History of the Committee on the Study of Religion

The Study of Religion at Harvard has a complex history and is deeply interwoven with the foundations of the University itself. Please consult the list of past chairs and the timeline below for more details. 


Chairs of the Committee on the Study of Religion

Chairs of the Committee on the Study of Religion

Timeline of the Committee on the Study of Religion

1638: Harvard was founded 1636-1638

Image of Harvard 1740The theological rebellion of Anne Hutchinson and her fellow Antinomians compelled the 1637 General Court to finally fund the "Colledge" that they had founded on paper the previous year.  The school was intended to protect orthodox Puritan theology by educating future ministers in "the New England way." However, it must be understood that while Harvard was established for a religious purpose, it was never a "seminary."  The motive of its founding was theological, but the education provided always included the classical liberal arts.  While approximately 50% of early graduates did enter the ministry, the remainder were entering secular professions.  But at the same time, the religious education offered to all the students who studied in the "Colledge" would help to establish a religious uniformity in the Colony.  This emphasis on conformity in religious education was designed to counter both the method and content of Mrs. Hutchinson, who had advocated that each individual had direct access to Divine inspiration. <embed>
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1654-1671: President Charles Chauncy defends the liberal arts

Charles Chauncy portraitIn a rebuttal of those conservatives who resisted Harvard's early inclusion of the Liberal Arts, and subsequently insisted that the school should provide an exclusively theological education, President Chauncy defended a broad approach to education, declaring that "all trueth is God's trueth," even the components of a classical education that are provided by "heathen authors."  Religion was a key mandatory component of every Harvard student's education, but it was deliberately not the ONLY component of the undergraduate course of study.  Part of Chauncy's goal was to ensure that a degree from Harvard would be recognized by Oxford and Cambridge, where the very definition of education was based upon the Liberal Arts.   image source:  Harvard University Portrait Collection 

1663-1728: Cotton Mather attacks religious education at Harvard

Cotton Mather portraitAs a spectacularly prominent local minister, Mather publicly decried Harvard's emphasis on philosophy and ethics in its undergraduate curriculum, considering it to be a "vile peece of paganism."  Instead, he wanted Harvard to focus exclusively on Christian theology and the Puritan model for the path to salvation.  Harvard responded by three times passing him over for the Presidency.  Mather went on to procure both needed funding and a name for a fledgling college in Connecticut by appealing to a wealthy Englishman, Elihu Yale.

1744: President Edward Holyoke defends "rational" religion

Edward Holyoke portraitWhen popular revivalist George Whitefield visited Boston in 1740, Harvard reluctantly invited him to speak in chapel.  The response to his urgent message of mandatory Christian conversion was notably cool.  In his journal (later published), Whitefield suggested that "the light had gone out at Harvard,' and in his critique he coined the phrase "Godless Harvard."  President Holyoke was compelled to respond publicly, and in his defense of Harvard as still religious, he explained that the College avoided "enthusiasm" in religion, preferring to instead emphasize "reason" and "study."  In making this argument, Holyoke thus explained the need for four years of a Harvard education which included a great deal of Christian theology, which he posited as the only way to oppose religious "fanaticism." 


Image source:  Harvard University Portrait Collection 

1805: The controversy surrounding Unitarian Henry Ware

Henry Ware portraitThe move toward "reason" in religion at Harvard culminated in the appointment of Henry Ware to the Hollis Professorship (the oldest named chair in America).  Ware was a Unitarian (a theological system that radically altered basic Christian concepts) and by placing him in charge of religious education at Harvard, the Corporation openly declared battle with the Trinitarians (Puritan heirs) who balked at the idea of Harvard teaching such "heresy."  Through a series of events, Harvard's Corporation and religion faculty became exclusively Unitarian for the next 75 years.  The appointment of Ware radically altered the content of the mandatory undergraduate religion courses.

  image source:  wikimedia commons 

1816: Harvard Divinity School founded for vocational study

Harvard Divinity School, 1826

In 1808, the Trinitarians who opposed Harvard's new theology retaliated by founding Andover Seminary, the first school of its kind in America.  Not to be outmaneuvered, President John Thornton Kirkland responded by raising funds for the establishment of Harvard's own Divinity School in 1816, where he would formally train Unitarian ministers.  He made public claims that undergraduate religious education at Harvard would remain unchanged, but he did not seem to understand that his decision to hire only Unitarians to teach religion indicated otherwise. The uneasy relationship between the College and Divinity School would continue to influence the structure of education in religion at Harvard until the late 20th century.    image source: Harvard University Archives 

1825: President Josiah Quincy

Josiah Quincy portrait

The Trinitarians (who were paying state taxes to support the College) remained livid for decades after the Ware appointment, and in 1825 they circulated an influential pamphlet asking why a state school such as Harvard was forcing Unitarian theology upon its undergraduates in their mandatory religion classes.  Harvard began to lose students and money over the issue of undergraduate religious education.  President Quincy offered a pragmatic solution to the debate: Harvard would simply stop teaching any theology to undergraduates.  After 200 years of mandatory classes, Harvard now offered instruction in theology only at the Divinity School.    

