The History of Religion at Vassar College

by Michael Walsh, Associate Professor of Religion, with the assistance of Morgan Mako '11
January 2011
Department Website

During a gathering of the Board of Trustees in February 1864, the founder of the college, Matthew Vassar, addressed the group on his views regarding religion in the education of young women:

…I would rather be remembered as one who earnestly sought to fuse the Christian element of the world into one grand Catholic body—at any rate, as one who has endeavored to remove all barriers, rather than recognize or cherish any exclusivity.

As the legitimate and practical result of this idea, I would on this point invite to the College Desk, on the days of public worship, alternately the representatives of every Christian church…Let our pupils see and know that beyond every difference there is, after all, but one God, one gospel; and that spires of whatsoever church forever point toward one heaven. And upon this point again, without disparagement to any other religious source, permit me to add that the strongest incentives to goodness, and the most valuable religious tendencies, will be found to flow most of all, like an emanation, from the presence of gifted, cultivated Christian women.1

As evident, Matthew Vassar expressed from the inception of the institution, a willingness to allow a fluid practice and existence of various religious faiths at Vassar College, provided they were of the Christian variety. In fact, this understanding of religion was the standard for many decades until the 1960s when efforts were made around the United States to establish religious studies as a discipline distinct from theology, and to engage with what we today call the history of religions, an interdisciplinary and comparative approach to understanding and interpreting the human condition. Specifically in terms of Vassar College, a Department of Religion emerged devoted to the study of historical bodies of knowledge, texts, and practices apart from those under the label of Christianity. It would take the next decade before the idea of a department unaffiliated with Christianity would set in and establish itself as a fundamental participant in the social sciences.

The first course offered at Vassar College that dealt with religious material was a course offered in the Philosophy Department in 1865 titled, "Evidences of Christianity." The study of Christian history and the Bible would stand as the only viable objects of focus for several years. In 1899, an official Bible Study Department was founded (which would not become the Department of Religion for almost another 30 years).2 The nascent department offered two courses: "The Life of Christ" and "The Apostolic Age." One year later the department shortened its name to the Bible Department. Still, the department only dealt with the history and texts of Christianity and the Church; however, later in 1922, when the Bible Department became the Biblical Literature Department, the first course was taught on the history of Judaism.3

In 1927, the Biblical Literature Department became the Department of Religion when Vassar women could now officially choose to major in the new field. Christian studies and biblical textuality still stood as the principle foci within the department, yet at this time students began to have the option to lean more philosophically or psychologically in terms of their studies of religion. In 1940, the Senior Thesis became a requirement for the Religion Major.

In 1958, the Department of Religion participated in a questionnaire given by Dr. C. Warren Howland, Chairman of the Department of Religion at Oregon State College who also taught at Harvard Divinity School. One of his questions was, "What are the most successful courses offered in the department at the present time?" The answers: Introduction to Religion, Introduction to the Old Testament, and Introduction to the New Testament. The response further states that Vassar students "have a greater interest in religion as a subject of serious study at the college level."4 Interestingly, when asked, "What types of students enroll in courses in religion? How would you characterize their religious literacy? How would you account for this?" the responses were: (a) We do not have a single type. We get a representative cross-section of the student body including honors students; (b) our students as a group are religiously illiterate, and (c) It is general in our culture.5

Not until 1974, did the Department of Religion offer courses on the history and study of other major world religions outside of the biblically based traditions of Christianity and Judaism. At this time, courses on Indian religion (Hindu Traditions), Buddhist traditions, and Islamic traditions were offered and officially the department offered a correlate sequence beginning in fall 1989. At this time, some of the departments major scholars helped build a discipline that would vie with the other social sciences of philosophy, history, psychology, and sociology. Betsy Halpern Amaru, Robert T. Fortuna, Lawrence H. Mamiya, Deborah Dash Moore, Mark Cladis, Lawrence Perlman, and Mark Lloyd Taylor were some of these 'religion department legends.’ In establishing a correlate sequence, Acting Chair Robert T. Fortuna wrote, "Religion is especially apt for such correlation, as you know."6

Over the next decade the department actively refined itself to become as effective and as productive as any religion department nation-wide. While faculty over the last century have come and gone, today in 2010 we have the best faculty available who teach a wide range of courses, from Religion, Media, and Popular Culture, to core courses like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Religions of Asia, as well as courses covering religion and the arts, philosophical inquiries, secularism, social oppression, and politics. In all, the department has a catalogue of over fifty courses and offers students the opportunity to explore many religious traditions from across the globe. The major includes taking eleven courses in the department, encouraging students to have a breadth and depth to their studies, and selecting classes covering the ancient world, western modernity, Asian religiosities, social theory, and any number of religiohistorical fields from around the world.

The Department wishes to thank Morgan Mako for his help in writing this document.


  • 1. Matthew Vassar, "Communications to the Board of Trustees of Vassar College," 23 February 1864.
  • 2. An Administrative History of Vassar College 1861-2003, pp. 53-54.
  • 3. Ibid., 53.
  • 4. Department of Religion Survey, Vassar College, 18 April 1958, 1-2.
  • 5. Survey, 2.
  • 6. 13 February 1989, Inter-Department Announcements, 1-2.