A Brief History of the Study of Religion at the University of Tennessee

I wrote this history of changes in the academic study of religion at the University of Tennessee: both macro changes in the climate where we worked and internal transformations within that climate.   

The department faculty voted not to publish it, so I am posting it here.  I do so primarily to share the fruits of my labor with selected colleagues and former students.  However, some others may also find it interesting as a case study in the shifting practical meanings of “studying religion” at the university level—especially what topics and methods have been in focus.   

There is more to say about the department’s decision not to embrace this as an authorized version, but I will take that up in a separate post.  


UTK voted to establish a Department of Religious Studies more than 50 years ago, in 1965. This new department displaced the Tennessee School of Religion, which was a cooperative project of UTK, the campus YMCA, and local Protestant clergy who since 1926 had taught courses on Christianity that counted for UT credit. Although these courses were elective and attracted less than 4% of UT students, the arrangement was an extension of UTK’s 1794 founding by a Presbyterian minister, long stretches of UTK’s history that included compulsory chapel, and the prominent role of the YMCA and YWCA (the “UT Christian Associations”) as a structural component of student life. During the famed Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 which challenged a Tennessee law outlawing the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools, UTK was probably less bold in teaching evolution, on balance, than the high school in Dayton, Tennessee that was at the center of the media storm.  

The new department was instituted to ensure that scholars with advanced scholarly degrees taught all UT courses on religions, to broaden the range of courses both in terms of the traditions they addressed and the scholarly disciplines they used, and to emphasize that the academic study of religions should be an integral part of the curriculum in any first-rank university. For an account of this transition by UT’s University Historian, published in the campus publication CONTEXT, click here.

In creating this department, UTK acted in line with a constellation of cultural, demographic, legal, and intellectual trends in the era that were changing how US public education addressed religion, especially in relation to issues of race and to relations among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Growing interest in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam also loomed large. In fact, UT was slightly ahead of the national curve in relation to these changes. Our department became a recognized part of a wider cohort of religious studies programs in top public universities (for example, Indiana, North Carolina, and the University of California at Santa Barbara) in the front ranks of national departments driving the emerging field of Religious Studies. These departments joined long-established private schools (for example Yale, Harvard, and Princeton) where the curriculum that was directly related to religion (and indeed at times the curriculum in its entirety, at least in earlier stages of history) had long centered on Christian seminaries.  For a concise account of the changing big picture, click here

Although by the 1960s schools on both sides of this public/private divide were evolving and de-centering in various degrees away from what was then called a “seminary model” for the undergraduate curriculum, most of them continued to give disproportionate attention to Jewish/Christian scriptures and to Christian thought and history. All this was approached in scholarly ways to be sure. Moreover, it was somewhat commensurate with student and citizen interests appropriately served by public land grant universities. Still, in retrospect, this did entail a disproportionately philosophical and relatively narrow range of interests, at least as judged by currently accepted priorities and global frames of reference. The new UTK program was not an exception to wider national trends in this relatively limited initial focus, while at the same time its focus was emphatically broader compared to what had come before in Tennessee.  

Core Faculty and a Few Milestones

Ralph Norman (who brought broad expertise in Christianity, philosophy, and the arts, and who deserves a special shout-out for his input to this history, although of course he should not be blamed for my mistakes) was appointed as the founding department head in 1966 with outside support from the Danforth Foundation. He taught the first UT courses in 1967. Within the first few years, David Dungan (New Testament), Lee Humphreys (Hebrew Scriptures), David Linge (Christian thought and history), F. Stanley Lusby (comparative religions), and Charles Reynolds (philosophy of religion) all were hired. They became the department’s early core faculty— alongside Roland Delattre (North American religions), Riggins Earl (African American religion), Gerald Larson (Hinduism), and Jay Kim (comparative religion), who all taught at UT for shorter periods before leaving or in Kim’s case dying tragically young.   

Lusby, a much-loved teacher and passionate advocate of the history of religions, became department head from 1972-1979. UT hosted an early meeting of SECSOR, the southeast regional branch of the American Academy of Religion, in 1972, and Lusby served as SECSOR’s president in 1976. In these years Reynolds became the founding editor of the Journal of Religious Ethics, with strong departmental support. Now edited at Florida State University, the JRE became the leading international journal in its subfield—a scholarly niche that in some ways the journal brought into being and at a minimum crystallized in a landmark emergent form. 

