Our History

The Department of Religion at the George Washington University was founded in 1947. President Cloyd Heck Marvin, when announcing its creation, explained that the department would not seek to prepare students for sectarian religious service but would try to “help students gain a wholesome view of religion and to combine scholarly and religious ideals so as to produce an atmosphere conducive to intelligent faith.” He also said that an understanding of religion was necessary in any program of character education, and thus should be given its place in the curriculum.

Black and white photo of 2147 F St from the year 1942
The Religion Department building at 2147 F St. NW, pictured in this archival photo from 1942, was once the family home of writer Helen Vogt.
Picture of the exterior brick building at 2147 F St.
The offices at 2147 F St. NW today.

Rev. Dr. Joseph Sizoo was the chair of the religion department and director of the University Chapel from 1952 to 1966. He was selected as one of the country's twelve best clergymen by Life magazine in 1953. From 1924 to 1936 he was pastor of the New York Presbyterian Church in Washington, and delivered the funeral sermon for William Jennings Bryan in 1925. He was also a close friend of Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln. From 1952 until his death, he was Milbank Professor of Religion.

The presence of a Religion Department among the humanistic disciplines of a university reflects an awareness that religious traditions have had a major role in shaping the history of civilizations. Religious phenomena may be analyzed and synthesized in such a way as to contribute to the understanding of human culture. The study of religion in a university environment promotes analysis rather than advocacy of religion, or a particular tradition.

Today, the Religion Department at GW's Columbian College of Arts & Sciences offers a great deal of attention to the individual interests of its students. Many students that are not preparing for careers that specifically involve religion still gain the strong liberal arts foundation they need to pursue careers in such fields as law, business and medicine.

The curriculum is intended to lead students to knowledge of the world's religions, their history, literature and community structure. Areas of study include Biblical literature, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, ethics, sociology of religion, contemporary movements in theology, and religion in American culture.