A Short History of the Pacific Northwest Region

American Academy of Religion / Society of Biblical Literature

by Ken Christopherson, Pacific Lutheran University, with much information from Jack Sanders, University of Oregon, and slight updating by Patricia O’Connell Killen, Pacific Lutheran University

Our Pacific Northwest Region of the American Academy of religion / Society of Biblical Literature was officially born on April 23-24, 1971. But the historical setting behind its rise was the coming of age of religion studies in American higher education in the 1950s and 1960s.

It was then that religious studies blossomed both academically and in quantity. Academically, American religious studies had formerly been largely limited to church-related colleges and universities. There they had often been addenda to philosophy departments, for lack of any other identity; they had predominantly lacked academic methodology and stature, and instead had more of the nature of a continuing parochial education in faith. Quantitatively, religious studies, as a discipline, had largely been absent from the swelling state universities. This was often because of some widespread misconception that supposed state supported religious studies might be contrary to the Constitution of the United States (not to mention some specifically more strict state constitutions, especially that of the state of Washington).

(Our own region’s David Fowler, of the University of Washington, helped dispose of that misconception, for those state universities that still eschewed religious studies for that reason: He successfully defended, through all of the steps including the United States Supreme Court, his constitutional right to teach the Bible as Literature– a case that established the constitutionality of “teaching about religion” [vis-a-vis “teaching religion”] in public schools. Fowler’s presidential address to our region in 1974 recounted this case.)

Part of this blossoming of religious studies, in the 50s and 60s, as an academic discipline in itself, was the new perception throughout American academe that professors in higher education must not only transmit older knowledge but add new knowledge by research, and publish it for others. That added role, relatively new for perhaps most professors, brought to all of us a sense of need for additional personal contacts in our discipline, beyond our own school, and for some convenient area gathering where we could present our new studies in “papers,” and hear those of others.

With this growth of religious studies in academe also in the Northwest came one immediate root of our organization that deserves specific mention in this short history: The Oregon Professors of Religion and Theology, This was a somewhat informally organized smaller group of religion professors from many of the colleges and universities in the Willamette Valley of western Oregon. They met annually for several years, just prior to our Region’s founding, for the reading and discussion of one or more academic papers. Our own Region’s birth at Portland in 1971, and the school homes of several of its founding spirits and officers, reflect the beginnings already existent in the “Oregon Professors of Religion and Theology.”

Given those backgrounds, the trigger for formation of our Pacific Northwest Region of the American Academy of Religion / Society of Biblical Literature (PNR:AAR/SBL) came in late 1969: Robert W. Funk, then Executive Secretary of SBL, asked Jack T. Sanders (who had just come to University of Oregon) to try to organize a Pacific Northwest Section (as SBL regional groups were then called) of the Society. Sanders procured lists from AAR and SBL of their members who were resident in the Northwest, and found it obvious that there were too few SBL members in the area for a workable society, and instead determined to try a combined SBL and AAR “Section.” He enlisted the assistance of John Phillip King, then in religious studies at Oregon State University, and they decided to let Jack work on organizing program while John dealt with arrangements for a meeting.

Sanders wrote to all the people on the two mailing lists, as well as to those on the mailings lists he got from CBA, SSSR, Northwest Faculty Conference (then an annual meeting of Christian faculty), and the above-mentioned Oregon Professors of Religion and Theology, (All these lists somewhat overlapped.) Jack’s letter suggested a first meeting for spring 1971 and invited papers. With Bob Funk, he also arranged for plenary papers to be presented by Funk (representing SBL), Ray L. Hart (then Executive Director of AAR), and William Hamilton. Funk and Hart were then both at University of Montana, and Hamilton at Portland State University.

