History of the Study of Religion at BU

Boston University began as a Methodist seminary in 1839, so the study of religion has been central to B.U.’s mission from the start. But the study of religion here has rarely been either parochial or sectarian. In fact, the university’s first president, William Fairfield Warren, helped to lay the foundation for religious studies when he taught one of the first courses ever in the United States in comparative religion. Throughout its history, scholars of religion at Boston University have looked beyond theology to other disciplines and beyond Christianity to religions in the wider world.

The seeds for an independent Department of Religion were planted with the establishment of the School of Religious Education and Social Service in 1919. Some of the most notable work in this school, which emphasized religious aspects of social work, was done by Professor Edgar S. Brightman, who studied mysticism East and West.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Professor Walter Muelder used his position as Dean of the School of Theology to establish close ties between B.U.’s faculty and local Hindu teachers. Muelder was a close friend with Swami Akhilananda, the India-born founder of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Massachusetts.

The undergraduate Department of Religion was formally organized in 1966, with Professor James Purvis taking the helm. The graduate Division of Religious and Theological Studies followed in 1967, offering the M.A. and the Ph.D. in an ever-increasing range of specializations. From the start, one of the strengths of B.U.’s religion faculty was its wide range of advanced training in philosophy, literature, history, psychology, and other fields.

Also in 1967, several universities and theological schools in the Boston area formed a consortium to offer students an even wider array of faculty resources. The Boston Theological Institute, the oldest and largest consortium of its kind, enables today’s B.U. students to take courses at Boston College, Harvard University, Brandeis, Andover-Newton, and other area institutions.

The 1970s saw the founding of several interdisciplinary programs that became mainstays in religious studies, including the Center for Judaic Studies (now the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies) and the Institute for the Study of Philosophy and Religion. The Luce Program in Scripture and the Literary Arts followed in 2000.

Boston University’s rich resources in the study of religion have drawn a variety of distinguished alumni. Martin Luther King, Jr. was attracted to B.U. because of its strengths in the philosophy of religion—the Boston School of Personalism originated here in the early twentieth century with B.U. professor Borden Parker Bowne—and the commitments of its faculty to social justice. (The first black psychologist in the U.S. graduated from B.U., and its medical school was the first in the world to offer training to women.) King received his Ph.D. in 1955.

The university has also been home to some distinguished religious studies faculty, including the great African-American preacher and mystic Howard Thurman, who became the Dean of Marsh Chapel and Professor of Spiritual Resources and Disciplines in 1953. Today’s faculty boasts two former presidents of the American Academy of Religion (Ray Hart and Robert Neville) and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (Elie Wiesel). Although B.U.’s undergraduate and graduate programs continue to reflect its deep roots in the philosophy of religion and comparative theology, the faculty also boasts internationally known experts in Daoism, Judaism, comparative mysticism, ancient Christianity, Islam, Tibetan Buddhism, religion and literature, American religion, and the sociology of religion.