in 1985 as a Visiting Professor and 1986 as a Chaired professor, Bazell in 1990). These changes strengthened the Department’s offerings in history of religions and radical theologies or philosophies of religion, and may also have helped move the Department through some changes in the graduate program as it dropped the “two tracks” referenced above in favor of a simple listing of available areas of study (see Appendix IV reflecting a program description in 1986). These changes also reflect the graduate program’s increasing commitment to theory and interpretation in the study of religion when the 1986 flyer (Appendix IV) says the program “focuses on contemporary problems of interpretation.”

By 1990 the Department had well-established programs that – while occasionally tweaked and altered – continued to serve well the teaching and study of religion at all levels. In an excellent summary of where the Department stood as of 199124, then Department Chair Wiggins describes the program in relation to the nature of the study of religion (nationally), and offers useful statistics on enrollments, courses, graduate support, and etc. Much of what is said there is still true today, and the following extended quotation should fill out the picture a bit:

1. Departmental enrollments during the past five years have shown a remarkable increase at every level, except the graduate program which is highly selective and strictly constrained in size.

The display below indicates the numbers of students enrolled in all courses at each level of the curriculum (Lower Division: 100-200 courses; Upper Division: 300-500 courses; Graduate: 600 and higher courses). The numbers are the totals for both semesters in an average of 24 courses offered each semester. Almost all TAs (a total of 9, down from 11 as a result of 1990-91 cuts) assist in professor-taught courses rather than in their own independent courses. During the past two years a very select group of advanced Ph.D. students have been appointed as Part-time Instructors to teach one upper-division course each semester. This has enriched our upper-division spread of courses and has permitted the instructors to gain experience in areas of their greatest immediate competence, rather than forcing them to attempt the very demanding task of teaching at the introductory level.

Enrollment data for the period 1986-87 to 1990-91 are as follows:

The percentage increases are dramatic: Lower Division change: +48.6%; Upper Division change: +157%; Graduate change: +68.5%

As of December 19, 1991 there are 25 majors recorded, 8 of whom are dual with various and sundry other programs, and there are 24 minors on record. Taken together these represent an increase during the five years of over 500%.

At the graduate level the department typically admits 6 to 10 new students annually, many of whom remain through the Ph.D. program. As of December 1991, there are 7 matriculated MA students, 26 Pre-comprehensive examination Ph.D. students, and 20 at various dissertation research stages. This total of 50 graduate students barely fluctuates from year to year as a result of admissions replacing students completing degree programs. Since the first class of Ph.D. graduates in 1973, 53 Ph.Ds 60s and early 70s, 29 Ph.Ds with a focus in religion were earned through the Humanities Ph.D Program.

The department is highly have been earned and in a slightly longer period 85 MAs were awarded. Further, before the department began awarding an independent Ph.D., during the competitive in recruiting graduate students. The admission to application ratio runs at about 1:8. The most frequent competitors are Harvard, Chicago, Yale, the University of Virginia and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Our major disadvantage is both the number and the amount of support awards available. Our students compete exceptionally well for SU Fellowships, a typical number in any given year being 3-5. The stipend, however, is falling ever further behind our competitors, as is the stipend for Graduate Assistantships. We rarely offer an assistantship to any but Ph.D. students with the effect of our typically having more mature and better prepared assistants than departments that employ entering MA students in such positions.

2. The current faculty complement is 12, 9 of whom teach a full load of two courses each semester, 2 of whom teach 1 course each semester, and 1 of whom is in a full-time central administrative position.

The Department of Religion is extremely fortunate regularly to have three endowed, named professorships available to it. As of last September one of those was vacant and a search is underway for a visitor to serve in that position for 1992-93.

We have two fulltime departmental staff positions and one half-time position.

3. The faculty enjoys a reputation of being very good to outstanding classroom teachers, some more effective in large lecture settings than others, others more effective seminar or small-class teachers. We continue to exchange ideas regarding pedagogy. We are in the midst of discussions regarding contributions we can make to a possible all-university liberal studies core, and we believe we have distinctive things to say regarding multi-cultural/diversity issues. We participate heavily in the current major components of the humanities cluster in the Liberal Arts Core (so heavily as to weaken our ability to offer enough courses at the upper division level for majors and minors), and we are deeply committed to maintaining the quality of our Ph.D. program.

Barely 30 years established in many institutions, the field of the academic study of religion benefits significantly from the existence of departments of long-standing and high visibility and reputation such as this one at Syracuse. No reputational rankings exist for the field, but anecdotally there is reason to believe that ours is among the top 10-15 departments in the country. (End of extended quotation.)

The changing of the guard continued through the 1990’s: Retiring or leaving in this period were Professors Merkur (1990), Long (1991), H. Daniel Smith (1993), Berger (1993), Porterfield (1997), Bazell (1998) and Williams (1998). Joining the faculty, on the other hand, were Professors Ann G. Gold (1993), Ken Frieden (1993), Philip Arnold (1996), Zachary Braiterman (1997), M. Gail Hamner (1998) and James Watts (1999). While some of these new people replaced previous sub-field specialists, there was a net gain in social science perspectives and South Asian studies, as well as Native American studies, contemporary theory, philosophy of religion, and Jewish Studies. With this group in hand – plus continuing faculty including Professors Wiggins, Miller, Pilgrim, Cox-Miller, Wallwork and Winquist -- the Department was poised to enter the 21st Century, and to meet the challenges facing it in the coming years.