Papers presented in sections at that first meeting, on April 23-24, 1971 at the Portland Hilton, were naturally fewer and in fewer sections than our PNW:AAR/SBL now has. The other “pioneers” who presented papers then were:

Joseph Ban, Linfield College
Dan Danner, University of Portland
David Fowler, University of Washington
Hideo Hashimoto, Lewis and Clark College
J. Raymond Lord, College of Idaho
W.J. Martin, University of British Columbia
Song Nai Rhee, Northwest Christian College
Alan Stephenson, University of Oregon
Douglas Straton, University of Oregon
Hans Tiefel, College of Idaho

Sanders adds that he and John Phillip King may also have presented papers, but records and memory are lacking.

At the constituting business meeting, it was decided to form one joint regional organization of AAR/SBL for the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, western Montana, and the province of British Columbia, and to petition the national organizations to allow such a joint regional organization. It was also resolved to try to include official representation from other kindred societies–ASCH, CBA, CTS, and SSSR, at a minimum. However, later attempts to bring those organizations officially into the regional organization failed, and most people in these other societies are also members of AAR or SBL.

Officers elected at that constituting meeting in 1971 were John Anderson, Lewis and Clark, President; Ward Gasque, Regent College, Vice-President and President-Elect (each for one year); Jack Sanders, University of Oregon, Executive Secretary, with responsibility to represent the region to SBL; and John King, Oregon State University, Recording Secretary, with responsibility as Delegate to the AAR Council (each for three years). This pattern of officers and terms has generally continued ever since. Sanders and King carried to the national societies the request for a joint region; the nationals approved strongly–the first such joint region (there were already some regional organizations in the individual societies)–and promoted similar joint regional organizations for other parts of the continent were acceptable. (Not long afterward, SBL dropped the title Section in favor of Region for such area organizations.)

Jack Sanders insists, modestly, that the initiating steps for that first 1971 meeting needed the work of himself and John King only as catalyst, for the time was ripe: Religious studies had grown in schools to the point that there were already about fifty people in our region who were ready for such an organization.

From the first, demographic realities have dictated that our PNW:AAR/SBL has been geographically the largest region in AAR and/or SBL, yet with probably the smallest membership. Very quickly it expanded naturally to include the additional western Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, for scholars from these were soon attending, as shown by the election in 1974 of Joseph Cahill, from University of Alberta in Edmonton, as Recording Secretary.

Because of the extraordinary distances for travel in such a far-flung region, there was a consensus from the outset that conventions must rotate geographically. Give its roots, the 1971 constituting convention had naturally enough been in Portland. The 1972 convention was in Vancouver, BC; the 1973 convention at University of Washington in Seattle; in 1974 at University of Montana in Missoula; in 1975 at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma; and in 1976 at University of Oregon in Eugene. The 1975 and 1976 locations were something of an unthought glitch in a pattern not yet fully decided. Executive officers agreed, with convention support, that thenceforth the conventions should adhere to a four-area rotation: Canada-B.C.-Alb.-Sask. (Victoria, 1977_); Oregon (Portland, 1978); Puget Sound (Seattle, 1979); and USA-East-of-the-Cascades (Spokane, 1980). This pattern has continued to the present, with more specific convention locations following no set pattern within each of the four stated areas. This convention rotation has probably been advantageous for our region: Some smaller regions elsewhere in America, with less daunting distances to travel, have found one fixed central convention location an advantage for human habit. But analyses of our PNW convention registrations have understandably shown higher attendance by nearby scholars and lower attendance by those most distant–and this rotation tends to even out, in the long run, for a proportional attendance from each of those four areas of the region. For many years now our registered attendance at annual regional conventions has been seventy-some. Our 1991 total membership of 402 is our highest to date.

A kindred question has been: What dates for our annual convention? Convention dates have divided, almost exactly evenly, between the last Thursday-to-Saturday in April or the first in May (with only one exception: the third weekend in April). Canadians, usually completing their semester at the end of April, have tended to prefer the earlier date; schools in USA, continuing spring semester through most of May or later, have usually preferred the latter date. The situation still seems fluid; fortunately and typically, good will has prevailed, regardless of that choice.

