Why Study Religious History?

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Why Study Religious History?


"The Failure of American Religious History" by D. G. Hart, in The Journal of the Historical Society (Spring 2000), 656 Beacon St., Mezzanine, Boston, Mass. 02215-2010.

Trying in recent decades to make their discipline more relevant and academically respectable, religious historians have ended up trivializing it, argues Hart, a professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

"The past three decades have witnessed a great expansion of non-Protestant academic studies of religion," he says, "but no serious engagement of the fundamental intellectual question of what religion is doing in the academy."

It was only during the 1950s that religion, which previously had been confined largely to seminaries and university divinity schools, emerged as a separate academic field, when private colleges and universities began to establish religion departments. Many state universities followed suit during the next decade. But "clerical motives dominated the field. Not only did religion faculty still harbor older notions of caring for the souls of students, but the courses they offered were virtually identical to the curriculum at Protestant seminaries and divinity schools, minus the practical work in pastoral ministry," Hart says. Reflecting "a mainstream Protestant hegemony" and narrowly focused on church history, religious historians at the time gave short shrift to Mormons, Christian Scientists, African Americans, and others outside that mainstream.

To rectify this and to integrate their subject into the respectable ranks of professional history, religious historians began in the 1970s to turn away from the Protestant mainstream. …

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