Religions in America

Just as the New World reimagined politics, so too it fostered religious experimentation, imprinting an American character on the transplanted religions of Europe. In 1927 the University of Chicago became the first in the nation to recognize American Christianity as a promising field of study, creating a professorship held initially by William Warren Sweet and subsequently by many luminaries such as Sidney Mead, AM’38, PhD’40, Jerald C. Brauer, PhD’48, and Martin E. Marty, PhD’56, who steadily broadened its focus. From cathedrals to revival tents, Shakers to Mormons, gospel music to Day of the Dead, snake handling to liberation theology, this area of study far exceeded expectations.

As important as the original insight was in 1927, today the Divinity School recognizes an even broader terrain. Europe gave America not only Christianity but Judaism as well, while the rest of the world contributed its religions, all of which interacted with vibrant, pre-Columbian cultures. Today students in the program may explore areas such as Native American religion, the meaning of American “secularism,” or the Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist experiences in America. More than 85 years have passed since we recognized churches as American and deserving of study, and now we see much more than churches. A dynamic interaction of religious beliefs and practices continues to change this nation and its neighbors.

The Divinity School now aspires to complement its strength in the history of the world’s religions with similar breadth in the diverse religious expressions closer to home. The University of Chicago Campaign: Inquiry and Impact provides an opportunity to do this by securing funds for scholars and their students. With endowed faculty positions, the Divinity School aims to become the center of scholarship for religions in America. Funding for fellowships, workshops, conferences, and publications will ensure a robust environment that generates a steady flow of creative insights. This scholarship will change the landscape of the understanding of religion in North America and the hemisphere more broadly.