SCJC Recap + A History of the University of Alabama School of Religion

Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in the 2021 Stone-Campbell Journal Conference, which was hosted virtually by Lincoln Christian University. Although I was initially disappointed that pandemic realities necessitated an online conference again this year (as it did in 2020), I’m not sure that I would have been able to travel to Illinois this year anyway, so while an online conference doesn’t necessarily bring with it the same social/networking opportunities that an in-person conference would have, I was thankful for the chance to be involved all the same.

For the 2020 conference, I organized and moderated a roundtable session on “Teaching Restoration History in Congregational Settings,” but this year, I presided over or presented in a couple of individual paper sessions instead. I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned it on the blog before, but in addition to my former teaching/research obligations with the University of Alabama and my current work as an assistant professor in the Turner School of Theology at Amridge University, I’ve also adjuncted the last two spring semesters with LCU, teaching the online version of “History of American Christianity and the Stone-Campbell Movement.” Because of my connection to LCU, I was asked to preside over a paper session for the conference. I fulfilled that request by introducing the speaker of the hour (Joseph Baumstarck, a history grad student at the University of Louisville) and managing the Q&A after his talk. Joseph did an excellent job with the paper presentation, which focused on Alexander Campbell’s abilities as a communicator, and we had a sizable and engaged crowd for the discussion, making my job pretty easy.

Later that day, I presented some of my own research in an individual paper session, over which my LCU colleague and good friend Shawn Smith presided. This was my first time presenting from this new batch of post-dissertation research in any kind of extended format (I did briefly address the material in my remarks at UA’s grad student visit day, though that was only a five-minute presentation), and I was pleased by the response. Although the project does relate to the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement, the specific subject matter and genre of history are both very different from my dissertation, and so the vote of confidence and helpful questions/suggestions from the crowd were much appreciated.

I don’t want to post the entirety of the presentation here for all time, since it would make for an incredibly long blog post and since I do hope to publish this research as an article eventually, but here’s a short excerpt from the introduction which, I think, gives a good overview of the material and which will help me close out this short post today. Thanks for reading, and wish me luck as I continue with this new line of research!

I have to admit that I shamefully stole this image from the Stone-Campbell Journal website.

Disciples of Christ and the University of Alabama School of Religion That Wasn’t, 1920-1935

            Prior to the 1966 formation of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, courses related to the study of religion were taught under the auspices of a Department of Religion staffed by clergy, primarily Protestant, from the Tuscaloosa area.[1] The origins of this structure can be traced to the 1925 suggestion by a local Baptist minister to create a university-affiliated “Bible Chair,” a program which would offer college credit for courses taught by area denominational representatives.[2] Such an arrangement had been pioneered by the Disciples of Christ at the University of Michigan back in 1893,[3] and the format had already spread to numerous colleges and universities by the 1920s.[4]

            However, in 1920, members of the Disciples of Christ in Alabama had offered, and the UA Board of Trustees had accepted, an audacious proposal to create a fully Disciples-sponsored “University School of Religion”[5] which, according to one laudatory newspaper article, would have led to “a new era in combining theological seminaries… with the advantages of a fully equipped state university…”[6] Yet as with many educational efforts in the cash-strapped region, funding never fully materialized, and organizers ultimately shelved the project by the late 1920s. Adding insult to injury, the Disciples would later be kept from participating in UA’s Bible Chair program in 1955,[7] five years after First Christian Church of Tuscaloosa began its Disciples Student Fellowship.[8]

            Relying on contemporary periodicals, as well as a trio of unpublished or otherwise obscure manuscripts[9] on the history of the University of Alabama, this paper reconstructs the story of the “University School of Religion” that wasn’t and explores the broader relationships between southern state universities and religious bodies in the early twentieth century. These connections were forged in a climate of limited financial resources and of public suspicion toward supposedly godless state universities.[10] The solutions these universities developed often reflected a remarkable amount of institutional flexibility and academic creativity—when they did not run afoul of First Amendment prohibitions, that is.[11]


[1] “Religious Studies: A Part of the Human Sciences,” Department of Religious Studies, University of Alabama, accessed March 9, 2021, https://religion.ua.edu/links/religious-studies-a-part-of-the-human-sciences/.

[2] Michael Cager Thomas, “Organized Religion at a State University: A Sociological Analysis” (MA thesis, University of Alabama, 1966), 39. See also Laura L. Savage, “From the Center to the Fringe: Religious Student Organizations Experience Change, 1945-2000,” in Voices From the Capstone: A Reflective History of the Student Experience at the University of Alabama, 1945-2000, 215, http://www.welcometothemachine.info/pdf/VoicesfromtheCapstone.pdf.

[3] Rick Rowland, “The History of Campus Ministry in Churches of Christ,” in Ministering on the College Campus, eds. Tim Curtis and Mike Matheny (Nashville, TN: 20th Century Christian Foundation, 1991), 12.

[4] Ronald Bruce Flowers, “The Bible Chair Movement in the Disciples of Christ Tradition: Attempts to Teach Religion in State Universities” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 1967), 77. Flowers also helpfully defines a Bible Chair as “an arrangement at a state university by which religion is taught by an instructor selected by the church and, usually, recognized by the university. Students take religion courses at the Bible Chair and the university grants credit for them on the students’ degree programs.” See Flowers, “The Bible Chair Movement in the Disciples of Christ Tradition,” 1.

[5] The school was referred to by a handful of names during its gestation, including the “School of Religion at Tuscaloosa,” as it appears in its one reference in D. Duane Cummins, The Disciples Colleges: A History (St. Louis: CBP Press, 1987), 109.

[6] “University Opens Door To Churches For Join Work: Christian Denomination First In Cooperative Movement School As Adjunct: Seminary To Be Built On University Land: Theological Students To Take Regular Academic Courses At State Institution,” Birmingham News, May 28, 1922.

[7] Thomas, “Organized Religion at a State University,” 46.

[8] James B. Sellers, “History of the University of Alabama, Volume II: 1902-1957,” rev. and ed. W. Stanley Hoole (unpublished manuscript), James Benson Sellers manuscript, W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library, University of Alabama, 508.

[9] James B. Sellers originally composed “History of the University of Alabama, Volume II: 1902-1957” as a follow-up to the predecessor work, which was published as History of the University of Alabama Vol. 1, 1818-1902 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1953), though the second volume remains unpublished in the W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library at the University of Alabama. Despite not being formally published, Sellers’s second volume was a key source for Michael Cager Thomas’s 1966 master’s thesis (already cited above) on the role of organized religion at UA. Thomas’s thesis, in turn, served as a key reference for Laura L. Savage’s contribution (also previously cited) to the student-led research project Voices From the Capstone; Savage’s 2000 work focuses on the changes faced by religious student organizations on UA’s campus. Taken together, these three closely related manuscripts give readers a relatively clear, if hard to track down, sense of how religious life changed at the university across the entirety of the twentieth century. Yet none of the three mentions the proposed “University School of Religion.”

[10] Sellers, “History of the University of Alabama,” 497.

[11] For instance, the University of Texas suspended its connection to its Bible Chair program in 1987 after the state’s attorney general, Jim Mattox, issued legal opinions finding the arrangement unconstitutional. In part, one historian notes, this was because “instructors were paid by religious organizations, while the university was granting credit for the courses.” For more, see Rick Rowland, Campus Ministries: A Historical Study of Churches of Christ Campus Ministries and Selected College Ministries from 1706 to 1990 (Fort Worth, TX: Star Bible Publications, 1991), 51-52.

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