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About the Department

History of the Department

At the end of the 19th century, the Smith College curriculum included four or five courses under a simple non-departmental heading, “Biblical Literature.” Some of these courses were mandatory for all students of the college, who were required to engage in higher criticism of the Bible.

Beginning in 1899, religion courses were offered under the newly designated “Department of Biblical Literature and Comparative Religion,” which was staffed by one professor, Irving F. Wood. Professor Wood’s comparative religion course used Allan Menzies' History of Religion: a Sketch of Primitive Religious Beliefs and Practices, and of the Origin and Character of the Great Systems (New York, 1897) as its primary text.

By 1908 the department faculty had grown to include one professor, one associate professor, and a reader. Over the next decade, the religion curriculum grew to include the courses Early Oriental Civilizations, treating mainly ancient Near-Eastern texts, and The Development of Christian Thought, as well as offerings in Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek. In 1927 the department boasted a faculty of six and was renamed “Religion and Biblical Literature”—a designation that remained until “Department of Religion” was adopted in 2005.

In 1940-41 the course Contemporary Judaism was offered for the first time, taught by the late S. Ralph Harlow. Other landmarks in the history of the department include the 1962 appointment of the first non-Protestant department member, the late Jochanan Wijnhoven, to teach full time in the area of Jewish studies; and the establishment in 1967-68 of the endowed Ada Howe Kent Program to support the study and teaching of world religions—understood to mean “non-Western” religions—in collaboration with other departments in the humanities at Smith.

Today, the religion department continues this legacy by offering courses in a wide array of religious traditions and viewpoints from around the world.