Religious Studies was the departmental name given in 1955 to the former Department of Biblical Literature and History of Religions. The early Laws of the College, although they prescribed daily attendance at chapel, did not include religious instruction in the course of study. The laws of 1783 did mention reading in the Greek New Testament as part of the curriculum of the freshman, but it appears that this study was conducted more for the sake of practice in Greek than for the purpose of religious instruction. By the 1820s a senior class had among their textbooks Joseph Butler’s The Analogy of Religion, natural and revealed, to the Constitution and the Course of Nature, and William Paley’s Natural Theology, and Evidences of Christianity. In 1838-39 Adjunct Professor Horatio B. Hackett taught Hebrew literature for one year before leaving to teach at Newton Theological Institution. In 1890 J. R. Jewett, instructor in the Semitic languages and history, joined the faculty and taught the history of Islam and the Crusades in 1890-91, as well as a course in Hebrew. He would have offered Arabic and Assyrian, but no students elected those courses, although he did later attract a a graduate student. When Jewett left in 1895 for the University of Chicago, Charles Foster Kent took charge of the new Department of Biblical Literature and History. For the first time regular instruction in New Testament grammar and theology was given, as well as courses in biblical history and literature, and a Biblical Research Club with thirty members was formed. Membership increased to one hundred the next year. The size of classes in Hebrew increased as theological institutions began to expect their students to have studied Hebrew in college, and in 1897-98 Rabbi David Blaustein was appointed instructor in Semitics. That year the department report announced, “For the first time in the history of Brown, classes have been conducted during the same year in beginning and advanced Assyrian, Aramaic and Syriac.... A valuable gift of technical Semitic books, secured in Germany by Mr. Jacob Shartenberg of Pawtucket, has added very materially to the efficient equipment of the Semitic section.”
Henry Thatcher Fowler was professor of Biblical literature and history from 1901 to 1934. In 1914 “Courses in Religious Education” were offered to persons registered as special students, who were training as lay workers and directors of religious education in the community. Local churches, the Providence Y.M.C.A., the Rhode Island Sunday School Association and the Providence Society for Organizing Charity provided “laboratory work” for this program. In 1915 the Providence Biblical Institute sponsored a series of lectures in cooperation with the University and presented speakers from Harvard, Yale, and Union Theological Seminary. In 1915 the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Biblical Literature combined to teach a course in the History of Religion. Millar Burrows came as assistant professor of Biblical literature and history of religion in 1925 and taught until 1934. Robert P. Casey was appointed professor of Biblical literature and history of religions, and named chairman of the department in 1934, which changed its name from Department of Biblical Literature and History to Department of Biblical Literature and History of Religions. Joaquim Wach came from Germany in 1935 as visiting professor and was named associate professor in 1939. He remained until 1946. Rabbi William G. Braude was a member of the department from 1937 to 1942, teaching Hebrew. William J. Robbins, a Baptist minister, joined the department in 1940 as instructor. After time off for service with the Army Corps of Chaplains from 1942 to 1946, he returned to earn his Ph.D. degree in 1947. At that time he was appointed assistant professor and chaplain of the University. He became chairman of the department in 1950, and was promoted to associate professor in 1952.
The department expanded rapidly in the early 1960s. In 1957-58 there were two full-time faculty members, and for a long time the emphasis had been on the teaching of Biblical literature and the history of religions. By 1963 eight faculty members were teaching Christian ethics, the history of Judaism, the religions of India, ancient Greek religion, modern religious thought in the West, and religion and society. Beginning in 1963, with a grant from the James Foundation, visiting professors of Catholic studies were brought to Brown to teach for a semester, among them Daniel Callahan, Reverend Bernard Haring, and Monsignor John Tracy Ellis. Ernest S. Frerichs, who joined the department in 1953, developed the important undergraduate and graduate program in Judaica. Jacob Neusner, professor of Judaic studies, was appointed in 1968, after an experimental program funded by the Gottesman Foundation had brought a series of scholars scholars of Judaica to Brown. Among the internationally distinguished Visiting Professors who taught at Brown were Professor Gershom Scholem of the Hebrew University in 1956-57, Professor Salo W. Baron, who had retired from the Miller Chair at Columbia University in 1963, from 1966 to 1969, and Professor Yigael Yadin of the Hebrew University in 1969-70. In 1975 the Gottesman Foundation established the Ungerleider Distinguished Scholar in Judaic Studies, and Neusner was named to this post. The Judaic studies program was established in August 1982. Frerichs and Neusner, co-directors of the program, developed a concentration which used paired learning modules, one course a discipline as history or literature and a second course relating the methods of the first to a Judaic topic. Professor Frerichs has been the sole director of the Program since 1985. In that year, with the addition of courses in social science scientific studies of Judaism, the Judiac Studies Program at Brown became distintive among such programs by placing joint emphasis on humanities and social sciences.
Courses now offered in the Department of Religious Studies include philosophy of religion, comparative religion, comparative religious ethics, history of religious thought, and the study of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Among the chairmen of the department after Chaplain Robbins have been Ernest S. Frerichs, Stephen T. Crary, Wendell S. Dietrich, Sumner B. Twiss, and John P. Reeder.