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Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.). Department of Religion

 Organization

Although Northwestern University did not have a formal department for students studying religion until the 1920s, religion courses were offered at the Methodist-affiliated University from its opening in 1855. In the early years, students were required to take a course in “Evidences of Christianity” during their senior year. In the 1890s, the College of Liberal Arts began offering courses in “Biblical Literature,” and these were often taught by faculty members with joint appointments at Garrett Biblical Institute (now Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary). In 1919, the Department of Religious Education was formed in order to address what many perceived as a growing secularism in education both on campus and in the academic community. In 1926, this department became one of the five divisions of the newly formed School of Education. That same year, the College of Liberal Arts began offering courses in world religions, giving the University the beginnings of a new program based more on comparative religion than on Christianity and Christian denominations. This shift to comparative religions was made at a fairly early time in the history of religious education in the United States, placing Northwestern's program at the forefront of change in the field.

In 1927, the Department of the History and Literature of Religion was established. The first courses offered by the Department included both “biblical literature” courses and “history of religion” courses, with the latter including the world religions courses. Following a surge of interest in the 1920s, the Department experienced a dramatic decrease in enrollment during the Depression and the war years. For most of these years the Department had only one full-time faculty member. The Rev. Charles Braden, a Methodist Minister who brought an international focus and a high level of scholarship to the Department, came to the University in 1926 and chaired the Department from 1946 to 1953. Braden retired in 1954.

That same year, Edmund Perry (Ph.D. 1950) was appointed as both a full-time faculty member and Chair of the Department. Under his leadership, the Department grew rapidly both in student interest and program content. Perry persuaded the University to appoint faculty members with specialties in Judaism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and African religions. He also expanded the list of visiting professors and lecturers. As a result, course enrollments increased, as did the numbers of undergraduate majors, and the Department expanded its focus on comparative and world religions. In 1969 the Department began offering a doctoral program. Perry served as Chair of the Department from 1954 to 1975 and again from 1978 to 1981.

Throughout these years the Department also maintained a joint program with Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Many of Garrett's professors taught courses in the University and many of the Department's professors taught at Garrett. This relationship allowed the Department to continue offering courses in Christian theology while emphasizing its world religions program. In the late 1970s the department began to expand its programs even further through joint appointments with other departments and interdisciplinary programs at the University. Especially important were joint appointments with the Anthropology Department and the Program on African and Asian Literature. In 1991 the Department's name was formally changed to the Department of Religion.

For more information about the Department's history, researchers should consult the department handbooks in Box 1, Folders 17-19. Researchers may also find the list of Dissertations in Box 1, Folder 9 of some interest. Although it was compiled in 1968, it lists religious dissertations completed at Northwestern dating back to 1909.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Edmund F. Perry (1923-1998) Papers

 Collection
Identifier: 11/3/17/3
Abstract The Edmund Perry Papers fill three boxes and span 1953 to 1999. The bulk of the papers consist of Perry's correspondence, both personal and departmental, from the 1970s. Highlights of the collection include Perry's correspondence with religious leaders from around the world regarding the Department of Religion's comparative religions focus and their own religious faiths. Building this program was a primary interest of Perry's throughout his long career at Northwestern and much of the...