Historical Overview

As a humanistic enterprise in the liberal arts, the study of religion is, like the social sciences, a relatively recent field of study in the curriculum of the western university. It is a field that spans the older tradition of the humanities, as well as the younger ones of the social sciences. At Harvard, it has been traditionally rooted in the study of history, languages, and philosophy, and if a bias still exists today, it is in the direction of these fields, in all of which the university is particularly strong.

Harvard's concern with religion is as old as the college itself, which its founders hoped would advance learning so as not "to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches" in succeeding generations. The oldest professorship at Harvard is the Hollis Professor of Divinity, dating from 1721; the first graduate program for ministers was begun in 1811; and the Harvard Divinity School was founded in 1816. The tradition of professional ministerial education continues in the Divinity School through the M.Div. degree, and other graduate degree programs have been developed at the school.

In the Yard, the Committee on the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences administers two programs of study in religion, the more recent of which is the undergraduate concentration in "the Comparative Study of Religion", established by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1974. The older program for the Ph.D. in the Study of Religion dates to 1934, when Ph.D. studies in "the History and Philosophy of Religion" were initiated. Harvard's distinguished record of scholarship in the study of religion in the arts and sciences context goes back still farther. One need only mention the name of William James, the great scholar of psychological and philosophical approaches to religion, or that of George Foot Moore, the eminent Semiticist and first renowned student of the religions of the world at Harvard.

More recently, Arthur Darby Nock established a worldwide reputation in the study of Greco-Roman and Hellenistic religion and early Christianity. In recent years, Professor Emeritus Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000), one of the foremost historians of world religion, stands out for his major role in shaping the current structure of both the A.B. and Ph.D. programs in religion. The founding of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard in 1960, and the tenure of Smith as the second director (1964-1974) were milestones in religious studies at Harvard. The Center has brought to Cambridge many beginning students as well as senior scholars from around the world over the past twenty-five years. It remains a major resource for students interested in comparative studies, both at the graduate and at the undergraduate level.

The Committee on the Study of Religion is the interdisciplinary standing committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that oversees both the undergraduate and doctoral (Ph.D. and Th.D.) programs in religion. The membership of this committee is drawn equally from the Arts and Sciences faculty and the Divinity faculty. Diverse departments are represented on the Committee, and students may find themselves working with professors in very different fields during their program of study: Classics, English, Archaeology, Fine Arts, Anthropology, History of Science, Psychology, and Philosophy, among others.