Religious Studies at Davidson

Entry written by Emily Privott ’19, a graduate in Religious Studies from Davidson College and former Archives Assistant in Archives, Special Collections & Community.

In 1837, Davidson College was founded by members of the Concord Presbytery. Since the college’s founding, the study of religion has been a central offering in the curriculum. From a department of “Ethics, Christian Evidences, Bible Studies” to “Religious Studies,” the study of religion has consistently evolved throughout Davidson’s history.

Pre-department name

While Davidson College was founded in 1837, the earliest known college catalog was produced in 1842. At this time, courses in religion were limited to the Greek Testament, offered to the preparatory class, and Evidences of Christianity, offered to seniors.[1] From 1844 to the latter 1860s, these courses were the primary offerings in the study of religion, with the following specification that preparatory students were expected to have knowledge of John’s Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles when studying the Greek Testament.[2] In 1869, course offerings expanded to include Bible Geography and Chronology and Bible History for freshmen, Harmony of the Gospels: Greek Testament and Gospels in Greek Testament for sophomores, Greek Testament: Epistles for juniors and seniors, and an optional Hebrew course for seniors. Evidences of Christianity remained a course offering for juniors.[3] There was a clear emphasis on learning the classical languages of Greek and Latin to more properly be able to approach and discern scripture. During this time period, courses were listed in the college catalog by title and often did not have lengthy accompanying descriptions. However, it is potentially helpful to understand the religious heritage of the College at the time to understand the context in which religion was being studied.

Founded by the Concord Presbytery, Davidson was envisioned a College in which the youthful mind, might be trained “under the restraints of Christianity and in which the Bible should be recognized as the infallible rule of life.”[4] Both students and professors were likely to have been Christian and to have regularly attended divine worship and recitation on Sabbath. Additionally, according to the laws and regulations of the college, students and professors were not allowed to deny God’s existence and could not act in such a way that was subversive of the principles of Christianity, particularly Presbyterianism.[5] During this time, non-Christian religious traditions were not studied.

Ethics, Christian Evidences, Bible Studies

In 1885, the department officially adopted its first official name, “Ethics, Christian Evidences and Bible Studies.” In the previous year (1884), the department reworked its curriculum and offered courses that would allow a closer study of biblical texts. New, individual courses included one on the Book of Genesis, one on the Books of Exodus and Leviticus, and one on the Acts of Paul. Courses in “Christian Evidences” were still offered, but were listed under the “Mental Philosophy and English Literature” department. While the department is listed as its own category, there is not a particularly in-depth department description. Rather, this description merely lists what textbooks will be used and what will be generally studied. For example, the junior class studies the Bible and Ethics, while the senior class studies Christian Evidences and the Bible.[6] Despite the department’s official inception, the course of study largely remains the same as previously, with an exclusive emphasis on the Christian tradition.

Biblical Instruction

In 1888, the department was renamed to “Biblical Instruction” when John Bunyan Shearer joined the faculty as President of the college. Shearer overhauled the department and instituted a new curriculum, with the goal of students “[mastering] the contents of the sacred page, just as any other text-book is mastered by careful study and class-room drill.”[7] Courses were listed under the broadly defined department name of “Biblical Instruction”, not by individual content. However, course content is described in the department’s official description. While the freshman and sophomore classes are particularly concerned with the Old Testament, the junior class is primarily focused on the New Testament and studying the Life of Christ. Study includes discussing New Testament History, the Harmony of the Gospels, the Unities of Scripture, Evidences of Christianity, and Bible Morality (with special emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount). In particular, the freshman class begins their study with the Book of Genesis and ends with discussing the figure Samuel. The sophomore class begins with the Book of Kings and ends with the birth of Christ “embracing Oriental History as it interlaces with Jewish History.”[8]

Additionally, topics of discussion included “Bible History, Oriental History, the Connections of Sacred and Profane History. Geography, Archeology in light of modern researches in the East, Laws, moral, ceremonial, civil, and social, Typology, Miracles, Fulfilled Prophecies, and the Unities of Scripture.”[9] Evidences of Christianity continued to be offered, but was reframed as “an appendix to the course” and “needed only a summing up and classifying in systematic and scientific form.”[10]

Consistent with the department’s history, Christianity was the primary focus. While “Oriental History” was discussed, most likely this was done in the context of preparing students for missionary work. In many cases, there were students who attended Davidson that were the sons of foreign missionaries and who intended to carry on this work. Additionally, many individuals who attended Davidson pursued this vocational path and became ministers.

Biblical Instruction and Religious Education

In 1928, the department changed its name to “Biblical Instruction and Religious Education.” Courses included: Old Testament History, Old and New Testament History, General Church History and Government, Old Testament Ideals [individual courses in a)The Law and b) the Prophets], Sources of Christian Ethics [individual courses in a)The Teachings of Jesus and b) The Earliest Christian Writings], Theory of Religious Education, and Organization and Curriculum of Religious Education).[11] Courses in Old Testament Ideals and Sources of Christian Ethics intended to relate Scriptures to present-day application. During this time, new courses such as General Church History and Government and The Bible as Literature arose, suggesting an increase in the historical and literary approaches in the department. Additionally, the institution of courses in religious education implies that the study of religion was considered, in-part, as preparation for a career in the ministry.

