Spotlight: History of Religious Diversity

By Amy Gorel, Staff Writer

Marsh Chapel is an example of a building of religious tradition located on campus./PHOTO VIA Wikimedia Commons

Today, many Boston University students don’t even realize the religious foundation our university was founded on — a Methodist tradition (except for that vague memory you have of hearing something about that on your campus tour during high school). And maybe for a good reason.

BU was founded in a Methodist tradition but religious diversity was ingrained in the university from the start.

1839: John Dempster, a Methodist minister from New York state, founded a theological seminary as the Newbury Biblical Institute in Vermont

1869: Methodists William Fairfield Warren, Lee Claflin, Jacob Sleeper and Isaac Rich chartered the petition for one of the first modern research universities in America: Boston University.

The founders apparently included a provision in the Charter calling for the acceptance of religious diversity, according to Kathleen Kilgore in “Transformations, A History of Boston University” :

“No instructor in said University shall ever be required by the Trustees to profess any particular religious opinions as a test of office, and no student shall be refused admission . . . on account of the religious opinions he may entertain; provided, nonetheless, that this section shall not apply to the theological department of said University.”

William Warren, the university’s first president, taught one of the first classes in the U.S. on comparative religion, laying the foundation for religious studies outside the Christian seminary and into the diverse world.

1919: The School of Religious Education and Social Service was established, laying the groundwork for an independent and secular Department of Religion, which was created in 1966.

1970s: Several interdisciplinary programs were founded including the Center for Judaic Studies (now the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies) and the Institute for the Study of Philosophy and Religion.

Today:

–  The campus at BU supports places of worship and student groups for a great variety of faiths of its diverse population centered on Marsh Chapel.

–  While the BU School of Theology is still officially supported by the United Methodist Church, they are interfaith and accept students from all faiths.

–  BU has seven university chaplains and more than 29 religious life groups. From a variety of services at Marsh Chapel, which hosts services for many denominations on weekends, Hillel House for Judaic worship and other locations including a Muslim prayer room on the second floor of the George Sherman Union, BU as a unique interplay of different faiths.

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