Josiah Quincy III, by Gilbert Stuart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

1838: Ralph Waldo Emerson and religious education at Harvard

Ralph Waldo Emerson engraving

In his famous Divinity School Address of 1838, Emerson (as an invited guest speaker at Harvard) presented a withering attack on Harvard's system of religious education and of the Unitarianism which remained entrenched at the Divinity School.  Echoing Anne Hutchinson's message of many centuries before, he insisted that each individual should "go alone" and seek their own spiritual wisdom.  Calling Harvard's highly rational approach to religion "corpse cold", he instead demanded that each person be given intellectual and spiritual space to pursue their own truth.  Harvard was upset not only by his attack on their Unitarian theology, but also by the obvious implication that a Harvard education was largely irrelevant.  The University responded by banning Emerson from campus. 


  Ralph Waldo Emerson by Schoff, Stephen Alonzo, 1818-1904, engraver. Rowse, Samuel Worcester, 1822-1901, artist. (Library of Congress[1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

1853-1860: President James Walker and the Plummer Professorship

James Walker portrait

President Walker inherited Quincy’s undergraduate program which had been purged of theology. While Quincy’s plan had resolved the debate over Unitarianism in the College, it had created a new problem: Harvard was now suspect for violating national educational standards by conspicuously not teaching religion to its undergraduates. Walker’s solution was to create the Plummer Professorship of Christian Morals. This new Professor was not to teach theology (following Quincy’s lead) but would instead focus on teaching general principles of morality upon which all Christian denominations could agree.  By creating this professorship, Walker was attempting to overcome mid-19th century suspicion of the Divinity School, when the Corporation had actually sought permission from the state legislature to sever ties with the Divinity School.  However, this new permanent adumbration of theology proper in the College seems to have confirmed Cotton Mather’s worst fears for Harvard. 


  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

1869-1909: President Charles William Eliot

Charles W Eliot portrait

Mandatory undergraduate study in religious morality had seemed to solve Harvard's problem in the 1850s and 60s, but visionary Charles Eliot, inspired by Emerson, made further radical revisions in the undergraduate curriculum. These changes in the 1870s and 80s completely altered Harvard's approach to religious education.  Eliot ended the 250-year tradition of mandatory chapel attendance.  He created an entirely new educational model where students selected their own coursework (the "elective system") rather than all undergraduates taking the same classes together for four years.  In religion, he insisted that the College must not attempt to inculcate any particular religious views, but should instead use a new academic model for what he termed "the scientific study of religion". This was a phenomenological approach to the analysis of beliefs and practices rather than advocacy of the students' personal religiosity.  Even at the Divinity School, which remained vocationally oriented, he encouraged the study of "comparative religion." 

1871-1882: Comparative religion with Professors Clarke & Everett

James Freeman Clarke portraitJames Freeman Clarke of the Divinity School appears to be the first Professor at Harvard to teach a course in comparative religion (the class was entitled "Ethnic Religions") in 1867, which preceded the 1871 publication of his influential book Ten Great Religions.  However, it must be noted that in his approach, Christian exceptionalism served as a methodological foundation.  Comparative courses were also taught by Edward Everett at the Divinity School during the 1870s, but in 1882 Everett for the first time offered such a course in Harvard College.  His "Studies in the Comparative History of Religions" College class covered the Vedic, later Brahmanic, Buddhist, Mazdean and Chinese religions.  Despite this new context of teaching in the College, Everett continued to espouse Christianity as the "final" or "Absolute Religion" in his lectures. (left Clarke, right Everett)  Edward Everett portait