Bible and Religious Education

In 1936, the department experienced a minimal name change to “Bible and Religious Education.” Largely, the curriculum remained the same. However, a new course was introduced about the psychology of religion.

Bible and Religion

In 1940, the department was renamed yet again, this time to “Bible and Religion.” During this period, many new courses were introduced to the department, including: Essentials of the Christian Faith, Essentials of Christian Experience,[12] The Great Doctrines of the Christian Faith,[13] Bible: The Protestant Reformation,[14] Pre-Reformation Church History, Post-Reformation Church History,[15] Introducing the Bible, Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew People, Post-Exilic Judaism,[16] Contemporary Religions in the United States,[17] The Theology of John, and Apocalyptic Literature.[18] At this point, the department has not yet seriously studied Eastern religious traditions. It has however included the study of Catholicism in the Contemporary Religions in the United States course.

1960s and Onward


In 1968, the department dropped the Bible from its name and became the Department of Religion. From this point onward, the department experienced its greatest expansion in course offerings, both in traditions and topics covered.

First, with respect to traditions covered, the department went beyond a Christian dominated framework to incorporate non-Christian, particularly Asian religious traditions. Added courses included Comparative Religion: The Religions of the Indian Sub-Continent (including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.), [19] individual classes in Hinduism and Buddhism,[20] an individual course on Islam,[21] Religions of China and Japan,[22] Japanese Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism,[23] Islamic Ethics,[24] Sunni and Shiite Islam,[25] and Buddhism in America.[26]

During this period, the department also expanded its offerings in terms of focusing on particular social aspects of religious phenomena, including race, gender, and medicine. Added courses included Gender and Christianity,[27] Sex and the Body in Early Christian Literature,[28] and Women in American Religion,[29] Liberation Theology,[30] Martin Luther King Jr. and Nonviolence,[31] African American Religious Traditions,[32] Religion and Racism,[33] Death and Dying,[34] Religion, Ethics, and Medicine,[35] and Basic Issues in Religion and Science.[36] Additionally, courses connecting religion to art,[37] to film,[38] to nature,[39] and to food[40], were added.  The addition of these courses reflects a broadening scope in the study of religion and the methods and approaches involved in this discipline.

Today: Religious Studies

In 2016, the department changed its name from “Religion” to “Religious Studies”, the title which the department currently holds. As discussed previously, the department now has a strong presence of courses about non-Christian traditions as well as a continued presence of courses concerning Christian traditions. The scope of topics studied still includes religious dimensions of societal issues, such as race, gender, war, and politics.

As of 2023, the Religious Studies Department offers 107 courses (ten of which are offered in the Fall of 2023), taught by seven Anthropology professors and students can major or minor in Religious Studies.


[1] Davidson College Catalog, 1842.

[2] In addition to these courses that were clearly religion-focused, there were also courses offered in Mental and Moral Philosophy. While these courses potentially were of a religious character, this conclusion is uncertain.

[3] Davidson College Catalog, 1869.

[4] Davidson College Catalog, 1842.

[5] Davidson College Catalog, 1846.

[6] Davidson College Catalog, 1885.

[7] Davidson College Catalog, 1889.

[8] Potentially the first time the word “Jewish” is used in the department. Davidson College Catalog, 1889.

[9] Davidson College Catalog, 1889.

[10] The use and meaning of the word “scientific” could be discussed further. Davidson College Catalog, 1889.

[11] Davidson College Course Catalog, 1928.

[12] Davidson College Catalog, 1947. Course titles listed without a direct footnote are understood to be associated with the next course title with a corresponding footnote. For example, the course “Essentials of the Christian Faith” does not have a footnote, but the next listing “Essentials of Christian Experience” does. Therefore, the course “Essentials of the Christian Faith” should be understood as having first appeared in the same 1947 course catalog as “Essentials of Christian Experience.” The same idea carries forth for “Pre-Reformation History”,  “Introducing the Bible”, etc.

[13] Davidson College Catalog, 1948.

[14] Davidson College Catalog, 1949.

[15] Davidson College Catalog, 1952.

[16] Davidson College Catalog, 1958.

[17] Davidson College Catalog, 1960.

[18] Davidson College Catalog, 1961.

[19] Davidson College Catalog, 1968.

[20] Davidson College Catalog, 1976.

[21] Davidson College Catalog, 1981.

[22] Davidson College Catalog, 1986.

[23] Davidson College Catalog, 2003.

[24] Davidson College Catalog, 2010.

[25] Davidson College Catalog, 2011.

[26] Davidson College Catalog, 2014.

[27] Davidson College Catalog, 1990.

[28] Davidson College Catalog, 1994.

[29] Davidson College Catalog, 2004.

[30] Davidson College Catalog, 1982.

[31] Davidson College Catalog, 1983.

[32] Davidson College Catalog, 2006.

[33] Davidson College Catalog, 2009.

[34] Davidson College Catalog, 1979.

[35] Davidson College Catalog, 2005

[36] Davidson College Catalog, 2006.

[37] Davidson College Catalog, 1968.

[38] Davidson College Catalog, 1999.

[39] Davidson College Catalog, 2000.

[40] Davidson College Catalog, 2004.

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