One of the most pleasant and prized features of our PNW:AAR.SBL is the warm feeling of friendship and camaraderie that prevails at our conventions and carries over into other personal contacts. This rises in part from our relatively smaller number of schools and convention attenders than in other regions. But it perhaps is also part of the ethos of the west that carries into our professional association and gives it a warm and friendly, informal personality of its own. This, with perhaps also other area ties here, is a reason stated by a few outside-the-region scholars who attend and give papers at our conventions with some regularity.

Our warm camaraderie is also closely related to a characteristic that prevails throughout most of the religion academy but is more easily perceived in our relatively small regional conventions: A genuine commonality of trust and respect for each other professionally, even though our personal religious convictions differ widely. This writer remembers his first regional convention in 1972–back in the days before very many of us attended the national conventions. Gone on sabbatical leave, I had not attended the constituting regional convention in 1971, which absence may have heightened my 1972 perception. but many who had attended also in 1971 remarked with newcomers, something like this: “perhaps we have enough in common to keep coming. But we are feeling each other out. Do the religion professors from state and other secular schools have merely an academic interest in religion? Worse, is association with them dangerous for real believers?” From the other side: “Are these professors from church-related schools truly academic professionals? Are they capable of critical thought, of giving and accepting it?” That initial mutual wariness had melted away by two or three more conventions when, as the writer remembers, Jack Sanders expressed in his own way, at a plenary session, the feelings we had all grown to: “I’ve come to believe religion is not taught at U of O very differently from at PLU.” (Of course, he meant we could substitute other school names.) The point is: We all have personal differences. But we are academic professionals, capable of unrestricted search for truth and for objectivity in evaluating it. And we respect–and learn from–each other!

Our PNW:AAR/SBL conventions have traditionally been one-and-two-thirds days in length, beginning on Thursday evening and closing Saturday noon. The program usually includes two plenary sessions: The President’s address on Thursday evening, and religion scholar of wider prominence, usually from outside our region, for the Friday evening banquet address. Other than the annual business meeting just before Saturday closing, the other sessions–Friday morning and afternoon and Saturday morning–have been filled with individuals’ papers and discussion of them. The ordering by sections has grown and changed only slightly, perhaps most notably by the addition in recent years of the section on Women and Religion. Currently eight sections are active:

Hebrew Scriptures
History of Christianity
History of Religions
New Testament and Hellenistic Religions
Religion and Society
Theology and Philosophy of Religion
Women and Religion

A section on Native American and Minority Traditions has been active intermittently. Two experimental sections during 1992 and 1993 were Aesthetic Dimensions: Religion, Literature, and Spirituality; and Pastoral / Practical Theology. Sections are chaired by appropriate scholars in the region, serving at the request of the executive officers (who welcome suggestions), normally for three-year therms. Sections often nominate their heads to the officers. Decisions on acceptance of paper proposals are made by the sectional chairpersons.

In the mid-1970s (exact dates are unclear) our region established a student paper competition, with a prize of $50 for the best paper (judged by an appointed committee from our professional academics). A few years later, at the death of our University of Montana colleague William Shepherd, a Shepherd Memorial prize in the same amount was also established for another student winner. After the Shepherd fund was consumed, the Region decided in 1990 to fund both student prizes and to increase the dollar value to $100 each, presumably to compensate for inflation. With increase of competitors and especially with development of Master’s programs in some schools and papers submissions by other graduate students, it was decided that one student prize should be for undergraduate competition and the other prize for students in graduate studies. Hence, since the mid-1970s we have also welcomed student papers–sometimes in their own separate section, but more recently, usually placed in the appropriate sections named above.

The twenty year establishment of the Pacific Northwest Region of the AAR/SBL has been successful one, primarily because there existed a genuine need for it–a need that has been well met. There have been changes–and further changes will come, as in all history. With the good will and professional respect that have developed and befitted us, our future changes and history will do well for us and our profession.