This early faculty cohort was close-knit in its intellectual interests and its interpersonal support and morale. Later, old-timers liked to recall how high proportions of the faculty literally spent their summer vacations together at Stan and Beryl Lusby’s summer cabin in Ontario, where they did work projects, played in the water, and discussed philosophy and religion. 

Among projects of this generation, one easily stands out as the most famous. It is described in this classic article by Garry Wills as well as this piece by Rosalind Hackett, and it will provide our department its ten minutes of fame in Bob Hutton’s forthcoming history of UTK, Bearing the Torch. This was the leading role of Reynolds, actively supported by several others, in protests against a visit of Richard Nixon to Neyland Stadium. Billy Graham, the world’s most influential evangelical at the time, brought Nixon to speak in a hastily-organized version of his TV revivals. This was in clear support of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to build a Republican political base and of Nixon’s claim to speak for a “silent majority.” The events unfolded in spring 1970, shortly after the National Guard killed anti-Vietnam protestors at Kent State University and it was nearly impossible for Nixon to appear on campuses without massive counter-demonstrations. By national standards UTK’s protest was not very massive, but still local Republican ire led to Reynolds being charged for (supposedly) disrupting a worship service. He appealed on free speech grounds all the way to the Supreme Court, although the court eventually voted 6-3 not to review his case. 

For two full decades, from 1980 to 2001, Reynolds served as head. During this era the department grew and thrived. It hired the long-serving core faculty James Fitzgerald (South Asian religions, from 1978), Miriam Levering (East Asian Buddhism, from 1982), John Hodges (African American religion, also from 1982 although he started in a Cultural Studies unit), Rosalind Hackett (African religions and much more, from 1986), Rosalind Gwynne (classical Islam, from 1988 although she started teaching Arabic at UT earlier), Mark Hulsether (North American religions, from 1993), and Gilya Schmidt (Judaism, also from 1993)—with Michael Harris (African American religion) moving through the faculty for a shorter stay in the early 1980s.   

Reynolds worked effectively to promote RS on many fronts, locally and nationally. This included a periodic need to educate not only UT’s students but also its administrators and wider publics about the differences between the academic study of religion and studying to be nurtured in any specific theological tradition. As already noted, he had founded the JRE from a base at UTK. Building on this experience, in 1986 he and Norman spearheaded efforts to bring Soundings, a cross-disciplinary humanities journal sponsored by the Society for Values in Higher Education, to UTK’s campus. Norman edited Soundings from 1985 to 2001, followed by Allen Dunn from our affiliated faculty roster from 2001-2012, and several department members have served on its editorial board.

From 1998 to 2008, the department experimented with a small Master’s Program, although this was ultimately phased out due to a lack of resources. The program featured a year-long common seminar for students, but beyond that it was mainly constituted by individualized studies, and with our low level of support it proved difficult to offer students a critical mass of colleagues in any given subfields. Although this program was officially offered under the umbrella of the Philosophy Department “with a concentration in Religious Studies,” our department had full responsibility for its curriculum, which featured historians and cultural anthropologists at least as much as philosophers. For a time, many of our lower level courses were taught by our graduate students. 

Gilya Schmidt took over as head from 2002 to 2009. During this era the department began a major generational transition, with Linge and Humphreys retiring in 2001, followed by Dungan in 2002 and Norman in 2003. Fortunately, the loss of these four veterans was offset by a gain of three fine young scholars. Rachelle Scott was appointed in 2002 in Southeast Asian Buddhism. In 2003, Johanna Stiebert joined us to teach Hebrew Bible, closely followed by Early Christianity specialist Tina Shepardson. Scott merits special thanks, and perhaps some sympathy, for her disproportionate service in roles that many others have also filled in complicated ways to lesser degrees, including as Interim Department Head and Associate Head.

In 2009 Rosalind Hackett became department head. This transition came during a challenging time, since generational turnover accelerated but without new appointments keeping up, especially at first. In rapid succession we lost six tenure-line positions (over half our total) either from retirement (Reynolds and Gwynne in 2009, Hodges in 2010, Levering in 2011) or departures (Fitzgerald and Stiebert taught their last UT classes in 2006 and 2009). We also lost our long-time departmental secretary, Joan Riedl, the heart and soul of our office, and upon her 2010 retirement we established a book award in her name for a student in religious studies.

