Skip to content
50th Anniversary

History and Background

The Department of Religious Studies was founded in 1965, replacing the Tennessee School for Religion, a cooperative venture between UTK and local clergy that had been established by area churches in the 1930s. The new department was instituted to ensure that scholars with advanced academic degrees taught all UT courses in religion and to underline the scholarly study of religion as an integral aspect of a university curriculum. For an account of this transition by UT's University Historian, click here.

Ralph Norman was appointed as the first department head in 1966 and taught the first courses in 1967. Within the first few years, David Dungan, Lee Humphreys, David Linge, F. Stanley Lusby, and Charles Reynolds were all hired. They became the department's long-time core.

Lusby, an inspiring teacher and passionate advocate of the history of religions, became head from 1972-1979. With strong departmental support, Reynolds became the founding editor of The Journal of Religious Ethics in 1973. Now edited at Florida State University, the JRE became the leading international journal in its field.

For two decades, from 1980 to 2001, Reynolds served as head. During these years the department hired Miriam Levering, John Hodges, James Fitzgerald, Rosalind Gwynne, Rosalind Hackett, Mark Hulsether, and Gilya Schmidt. Reynolds worked on many fronts to educate the UT administration and the public about the discipline of Religious Studies. In 1986, he and Norman spearheaded efforts to bring Soundings, the inter-disciplinary humanities journal sponsored by the Society for Values in Higher Education, to the UT campus. Norman edited Soundings from 1985 to 2001, and several department members have served on its editorial board.

From 1998 to 2008, the department experimented with a Master's Program in Philosophy, with a concentration in Religious Studies, until it was phased out due to a lack of resources. Although listed under the umbrella of the Department of Philosophy Department, our department had full responsibility for the curriculum.

Gilya Schmidt took over as head from 2002 to 2009. In this era the department underwent major transitions. Linge and Humphreys retired 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 Religions. In 2003, Johanna Stiebert joined us to teach Hebrew Bible, closely followed by Early Christianity expert Tina Shepardson.

In 2009 Rosalind Hackett became department head. This transition came at a challenging time, because new appointments have not kept up with the loss of five tenure-line positions since 2006, either from retirements (Reynolds and Gwynne in 2009 and Hodges in 2010) or departures (Fitzgerald and Stiebert taught their last classes in 2006 and 2009). We anticipate a new hire in Islam in 2011.

In the wake of these changes, the department streamlined its curriculum to focus on three areas: Religion, Culture, and Society in Contemporary North America; Religions from the Ancient Mediterranean (Judaism, Christianity, Islam); and Religion, Culture, and Globalization. Between 2008 and 2010 we instituted an honors major and radically revised our major to re-instate a capstone course, increase flexibility through a larger number of electives, and emphasize new foundational courses at the 200 level.

In 2010 we instituted the David Dungan Memorial Lecture, which will bring a distinguished lecturer to campus, beginning in spring 2011. To honor our long-time departmental secretary upon her 2010 retirement, we also established the Joan Nicoll Riedl Book Award for a student in religious studies.

Over the years, the department has built a reputation for supporting cross-disciplinary initiatives at UT. These have included Africana Studies, American Studies, Ancient Mediterranean Studies, Asian Studies, College Scholars, Comparative Literature, Global Studies, Islamic Studies, Latin American Studies, Medical Ethics, Medieval Studies, University Studies, and Women's Studies. Most notably, starting in 1991, the department was at the heart of a UTK group that built a thriving Judaic Studies program.

Our faculty are also known for organizing and/or co-sponsoring a range of symposia and other public events, such as three Soundings symposia on the work of major authors, Holocaust conferences, the Jazz for Justice Project, and other such events. Faculty members speak extensively in the Knoxville area to schools and other religious and community groups.

Over the years the department benefitted immeasurably from the contributions of many lecturers, adjunct professors, visiting professors in addition to the core faculty mentioned above. For example, in the last fifteen years, Tom Heffernan (English) and Ron Hopson (Pschology) served as adjunct professors, and three distinguished scholars—Rivka Ribak, Igal Burzstyn and Alec Mishory—joined us as Schusterman Visiting Israel Professors. All the following colleagues at the Ph.D. level 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: Michela Andreatta, Samuel Avery-Quinn, Kelly Baker, Elliott Bazzano, Megan Bryson, Elisa Carandina, Jenny Collins-Elliott, Sarah Dees, Dan Deffenbaugh, Marco DiGuilio, Eddy Falls, Robert Goodding, Bruce Grelle, Randy Hepner, Stefan Hodges-Kluck, Patrick Jackson, Emily Johnson, Ljubica Jovanovic, Kykosa Kajangu, Todd Krulak, Jack Love, Allyson Lunden, Mark MacWilliams, Russell McCutcheon, Sean O'Neil, Raphe Panitz, Itsik Pariente, Ayman Shabana, Roger Sneed, and Itsik Pariente.

The flagship campus of the University of Tennessee System and partner in the Tennessee Transfer Pathway.