Religions in the Americas

Religions in the Americas is an interdisciplinary program that focuses on religious ideas, practices, institutions, and movements in colonial North America (1600-1787) and the United States (1787-present). The program is interdisciplinary, bringing together faculty and students with historical, sociological, ethnographic, comparative, and theoretical interests in American religion. 

Faculty: Curtis J. Evans, Matthew HarrisWilliam Schultz

Associated Faculty: Omar McRoberts, Eric Slauter


Students in the program can write dissertations on a wide variety of topics: for example, Native American religion, black Muslims in America, the rise of new forms of religious media, Jewish and Christian attitudes toward the American claim to be a "new Israel," the meaning of American "secularism" in the late twentieth century, the response of different religious communities to free-market capitalism, the emergence of New Thought in the late-nineteenth century, and the Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist experience in America.

The University of Chicago has been committed to the study of religions in America since 1927, when it became the first university in the nation to create a professorship in the "history of American Christianity," a position originally held by William Warren Sweet (1881-1959). Sweet was committed to studying American religion in relationship to its social, political, and economic contexts. The distinguished scholars who followed him, including Sidney Mead, Jerald C. Brauer, W. Clark Gilpin and Martin E. Marty, echoed his critical approach and also broadened the study of American religion at the Divinity School to encompass the full range of religious traditions practiced in the United States.

Religions in the Americas stands at the crossroads of several other areas of study at the Divinity School, and interdisciplinary collaboration is expected. Students who are particularly interested in American Christianity have the choice of concentrating in either Religions in the Americas or the History of Christianity area in the Divinity School, which considers American Christianity in relationship to the longer Christian tradition from antiquity to the present. Similarly, students who are interested in other global traditions in America (for example, Buddhism or Hinduism), can choose to concentrate in either Religions in America or the History of Religions area.

Students draw on the extensive course offerings throughout the Divinity School and other departments of the University, including History, Sociology, Anthropology, Music, and English. A crucial resource is the Karla Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture, a multidisciplinary center that sponsors courses, lectures, lunch talks, and dissertation fellowships. Students are also strongly encouraged to participate in the biweekly meetings of the graduate workshop, Religions in America.

Progress Conference format

The progress (or pre-exam) conference is normally held in the spring quarter of the second year, or the fall of the third year.  In Religions in America, the progress conference is held with the student's panel of examiners for the qualifying examinations, and will normally include assessment of coursework to date, cogency of the course of study petition, readiness for qualifying examinations, and development of the dissertation project. A report from the advisor and a timeline for the qualifying examinations is submitted to the Dean of Students following the conference. 

Requirements for the PhD in Religions in America:

1. Course Work and Residency: There is a four-year scholastic residency requirement for every doctoral student in the Divinity School. With supervision by the primary academic advisor, students develop a course of study that will help them prepare for comprehensive exams, taken by the end of the fourth year.

2. Languages: All doctoral students at the Divinity School are required to pass the University of Chicago language examinations in French and German with a "High Pass" (P+). (Students can petition to substitute another language for French or German if the other language is crucial to reading scholarship in their field.) One must pass the required language exams before taking the doctoral exams and submitting a dissertation proposal. Students who intend to do research on non-English speaking or immigrant groups (for example, Hindus in America) must gain appropriate competency in the relevant language or languages.

3. Comprehensive Exams: All doctoral students in the Divinity School are required to take four comprehensive examinations followed by a cumulative oral examination on the written exams and a piece of their own research, the "orals paper." All students in "Religions in America" will take the following two field exams:

* I. The Religious History of the United States and Colonial North America 
This exam approaches American religion from a historical perspective and includes a wide variety of books on both particular religious traditions (e.g. Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism) and themes (e.g. millennialism and missions).

* II. Secularization, Pluralism, and Migration in America (administered by Omar McRoberts).

This exam approaches American religion from a sociological and ethnographic perspective, focusing particularly on the themes of secularization, pluralism, and migration.

The student should choose the other two exams in consultation with the advisor, and will articulate that plan in a course of study petition submitted to the Committee on Degrees. A student who plans to focus on Christian traditions in the United States must take a third exam that focuses on Christianity in another area at the Divinity School: for example, the History of Christianity, Ethics, Theology, or Religion and Literature. A student focusing on non-Christian traditions must take a third exam (e.g. in History of Religions or Philosophy of Religions) focusing on that tradition: for example, Buddhism or Hinduism.

The student must submit an "orals paper" prior to taking exams that will be discussed during the oral defense. The orals paper should represent a significant piece of original research that demonstrates the student's intellectual interests.

4. Dissertation Proposal: Upon successful completion of the comprehensive exams, the student must formulate and submit a dissertation proposal together with a dissertation committee of at least three faculty members: a primary adviser and two readers. Students interested in studying non-Christian traditions (for example, Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism) are strongly encouraged too have two dissertation advisors from the Divinity School—an Americanist and a specialist in the particular tradition they intend to study. The dissertation proposal is submitted to the Committee on Degrees for formal approval.

5. Dissertation: The final requirement of the Ph.D. is the dissertation, which must represent substantial and original research in the student's chosen field of expertise.

Sample Courses

  • Religion in Twentieth-Century America
  • The Christian Right
  • Religion in America From the Revolution to the Civil War
  • American Religion Since 1865
  • Christianity and Slavery in America, 1619-1865
  • The Scopes Trial in Historical Context
  • American Religion Since 1865
  • Race and Religion in the US in the 20th Century
  • Settler Religion: Searching for Indians
  • Religion and American Capitalism
  • The Second Great Awakening
  • The Age of Walter Rauschenbusch: History and Historiography of the Social Gospel Movement
  • African American Religion in the Twentieth Century: History and Historiography
  • Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in 20th Century America: Interpretations
  • Becoming Modern: Religion in America in the 1920s