Since this era we have gradually been rebuilding faculty strength, although in the context of a university ever more de-centered from its humanities departments and a more general prioritization of high quality liberal education, and ever more re-centered on recasting all programmatic goals in terms of quantifiable benchmarks commensurate with neoliberal business models. Although this new institutional matrix no doubt leaves considerable ongoing space for quality education and the pursuit of wisdom, nevertheless its structural imperatives have increasingly distracted from these goals and at times declared them unattainable in the “real world.” In these matters too, sadly, our university is in line with national trends.  

In any case we soldiered on, making our history although not under the conditions of our choosing. In this context we have had many significant successes, including some of the highest percentages of prestigious external grants, as a proportion of our faculty, compared to kindred UTK departments. We replenished our Islamic Studies lane with Manuela Ceballos, beginning in 2016, after several years when courses in Islam were not covered by continuing faculty. We hired Erin Darby in 2012 on tenure track to teach Hebrew Scriptures, and Megan Bryson began on tenure track teaching Chinese religions in 2013.  All three taught for short initial stints as lecturers.   

Later in the 2010s and down to the present, Tina Shepardson moved into the head’s office, starting in 2018. Shortly before that, Schmidt retired and was ably followed in the Judaic Studies lane by Helene Sinnreich, starting in 2016. In 2020 Hulsether retired (at the same time as our long-serving Distinguished Lecturer in the sociology of religion, Randal Hepner). Their work in the North American and modern Christianity subfields was partially replenished on tenure track by Larry Perry (a position in African American religion shared with Africana Studies) alongside two fine young lecturers. 

After all these musical chairs, the generational turnover of core faculty—tracked from our high tide in the early 1990s through our low tide around 2010 and back to the present—has been half-rebuilt in a sort of two steps back and one step forward motion.    

All in all, the scope of our faculty transformation since our early days is striking: from an originally all-male cohort (Levering broke the glass ceiling in 1982), we have transformed into a cohort of tenure line faculty with no white males at all and several people in “diversity” categories. From an original overbalance toward Christian Studies, we now have only one-half of one tenure line (shared with Africana Studies) specializing either in Christianity since 1500 or North American religions, although our lecturer ranks partially blunt the starkness of this gender and disciplinary configuration.

A Few Thoughts About Contributions and Notable Priorities 

Given our wide geographical interests and the way we have always understood the nature of the religious—not as something separate from wider histories and material cultures but as an integral part of them—the department has made highly disproportionate contributions over the years to cross-disciplinary work at UTK. This includes significant work in Africana Studies, American Studies, Asian Studies, the College Scholars Program, Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies, Global Studies, Islamic Studies, Latin American Studies, Medical Ethics, Medieval Studies, Middle East Studies, University Studies, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Reynolds played a foundational role in establishing Africana Studies at UTK, a department Hodges also chaired for a time—and these are only two among several more from our faculty who have chaired interdisciplinary programs over the years. Perhaps most notably, starting in 1991, the department was at the heart of a UTK group that built a thriving new Judaic Studies program, with Schmidt as its first chair, followed by Sinnreich. Our official list of affiliated UTK professors is long and could easily be extended much further. This interdisciplinary work also extends to our extensive participation on graduate committees across a majority of the Arts and Science departments and in many other units of the university such as Education, Sports Studies, and Social Work. 

Comprehensive coverage of the vast diversity of religious traditions and their internal complexities—even for our own country much less all of global history—would be unattainable even with far greater faculty resources. For example, if perchance any reader would like to endow research and teaching in one of these fields, we have never been very strong in Native American religions and/or Central and South America, and we are currently relatively thin in both South Asian religions and modern religious thought. This same structural limitation also means that depth of coverage has always been challenging for our curriculum, even in the fields we have addressed best. Nevertheless we continue to strive, with some warranted pride, to maximize both breadth and depth as best we can. 

In recent years the department has sometimes stated in planning reports that it structures its curriculum to cluster strength in three areas: (1) Religion, Culture, and Society in Contemporary North America; (2) Religions from the Ancient Mediterranean (Judaism, Christianity, Islam); and (3) Religion, Culture, and Globalization. The exact wording has fluctuated and for maximum insight one might note that, in practice, most courses in modern Christianity have been shoehorned into the first of these categories, most courses in Judaism and Islam (ancient or otherwise) have been shoehorned into the second, and the third category operationalizes the “global” with disproportionate strengths in China, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Moreover, the ideal of depth in clusters sometimes spreads out toward something more like a valiant (however necessarily incomplete) attempt at global breadth. 