1902: George Foot Moore, Harvard Divinity School

George Foot Moore portrait

In 1902, George Foot Moore ("who was considered by many to be the most learned man in the University") was placed in charge of the newly created FAS division of study entitled "The History of Religions."  Compared to his Harvard predecessors in comparative religion, Moore took a very different approach.  In his first lecture of 1902, Moore abandoned Christian triumphalism, and instead insisted that Christianity be analyzed "from the same point of view from which that of other religions is written."  Arguing for what he called (borrowing from Eliot) the "Comparative Science of Religion," Moore declared that Christianity must be "deprived of the unique position which it asserted for itself" in academic study.  In his lectures and in his writing (his monumental two volume History of Religion was published in 1914), Christianity was set alongside of all other religions, to be studied under the same presuppositions and standards.  This was a key turning point, when the methodology employed in the FAS demanded equal treatment of ALL religions, while the Divinity School (still training Christian ministers) appeared to maintain Christian exceptionalism.   


image source: Harvard University Portrait Collection 

1934: Arthur Darby Nock and the Ph.D. in History and Philosophy

Arthur Darby Nock photograph

Under the able leadership of Arthur Darby Nock, the new and very young Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences finally admits the want of a program allowing graduate work in Religion. In a collaborative move, the Department of Philosophy, the Department of History, and the Divinity School lend support and faculty to the incipient field of study in the GSAS. Nock (working with a committee) created a unique program which drew upon Faculty working in various Departments and Divisions.  An initial admission requirement for prospective students to hold an  advanced degree in Divinity (now called an M.Div.) was later dropped. In its first 20 years, 53 candidates are awarded the Ph.D. 

  image source:  HUP Nock, A.D. (4), Harvard University Archives 

1942: First Ph.D. awarded to Elwyn Allen Smith

As an early matriculant in the program, Smith embodied the program's link to the Divinity School and had been trained as a Christian minister. His dissertation was focused on "The Realization of Calvin's Church-State Theory in Geneva" and he later published a volume entitled The Presbyterian Ministry in American Culture (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1962).  Keeping one foot in the Academy and one foot in Ministry, Smith went on to teach at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Temple University, before being appointed as Provost at Eckerd College in Florida, where he struggled to save the small college which was facing significant budget shortfalls.  When the financial crisis at Eckerd proved to eventually undercut Smith's own position (in addition to the firing of tenured faculty), he decided to return his attention to full-time work as a Christian minister. He died in 2009.  Elwyn Allen Smith book title page

1956: Susan Taubes: first woman to earn Harvard Ph.D. in Religion

Susan Taubes title page

Studying under Paul Tillich, Susan Taubes wrote her dissertation "The Absent God: A Study of Simone Weil."  She went on to teach religion at Columbia University during the 1960s, while simultaneously being active in the New York alternative theatre scene, and publishing her novel, Divorcing, in 1969, shortly before her tragic death at age 41.  The significance of her philosophical and poetic manuscripts has recently garnered much attention, after the publication of several volumes of her papers, the first of which was Die Korrespondendenz mit Jacob Taubes 1950-1951 (Wilhelm Fink Pub, 2011). 

1963: Ph.D. program offered by The Study of Religion

Wilfred Cantwell Smith photograph

At the request of the Philosophy and History Departments, who had no direct oversight of the Religion degree, the nomenclature was altered to reflect the independent status of graduate study in religion.  The Committee now (1964) came under the leadership of Wilfred Cantwell Smith (following the death of Arthur Darby Nock in 1963), who came to Harvard Divinity School to be the second director of the Center for the Study of World Religions (after Roger Slater's tenure from 1960-64).  Through the 1960s, Professor Smith sought to emphasize a "comparative approach" to the study of religion.  In 1966, he noted that at other universities, religion was either excluded or prioritized Christianity.  At Harvard, he suggested, the goal should be "to study, interpret and understand religious phenomena," a goal which assumed that "the comparative element must be taken for granted".  Although not permitted to make appointments alone or to offer classes in the College at this juncture, Smith felt that the Committee should soon be permitted to offer both graduate and undergraduate level coursework. 