The 1990’s also saw two significant anniversaries: In the spring of 1990, Theta Chi Beta celebrated its 75th anniversary, while in 1995 the Department celebrated its 100th anniversary.25 In both cases, notable scholars from beyond the campus were present, and the growing group of Department alumni were also present – especially former graduate students who had become successful in the profession.

More recent years (2000-2007) have brought significant – if not dramatic – transitions with the retirements of James Wiggins and David Miller in 2001, the untimely death of Charles Winquist in 2002, 2006 and (later in this period) the retirement of Richard Pilgrim (2007) 26. On the other hand, new faces continued to appear in the persons of Professors Tazim Kassam (2000), Joanne Waghorne (2002), Marcia Robinson (2002), Gustav Niebuhr (2004), and John (“Jack”) Caputo (in 2004) – the latter as the Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and the Humanities. With Pilgrim chairing the department from 2000-2001 through 2005-2006, and new leadership coming along (with Kassam as current Chair), the new and renewed Department of Religion now has special strengths in a) both Western and non-Western studies (especially Islam and South Asian religions, but also Christianity and Judaism), b) in other textual, historical studies related to American and Native American studies, c) social scientific perspectives on religion and ethics, d) philosophies and theologies of religion, e) theories of interpretation, and f) popular culture and media studies.

Worthy of special note is the development (from 2003 on) of the interdisciplinary program in Religion and Society which creates strong linkages to the Social Sciences and features studies of contemporary and global religious situations. Initially directed by James Watts and then directed by Gustav Niebuhr from 2004, this program has symbolized the Department’s increasing commitment to the study of religion in a contemporary, globalizing world, and to interdisciplinary studies – commitments also represented by such more recent religion-included, interdisciplinary programs as the Native American Studies Program, Muslim Cultures Program, South Asia Program, Religion and Media Program, and Middle Eastern Studies Program.

Perhaps an appropriate ending point for this brief history is to reference and characterize the College-generated external review of the Department completed in Fall 2004 (see Appendix V). While this report raises concerns and makes suggestions, the basic tenor is very positive as regards the present situation and prognosis for the future. With new leadership now in office, and with the continuing participation of both senior and junior faculty, the Department is well on its way to “crafting a new intellectual vision” and “constructing a new identity.”27

Richard B. Pilgrim
Professor Emeritus, Religion
Fall 2007



  1. D. B. Robertson, 'History of the Department of Religion (at) Syracuse University'. Unpublished booklet dated 1968; pp.1-2.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid, p.98.
  4. Ibid, pp.99f.
  5. Ibid, p.10.
  6. Ibid, pp.122ff.
  7. Ibid, p.2.
  8. Ibid, p.5-7.
  9. Ibid, pp.14, 18.
  10. Ibid, p.14.
  11. Ibid, p.34.
  12. Ibid, p.20.
  13. Ibid, pp.44.
  14. The existence of Islamic studies in the Department was short-lived, and came to an end (until 2000) when Prof. alFaruqi left in 1968.
  15. Robertson, p. 43.
  16. Robertson indicates that Department courses were enrolling a total of ca. 600 students each semester in 1960, but the number had doubled by as soon as 1964. Ibid, pp.199f.
  17.  The very short history of the Religious Education degree program, and the related history of the initial establishment of the (Bishop) W. Earl Ledden Chair in Religious Education by the Methodist Church, is covered in Robertson, pp.51-63. Richard Phillips adds, here, that - under Howard Ham in the early 1960's - several students earned masters and doctorates (mostly Ed.D.) through a joint Arts and Sciences/School of Education program in Religious Education with a focus on religious education/administration and the psychology of religion.
  18. T. William Hall, then (latter 1960¿s) Department Chair, says in a private communication that in ca. 1966 he and the Department created an ad hoc self-study group of faculty, Church administrators, and outside scholars which subsequently recommended the following four actions to the University: 1) to discontinue the Religious Education Program, 2) to continue to participate in the Humanities Ph.D. program, 3) to plan for an autonomous graduate program in religion, and 4) to search for a distinguished scholar to appoint to the Ledden Professorship.
  19. See the Vahanian-written proposal to the University making application for the Department to offer the Ph.D., especially pp.8f, in Department files.
  20. From the "External Report" (after the committee's Chair, Professor Robert Exner of the Mathematics Department at SU); p.20.
  21. Department Minutes of September 16, 1969. 
  22. On the Rudolph lecture series, see Robertson, pp.92f. See p.130 for a list of Theta Chi Beta lectures through 1968, and the Theta Chi Beta 75th Anniversary records (1990) for lectures to 1990.
  23. This external review was conducted at the Department¿s request, and was carried out by Professors Catherine Albanese (then of Wright State University), Stephen Crites (then of Wesleyan University), and Robert Michaelson (then of the University of California, Santa Barbara). James Wiggins was Department Chair at the time.
  24. "Overview of the Department" written by James Wiggins in 1999; pp.11f. Available in Department records.
  25. See Department scrapbooks and Theta Chi Beta records for further information on these anniversaries. (Note on Theta Chi Beta: Theta Chi Beta became a chapter of the national honor society Theta Alpha Kappa in 1991.)
  26. See Department scrapbooks and records for the Memorial Service held on behalf of Charles Winquist on May 4, 2002.
  27. External Report of 2004, pp.3 and 4. (See Appendix V.) Department of Religion as a distinct departmental unit within the Liberal Arts dates from 1895, but the enterprise we now refer to as the study of religion dates to the founding of Syracuse University in 1870 when -- as a Methodist Church-related institution -- the mission of the University was the teach "Christian learnings, literature, science... and the knowledge of learned professions."