Our faculty are known for organizing and/or co-sponsoring a range of symposia and other public events, such as major Holocaust conferences and much ongoing Judaic Studies programming, three important Soundings symposia on the work of major authors (Robert Bellah, Martha Nussbaum, Jeff Stout), Africa Week, Arab Fest, the Jazz for Justice Project, and many other such projects. Faculty members have a tradition of speaking extensively in the Knoxville area to schools and various religious and community groups. For a time starting in 1998 Reynolds even hosted a talk-radio program on religion and public affairs on a major Knoxville radio station, WIVK, with department members as frequent guests. Beginning in 2011, we instituted the David Dungan Memorial Lecture, which brings a distinguished lecturer to the community to speak in alternating years on U.S. public religions or Christian and Jewish scriptures. In 2014 we added the Siddiqi Lecture in Islamic Studies, joined after 2017 by a Hindu Studies Lecture. Many of our faculty have extensive international networks, epitomized by Hackett’s tireless work in dozens of roles, including as president of the International Association for the History of Religions.  

As a smallish department by UT standards, we have long prided ourselves not solely on punching above our weight in academic research, but also, with equal emphasis, on our excellent undergraduate teaching and mentoring.  We have a strong tradition of grooming our majors for the best graduate programs—not solely in religious studies departments and divinity schools, but also law, history, anthropology, and many more.  Typically this goes hand in hand with mentoring excellent undergraduate research projects, which unfold both within the structure of our own major and in interdisciplinary programs like College Scholars and Chancellor’s Honors. We have often organized study abroad programs, most recently in Jordan and Northern Uganda. In 2010 we instituted an honors track in our major and revised the major to re-instate a capstone course, increase flexibility through a larger number of electives, and emphasize several new foundational courses at the 200 level.  

Over the years the department has benefitted immeasurably from the contributions of many lecturers, adjunct professors, and short-time or visiting professors in addition to the tenure-line faculty already mentioned. Tom Heffernan (English) and Ron Hopson (Psychology) served as adjunct professors. The internationally prominent scholars Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Long taught visiting courses. Ralph Ross of Knoxville College offered courses in African American History. Three distinguished scholars—Rivka Ribak, Igal Burzstyn and Alec Mishory—joined us as Schusterman Visiting Israel Professors. Youshaa Patel taught for a short stint on tenure track in Islam.  

All the following colleagues (almost all with Ph.D. level credentials) have joined us as colleagues at the rank of lecturer, either for at least a year on a full-time basis or part-time for a significant stretch of time (current faculty as I write in 2021 have hyperlinks): Michela Andreatta, Samuel Avery-Quinn, Tara Baldrick-Morrone, Kelly Baker, Elliott Bazzano, Elisa Carandina, Jenny Collins-Elliott,  Sarah Dees, Dan Deffenbaugh, Gordon Ellens, Marco DiGuilio, Eddy Falls, Robert Goodding, Bruce Grelle, Randal Hepner, Stefan Hodges-Kluck, Patrick Jackson, Emily Johnson, Ljubica Jovanovic, Kykosa Kajangu, David Kline, Todd Krulak, Jack Love, Allyson Lunden (an especially important and long-serving lecturer before 1990), Mark MacWilliams, Russell McCutcheon, Michael Naparstek, Sean O’Neil, Raphe Panitz, Itsik Pariente, David Schenck, Ayman Shabana, Roger Sneed, and Linda Tober. This list does not include a much larger group of graduate student instructors and it may have a few gaps from the years before 1990.  

Since neither UTK at large, nor our department in particular, has proved able to countervail against wider trends toward a neoliberal business model for educating upcoming generations, it is hard to overstate the significance of a structural trend in staffing that has shifted more and more of our teaching to non-tenured and typically underpaid colleagues. Often these excellent scholars have carried a disproportionate weight of mentoring our students and carrying forward our departmental culture. Many have moved on to distinguished careers beyond UTK to our great loss.     

MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it.

One thought on “A Brief History of the Study of Religion at the University of Tennessee

  1. Pingback: The score when Nixon spoke at a Billy Graham crusade at UT-Knoxville: Lions 0; Christians 1; church-state relations -1 – Ordinary Time

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