1963-1973: Debates about the undergraduate study of religion

HDS 1960s

Following the success of the incipient Ph.D. program, the Committee seeks permission to offer instruction to undergraduates in the College.  In 1966, however, "the principle of no concentration for undergraduates was strenuously reaffirmed" by the FAS.  As one committee noted, Harvard "will soon be the only institution in the country that does not offer an undergraduate concentration in religion."  But why was the FAS so hesitant to allow the creation of an undergraduate program of study?  Part of the reason lies in the uneasy relationship between the Divinity School and the FAS.  Because the Divinity School was obviously oriented to training students for the vocation of ministry, the FAS was wary of the old debates over inculcation of faith vs the "science" of religion.  Or as one Committee member phrased it, the FAS had a "kind of easy or gratuitous suspicion of the Divinity School."  However, during this same era there was an interdisciplinary group of supportive faculty within the FAS. This included Zeph Stewart from Classics, James Kugel from NELC, John Murdock from History of Science, Hilary Putnam from Philosophy, John Rosenfield from East Asian Art and Jim Engler from English. As graduate students, Diana Eck and WIlliam Graham worked with Professor Richard Niebuhr (who moved from HDS to FAS) to establish the undergraduate program.  As Graham later explained it, they were successful despite concern among some FAS members that their plan represented "the camel's nose under the tent--an attempt to introduce religious beliefs into the secular university."  It certain ways, those FAS concerns were reminiscent of old 19th century Harvard debates on the status of religion in the curriculum.  Key to the new plan was the emphasis on "comparative study" as well as the creation of a "committee" rather than a Department of Religion. 

1974: Creation of concentration in the comparative study of religion

Barker Center

The FAS Faculty Council was willing to accept the proposal for undergraduate instruction, as long as the Chair was a member of the faculty of the FAS (not HDS) and the status of the Committee prevented the hiring of independent faculty.  This meant that the longstanding tradition of an interdisciplinary approach (utilizing faculty from various fields of study) would continue.  Simultaneously, it was a cost saving maneuver on the part of the FAS, who would not be required to fund a new independent Department--for Professors who served on the Committee would hold a concurrent appointment in another field of study.  Formal approval by the FAS for the Undergraduate program was granted on 12 February 1974.  At this point the former FAS standing Committee on HIgher Degrees in the Study of Religion became the Committee on the Study of Religion, its membership being drawn as before from both FAS and HDS faculty.  In the fall of 1974, the Committee conducted interviews with 20 students, and the concentration began with seven undergraduates matriculated in the new program as of the '74-'75 academic year. The requirements for these honors-only undergraduates were daunting, requiring sixteen half-courses, two years of language study, general exams, and the successful completion of a senior thesis. thesis. Once begun, the new program was further strengthened when Diana Eck joined Niebuhr and Graham in 1975 and the Committee's course listings began to grow stronger each year with increasing numbers of courses cross-listed from both HDS and FAS departments as well.    

1970s & 80s: Debates regarding the Th.D. and Ph.D. programs

1970s and 80s

Ongoing Faculty discussions in the 1970s and 1980s revealed the diversity of opinions regarding the relationship between the Divinity School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.  This was particularly manifest in some opposition to a 1981 plan for a Doctoral Joint Sub-Committee to pursue "joint governance" of the Th.D. and Ph.D. programs.  Some FAS members "stressed that a commitment to the Christian Church could not and should not be shared by the FAS." This concern over the appearance of espousing any particular religious tradition stood behind their hesitation that the FAS "should not be involved in administering a Th.D. programme."  Even some HDS faculty did not want to lose a separate theological doctoral degree. Nonetheless, While this view was by no means universal within the FAS, there was although the two degrees would not come a single one for another thirty years, both were brought together in 1982 under the single administration of the Committee, which henceforth recommended candidates for the ThD degree to the HDS faculty and those for the PhD to the FAS.  

The success of the comparative approach used in the Undergraduate program inspired a revision of the graduate program, following a more flexible definition of "comparative" study of religion.  This model did not limit the idea of "comparative" study to the deliberate positioning of two traditions side by side but rather stressed the necessity of studying at least a second religious tradition at a synoptic level in addition to the tradition of specialization.  This new design, developed under the leadership of Wilfred Cantwell Smith (who returned to Harvard in 1978) offered the student the ability to focus on one tradition in depth. The PhD general exams were redesigned to ensure some breadth of knowledge alongside mastery of a specialty.  There was now one generic exam to be taken by all candidates alike, which included attention to the global history of religion as well as the varied scholarly approaches to the study of religion.  While students were required to do work in a tradition or area beyond the realm of their own field of study, the last two exams focused on their area of specialization.  In 1981 the Faculty of Divinity also approved a plan for revision of the Th.D. program of study. This pattern was to hold for thirty years. 


1978-1981: New design adopted for the "new" Ph.D. program


The success of the comparative approach used in the Undergraduate program inspired a revision of the graduate program, following a more flexible definition of "comparative" study of religion. This model did not limit the idea of "comparative" study to the deliberate positioning of two traditions side by side. This new design developed under the leadership of Wilfred Cantwell Smith offered the student the ability to focus on one tradition in depth, which was to be conjoined with general exams that were designed to also ensure some breadth of knowledge.  There was now one generic exam to be taken by all candidates alike, which included attention to the history of religion as well as the various scholarly approaches to the study of religion. While students were required to do work in a tradition or area beyond the realm of their own field of study, the last two exams would then focus on their area of specialization. In 1981 the Faculty of Divinity also approved a plan for revision of the Th.D. program of study. 

