Naming the Study of Religion

The name of my academic department has changed for at least the fifth time in its history. Last week Samford University announced that the Department of Religion would now be known as the “Department of Biblical and Religious Studies.” One reason for the change is that the department has added a major in biblical studies in addition to its major in religion. This is part of a trend at Samford to offer academic programs that are more focused and directed as well as ones such as the religion major that are adaptable to many goals and purposes.

The study of the Bible has always been the center of the department’s course offerings. Samford University was founded as Howard College in 1841 by and for Alabama Baptists. Historically, while at Roman Catholic colleges, theology was the starting point for the undergraduate study of Christianity, for Baptists (and many other Protestants) it was biblical studies.

Bible courses began in our college before the college was organized into departments. Interestingly, however, courses on the Bible in English translation they were not part of the curriculum for Samford’s first half century. Until that time the explicitly religious courses were reserved for the spring of the junior and senior year. Juniors read the Greek New Testament and seniors the “Evidences of Christianity.” This was typical of other liberal arts colleges throughout America.

The school’s first president, Samuel Sherman, complained about the Bible’s absence from the American collegiate curricula in his 1850 commencement address, “The Bible A Classic“. Yet only in 1894 did the school introduce such courses.

When the college was first divided into departments in 1916, ours was named the “Department of Religious Education.” By the 1930s it has become the “Department of Bible and Religious Education.” This remained the department’s name until 1970, when in recognition of the growth of its philosophy program it was renamed “Religion and Philosophy.” Courses on Bible, theology, history, religious education, and ministry were all covered under the label “religion.” To these were added sociologically-grounded courses in congregational studies in 1993.

A mission statement for the department prepared in that year spoke of the department offering “studies in Scripture, theology, philosophy, history, sociology and ministry.” The department’s current website includes a similar list: “biblical studies, Christian theology and ministry, as well as the history, sociology, and philosophy of religion.”

While the department had had an “and” in its name for nearly 70 years, when philosophy became a separate department in 2001, the name became simply “Religion.” While most of our peer departments around the country are likewise simply named “religion” or “religious studies,” a large number of those at church-related schools use longer names to suggest the variety of subjects in their curriculum. These include “Theology and Religious Studies,” “Theology and Christian Ministry,” “Biblical and Theological Studies,” “Theology and Missions,” “Bible and Religion,” as well as the new name for us at Samford, “Biblical and Religious Studies.”

The views expressed are solely those of the author, David R. Bains.

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