Archive for Saturday, August 11, 2001

A century of learning

Academic study of religion reaches milestone

August 11, 2001

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This spring marked the 100th anniversary of the teaching of religion at Kansas University.

But even after all those years, few people seem to really understand the nature of what goes on in Smith Hall, home to KU's Department of Religious Studies.

Some appear to think the building with the pretty stained-glass windows churns out future ministers, rabbis and Buddhist monks. Or they wonder if it's a place where church doctrine is taught to those headed for seminary.

Paul Mirecki, associate professor of religious studies at KU, would like to set the record straight.

"We're involved in the academic study of religion. We're teaching about religion as a human activity," he said last spring. "We are not teaching religion, how to be religious or ordaining people for the ministry. There's an obvious difference."

The department's mission is to educate students about the nature of religion as a human phenomenon, Mirecki said.

Zeroing in on academics

But its origins were a bit different.

The teaching of religion at KU predates the department itself, which was founded just more than 20 years ago.

The idea began in the 19th century with members of the local Disciples of Christ denomination, who were concerned that religion would fall by the wayside amid that era's great expansion of secular universities nationwide.

They wondered whether religion courses could be taught at KU.

Planning for the effort started in 1899, and a farmhouse was purchased where Smith Hall now stands near 13th Street and Oread Avenue to house the new entity.

"I think it's pretty amazing that we've had 100 years of the academic study of religion at a state university. There was a time when it wasn't that common," said Tim Miller, a professor of religious studies and chair of KU's department.

"In the early years, I think it was a little more in a Sunday school sort of vein."

By the 1920s, the Kansas School of Religion, an interdenominational program, was founded. It was heavily subsidized by the Disciples of Christ, who paid the program director's salary, Miller said.

"It was just a completely private enterprise off to the side of KU," Miller said. "There was quite a bit of interest in it, and people started to respond."

More than 50 years ago, KU agreed to award credit hours to students taking the religion courses, Miller said.

Through the years other denominations in Lawrence contributed to the effort, loaning ministers and pastors to teach courses.

"That went on from the '20s up until the '60s without too much change. Then they began to get more serious about expanding the effort," Miller said.

"By the end of the '60s or the early '70s, we had the Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans and Catholics offering full-time support of one teaching position (each). The Jewish denomination contributed a rabbi as a part-time person," Miller said.

By this time, the school had five or six full-time positions, and had outgrown its location.

Through a fund-raising effort, the school raised half a million dollars much of it from Irma I. Smith, a member of Macksville Christian Church who donated some land in western Kansas.

The farmhouse at 13th and Oread was torn down in 1966, and funds were used to build Smith Hall, named for its benefactor. It wasn't until 1977 that the state of Kansas agreed to found the Department of Religious Studies, and faculty of the Kansas School of Religion became KU employees.

In 1998, the Disciples of Christ sold the land where the farmhouse once stood to the state, ending their historic ties to the teaching of religion at KU.

Today the department has eight full-time and two part-time faculty members. It offers 15 to 20 courses each semester that enroll 700 to 800 students, Miller estimates.

"Over 80 percent of them just take one course with us, an introductory course and that's it. A lot of them do it out of personal interest," Miller said. "They're not planning on majoring in religion, but there's something they'd like to find out about."

There are about 45 undergraduates who are majoring in religious studies and 18 graduate students working toward master's degrees in the subject.

Things have changed since the teaching of religion at KU started a century ago in a farmhouse at the edge of campus.

"We're very competitive," said Mirecki, who joined the department in 1989. "We get students in our undergraduate program from around the country, and students for our master's program from around the world."

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