1990s: Program and initiative additions

Phillips Brooks House

During the 1990's the volume of applications to the Ph.D. and Th.D. programs surged to reach a new level. The Committee added an option in Buddhist Studies and was able to grant tenure to Ali Asani, whose appointment was within the Committee for the Study of Religion. A new joint appointment with the Department of African American studies was created, reflecting the continuing modernization of Religion offerings. The Committee was also home to Diana Eck's Pluralism Project, a multi-million dollar research enterprise tasked with mapping the changing presence of world religions in America, with an eye to understanding the philosophical and cultural frameworks that contextualized this surge of changes following the alteration of US immigration policies in 1965. 

2012: Bynum report recommendations

 Caroline Walker Bynum photo After several years of sustained discussions in both FAS and HDS concerning a fuller integration of the direction and oversight of both AB and doctoral studies in religion, an external advisory committee was created in 2011-12 to consider the structure of religious studies at Harvard.  Esteemed religious historian and former FAS and HDS faculty member Caroline Bynum and a committee of further outside scholars were charged by President Drew Faust to consider ways to optimize Harvard's institutional organization and degree programs in religion. One of the central tasks of the committee was to consider the complex interwoven relationships of HDS and FAS faculty and programs.  The Bynum Report affirmed that the "academic study of religion is essential" and acknowledged the "extraordinary resources within the field that exist at Harvard."  But the report suggested that changes should be made to strengthen both the Undergraduate and Graduate programs.  They expressed their primary concern in noting that "the absence of a religious studies department in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard is, in our view, a troubling omission for a university of such comprehensive distinction across a broad range of the humanities and social sciences."  

2015: Harvard Divinity School changes Th.D. to Ph.D.

Barker Center

While the response to the Bynum Report was not to issue in the founding of an FAS department, the report's recognition of the inefficient nature of maintaining two parallel Doctoral programs led in 2014 to the merger of both into a single joint Ph.D. program of both faculties. The final cadre of Th.D. students was admitted, exactly 100 years after their first predecessors in 1914.  Going forward, the Committee on the Study of Religion was to administer  the Ph.D. program, offered jointly by the GSAS and Harvard Divinity School.  Faculty from both schools advise Ph.D. candidates and offer courses in the program and support of doctoral students would be evenly shared.  With this modification, Harvard finally effectively realized the vision that many had had going back to at least 1978 of an integrated doctoral as well as undergraduate program in religion. 

Barker Center for the Humanities

image source:  S. Shoemaker 


Drew Faust image

Debate continues regarding the implementation of the primary suggestion of the Bynum Report (supporting the creation of a Religion Department in the FAS) which would allow for the independent hiring of faculty, but might potentially bring into question the nature of the collaborative relationship with the Divinity School and could undermine the interdisciplinary approach that is fostered by the very nature of being structured as a Committee.  In an important way, the continuation of the structure of the Committee on the Study of Religion actually reflects a sea change in the attitude of the FAS toward the Divinity School as well as considerable change in Divinity faculty views of theological studies.  For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the FAS at various junctures indicated a hesitation regarding the Divinity School, based upon the assumption that by its very nature, a school preparing students for ministry was in a position of advocating a particular faith.  However, by the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, it was obvious to all observers that the excellent academic work being done at HDS in religious studies was thoroughly scholarly and eclectic, and not agenda-driven.  By continuing the Committee structure in the 21st century, Harvard's administration was actually signalingthat it valued the collaboration of FAS and HDS, and that the vital contribution of Divinity faculty to religious studies in the FAS should not be jeopardized in any way.  In this respect, the FAS attitude toward HDS had come full circle, fully recognizing it as a symbiotic component of what the FAS program offers to its students. Correspondingly, the HDS had affirmed the importance of theological studies being carried out in a multi-religious environment in which different traditions could be placed in conversation with one another by a faculty and student body diverse in religious commitments and academic approaches but all committed to scholarly study of religion in global context. 

Additional information and resources

For further information and suggestions for research sources contact Dr. Stephen P. Shoemaker or search for Religion 1513 (Harvard's Evolving Religious Identity) on the Harvard FAS Registrar course list.