Religious Studies at the University of Kansas

The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas offers degree programs leading to Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of General Studies, and Master of Arts degrees. We also offer an online minor in Religious Studies.

  • The only dedicated Religious Studies Department in a public university in Kansas.
  • One of only six departments in public universities between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, Canadian border, and Gulf of Mexico that offers a graduate degree in the academic study of religion.

The department is housed in Irma I. Smith Hall on the KU campus in Lawrence and is a unit within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It marks the latest incarnation in a tradition of academic study of religion on Mount Oread that dates back to the turn of the twentieth century.

The teaching of religion at the University of Kansas began under the auspices of the Christian Woman's Board of Missions, an association within the Disciples of Christ denomination. With the active support of university officials, and especially registrar George O. Foster, classes began in 1901 under the auspices of the Kansas Bible Chair, the newly-formed organizational embodiment of the educational venture.

Later that year supporters of the project purchased a farmhouse at the corner of Thirteenth and Oread streets, the site of the present-day Smith Hall for Religious Studies. The house, known as Myers Hall, was remodeled in 1913 to provide classrooms, offices, a library, and a student center, as well as a residence for the family of the Bible Chair's director.

The mission of the denominationally-based KBC was expanded and re-tasked in 1921 by the establishment of the Kansas School of Religion, an interdenominational cooperative that enlarged both staff and course offerings. For the first time that curriculum included the historical critical study of traditions other than Christianity.

By the 1960s the growth of the endeavor led the leaders of both the KBC and the KSR to plan a new building on the Myers Hall site. Construction commenced in mid-decade and in 1967 Irma I. Smith Hall opened for classes.

In the early 1960s the U.S. Supreme Court issued decisions that explicitly authorized the non-devotional teaching of religion in public institutions. The denominations that supported the School of Religion began to look to the state of Kansas for support, and in 1977 the University of Kansas established a Department of Religious Studies that incorporated the teaching work of the KSR.

The KSR, subsequently renamed the Friends of the Department of Religious Studies, continues to hold hard assets in its name (distribution of which is overseen by an Advisory Board), and as such is a support organization for the Department. In addition to University salary and staff support, it provides a yearly grant for the maintenance of the departmental library, graduate student scholarships, and other needs of the department.

Today, the Department of Religious Studies remains committed to our mission: educating and mentoring students, contributing to religious literacy on campus and beyond, and producing high-quality scholarship. The department offers dynamic and engaging programs for undergraduate and graduate students, including hallmarks such as:

  • Academic and financial support: Opportunities for research, funding, and support at the undergraduate and graduate levels
  • Individual attention: Low faculty-student ratio combining the benefits of a private liberal arts college with the research and networking opportunities of a Tier 1 research institution
  • Ground-breaking research: Faculty with expertise in a wide range of subjects and issues, both contemporary and historical

The Department of Religious Studies offers students flexible course formats, including in-person and online, as well as the option for KU students to earn a minor in religious studies completely through online coursework. The department gives undergraduate and graduate students opportunities for hands-on research through the Religion in Kansas Project, building skills that translate to a variety of careers. We also have a wide-range of event programming throughout the year, from graduate student colloquiums, to interfaith community events, to public lectures with outstanding scholars and popular figures in the field of religious studies. No matter your interests, the 21st century Department of Religious Studies will give you tools to adapt and succeed.

Why Study Religious Studies?

  • Religions have been and remain among the most powerful forces shaping human history. Their discourses and practices inform the way we perceive ourselves, those around us, and existence at large, even when we are not actively religious.

  • The academic study of religion is a trans-disciplinary endeavor to understand from an objective perspective how religious traditions shape the lives of their adherents, without seeking to promote or disprove any specific belief system. Religious Studies a

  • The skills that Religious Studies students gain in critical thinking and cultural awareness lead them to successes in a wide array of career fields, including education, law, journalism, healthcare, chaplaincy, and social justice advocacy.

What is Religious Studies?

The Study of Religion on Mt. Oread: Digital Exhibit

A timeline of the history of the study of religion on the KU campus. Features photos from the collections of the Moore Reading Room and the University Archives.
The Study of Religion on Mt. Oread Exhibit