Religion Enters the Academy
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Religion Enters the Academy

The Origins of the Scholarly Study of Religion in America

Title Details

Pages: 132

Trim size: 5.500in x 8.500in



Pub Date: 12/01/2012

ISBN: 9-780-8203-4418-8

List Price: $25.95


Pub Date: 03/15/2011

ISBN: 9-780-8203-3740-1

List Price: $120.95

Religion Enters the Academy

The Origins of the Scholarly Study of Religion in America

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Religious studies—also known as comparative religion or history of religions—emerged as a field of study in colleges and universities on both sides of the Atlantic during the late nineteenth century. In Europe, as previous historians have demonstrated, the discipline grew from long-established traditions of university-based philological scholarship. But in the United States, James Turner argues, religious studies developed outside the academy.

Until about 1820, Turner contends, even learned Americans showed little interest in non-European religions—a subject that had fascinated their counterparts in Europe since the end of the seventeenth century. Growing concerns about the status of Christianity generated American interest in comparing it to other great religions, and the resulting writings eventually produced the academic discipline of religious studies in U.S. universities. Fostered especially by learned Protestant ministers, this new discipline focused on canonical texts—the “bibles”—of other great world religions. This rather narrow approach provoked the philosopher and psychologist William James to challenge academic religious studies in 1902 with his celebrated and groundbreaking Varieties of Religious Experience.

In a highly informative and readable book, Turner traces the development of the scholarly study of religion in the US. Instead of what could have been a tedious survey in the hands of a less adept writer, Turner offers a fascinating account of the relatively late American entry into the field of religious studies. His research, often encompassing obscure authors, supports a fertile narrative that is witty and always interesting . . . This volume will be useful for institutions offering religious studies programs and for seminaries.


With the skill of an accomplished historian, Turner offers a ‘genealogical analysis’ at once distinguishing this academic pursuit from traditional Christian studies while also noting its independence from earlier and contemporary European inquiries. Turner’s book will be altogether indispensable in charting how the study of religion has taken its place among humanities—and social science—disciplines in modern American colleges and universities.

—John F. Wilson, Princeton University

This rare gem of a book is as stimulating for scholars as it is accessible for students. In three elegantly crafted chapters, Turner shows how comparative religion evolved from the parlor game of early American freethinkers to the academic discipline it is today. As always, his prose brims with memorable wit and keen insight. His concise new classic turns the birth of religious studies into a remarkably entertaining story.

—Peter J. Thuesen, author of Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine

About the Author/Editor

JAMES TURNER is Cavanaugh Professor of Humanities and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of seven other books including The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton and The Sacred and the Secular University.