The Missouri State University Department of Religious Studies is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Beginning in 1969, the department is one of the oldest and largest religious studies programs in the state of Missouri.
Before its creation, MSU religious studies classes were primarily taught by campus ministers. According to Dr. Victor Matthews, dean of the College of Humanities and Public Affairs, this changed when Reverend Gerrit tenZythoff entered the picture.
“The biggest highlight would be the hiring of Dr. Gerrit tenZythoff as the head of the department,” Matthews said. “That gave them their first step away from simply being a set of courses being taught by campus ministers and moved it in the direction of becoming an academic program of religious studies.”
Born in Gramsbergen, Holland in 1922, tenZythoff fought Nazi efforts by helping Jewish refugees during World War II. After the war, he traveled to America and became the head of the religious studies department at MSU. Kathy Pulley, a religious studies professor, remembers tenZythoff as a lively figure in the community, charming and talkative.
Pulley said during her undergraduate studies in Boston, tenZythoff and three other professors traveled there on a mission to collect Islamic texts for MSU special collections. There, tenZythoff convinced a Lebanese man to donate to the university.
“Now, how we got the money for that special collection, that was all Gerrit tenZythoff’s doing,” Pulley said. “He was a really special person, in the fact that he could encourage people to share. He used to say that he enjoyed ‘liberating people from their money.’”
The late professor was so influential in the department he even had a scholarship named after him.
As for its programs, the department established its major in 1982. This was met with much controversy, accordingto Stephen Berkwitz, professor in the department of religious studies.
Later in 1994, the department created a masters of arts in religious studies. The department is unconnected with a doctoral program, which is extremely rare.
“We are probably one of about a dozen or so stand-alone programs in religious studies in North America, actually,” Berkwitz said.
In 2004, the department accepted the Blanche Gorman Endowed Chair in Protestant Studies. This million dollar chair was given to Dr. John Schmalzbauer, and is used to provide him with academic resources for teaching. Berkwitz said this year the department is cooperating with several different MSU colleges, including the Department of Communication, to launch two undergraduate programs in Interfaith Engagement and Medical Humanities.
The department continues to accept students from all over, including junior religious studies major Nissa Krier. After taking REL 100 with Micki Pulleyking, Krier became interested in the department.
“I took it and I realized how much broader worldly things I could study here, and things that could possibly make a bigger difference in studying,” Krier said. “I grew up in a really small town that only believed in one religious practice, so coming here and seeing the kind of diversity and the ability to learn about things that were never offered to me before was really enticing.”
Berkwitz said even though the department of religious studies is turning 50, a celebration still needs to be planned.