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Departments of Religious Studies

In my previous post I began to address the question of what we look for when students apply to enter into our PhD program.   To make sense of what I have to say about that, I need to give yet more background into what our program *is*.   In my previous post I started discussing how programs of religious studies in secular colleges and universities began to appear after WWII.

My department has always claimed to be the first full-fledged Department of Religious Studies in any state university in the country.  I’m not sure that’s true – I’ve heard that Virginia and one or two other schools make the same claim.  Maybe someone on the blog knows for sure.   What is certain is that our department started in 1946.

There had been talk of starting a “School of Religion” at UNC in the 1920s.   I don’t know what that would have looked like – possibly a professional school training people in religion?  I’m not sure.   The plans didn’t go anywhere, since they were knocked off the chart by the Depression and then WWII.   But after WWII, a very wealthy tobacco-man, James A. Gray, president of R. J. Reynolds, endowed a faculty position in Biblical Studies for the university.   This James A. Gray chair was designed to teach undergraduates the basics of the Bible.

The chair was held for something like 25 years by a famous professor named Bernard Boyd, up to his death in 1975.  People still talk about “Bunny” Boyd.  He was an extremely charismatic and influential figure on campus, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and the first in the state – possibly in the nation? – to have a television show devoted to explaining and interpreting the Bible.

When I was hired at UNC in 1988…


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Ancient Mediterranean Religions?!?
The Graduate Program in Religious Studies



  1. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  January 14, 2015

    How does one measure faith or understanding of teachings ?
    the divine. Are they born that way or do they become divine? And royalty after this is there a king and princes ?
    We’ll in my case of Jupiter ( zeus ) there is.
    My faith is still strong as ever and will never fade. I am made of hope it’s on my DNA.
    A humble 1 is a great teacher

  2. Avatar
    Hon Wai  January 15, 2015

    Did the development of secular studies of religion in US universities lag behind developments in Europe? As early as start of 20th century, there were European thinkers and academics publishing on sociology, anthropology and psychology of religion e.g. Durkheim, Weber, Freud, Jung. The American psychologist and philosopher, William James had published influential studies on the varieties of religious experience by start of the 20th century. None of them were approaching religion from a confessional perspective. How about philosophy of religion – this had been an academic discipline well before the 20th century, and it should be clear it was as much being critical about religion as defending religious beliefs.
    Most European countries didn’t have the principle of separation of church and state – this probably allowed non-confessional religious studies to get going earlier than in America.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2015

      They probably did. But in lots of places in Europe even still there is a heavy theological component in the universities. Think of German universities with their two faculties of theology, one Catholic and one Protestant. You would never get that in America.

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