Masters Program in Religious Studies

  • Overview

    The Master of Arts in Religious Studies offered by Wake Forest University’s Department for the Study of Religions provides students an opportunity to forge a unique, creative, and rigorous program of study. The degree can serve either as a terminal degree or as preparation for a doctoral program. It emphasizes the comparative and theoretical study of religion in its various traditions and forms. Reflecting on the teaching and research interests of the current graduate faculty in the department, the program fosters interdisciplinary approaches, offering training in traditional and contemporary theories and methods in conjunction with substantive investigations of diverse religious traditions and topics. Students are encouraged to make imaginative use of all available resources in the creation of their own distinctive programs of study. Typically, this would involve 1) a focus on a particular religious culture/region or historical period, and 2) an approach or approaches to the study of the subject area.

    Ordinarily, applicants for admission into the M.A. in Religious Studies program have majored in religious studies during their undergraduate coursework. The department will consider applications from students who have majored in other social science or humanities disciplines and who have focused on the topic of religion. Admission is based on the degree of success in previous courses in religion, the clarity of the applicant’s educational goals, and the demonstrated potential for successfully engaging in graduate-level work in Religious Studies.

    Religious Cultures/Regions/Historical Periods:

    • Judaism, Christianity, Islam.
    • Hinduism, Buddhism, South Asian Religions; East Asian Religions (China & Japan).
    • Near Eastern Languages and Literature, Hebrew Bible; Ancient Near East, Greco-Roman World.
    • Early, Medieval, & Modern Christianity.
    • Christian Mysticism, African Christianity, American Religious Traditions, Evangelical Christianity.
    • Contemporary Native American Culture & Religions.
    • African Religions

    Methodology/Approaches to the Study:

    • Comparative Religion
    • Religion and Law
    • Historical Studies
    • Ritual Studies
    • Linguistic Studies
    • Archaeological Studies
    • Textual Studies
    • Cultural Studies
    • Ethnography
    • Gender & Feminist Studies
    • Ethics
    • International Human Rights
    • Psychology and Religion
    • Religion and Politics
    • Anthropology
    • Philosophy
    • Sociology
    • Postcolonial Studies
  • Program Structure

    The M.A. in Religious Studies is a course intensive program that requires a total of 36 hours of coursework and the submission of a portfolio in the final semester of the program. At least 12 of the 36 hours in coursework must be in courses numbered 700 or above, including “REL 700: Theory and Method in the Study of Religion,” which is required of all MA students, and additional 700-level graduate seminars offered in the department. The remaining 24 hours may be in courses offered at either the 600-level or 700-level.

    Students must submit to a committee of 1 professor of their choice and the graduate director a final portfolio no less than a month before the end of their final semester, comprising a resume, personal statement, a selection of 3 papers (at least 1 theoretical) from any graduate-level courses they have taken during their M.A., and a 12-15 page reflection paper that discusses the trajectory, methods, and personal growth across the 3 papers and the way in which the student’s views of “religion,” broadly defined, have developed. In addition, students will present and discuss their portfolio with their committee in a meeting lasting no longer than one hour. The portfolio will be graded pass/fail (with an option to resubmit) and the committee will consider its overall presentation, clarity of expression and purpose, depth of reflection, and the student’s articulation of what they have learned through their course of study.


    A Thesis Option may be pursued by students who wish to undertake substantial independent research and who are already thinking and writing in a succinct, analytical, and sophisticated manner. Permission to write a thesis to complete the M.A. in Religious Studies is dependent on submitting a thesis proposal that earns the approval of the graduate director and proposed primary thesis adviser. If no faculty member in the Department for the Study of Religions agrees to serve as Primary Adviser, then the student cannot write a thesis. Students writing a thesis must also form a thesis committee of 3 faculty (2 must come from the Department for the Study of Religions) and pass an oral defense of the thesis before the committee.

    The M.A. in Religious Studies Thesis Option requires a total of 36 hours course work. At least 12 hours of coursework (not counting thesis research hours) must be in courses numbered 700 or above, and one of these courses must be “REL 700: Theory and Method in the Study of Religion.” A further 18 hours may be in courses at either the 600-level or 700-level (not counting thesis research hours). The final 6 hours are to be taken as thesis research (REL 791 and 792), typically in the final semester of study. Students who write an M.A. thesis do not submit a portfolio for graduation.


    In order to write a thesis, the student must have a primary thesis adviser from the Department for the Study of Religions faculty, and a committee comprising two additional faculty in relevant areas of research (one of whom must also be a member of the Department for the Study of Religions). Students interested in writing a thesis to complete the M.A., are encouraged to seek out a primary thesis adviser before the end of their second semester in the M.A. program. To receive permission to write an M.A. thesis, the student must submit a well-researched thesis proposal in her or his third semester of study (by or before October 15th) that earns the approval of the graduate program director and the primary thesis adviser. The proposal must be 6-10 pages in length, with a clear synopsis of the thesis argument, proposed chapters, a timeline for chapter submission, and an annotated bibliography. If the student cannot demonstrate both their ability to pursue the thesis independently and that enough preparation has been done to lead to the successful completion of the thesis in the fourth semester, the advisory committee will withhold approval of the thesis option and the student will continue in the course intensive program that is the norm for the M.A. program. The decision to approve or not approve the thesis proposal will be made jointly by the Graduate Program Director and the primary thesis adviser by or before October 31st.


    The length of the thesis is to be decided between the student and the primary faculty adviser, but the department recommends no more than 100 pages. At minimum, the department expects that the thesis should be a publishable, article-length paper (35-50 pages) accompanied by substantial sources. It should be original work and can be a heavy reworking of a previous term paper or other research efforts. The thesis process culminates in an oral examination by a committee of at least three faculty members who must assess the thesis according to the normal guidelines (see Graduate Handbook).


    In addition to the University’s requirements for the M.A., the Department for the Study of Religions strongly recommends and encourages proficiency in a foreign research language relating to the student’s area of study, whether ancient or modern. Proficiency is normally a minimum of two years of work in a specific language at the university level or equivalent and may include, but not limited to, the following:

    • Hebrew
    • Greek
    • Sanskrit
    • Arabic
    • Spanish
    • French
    • German
    • Chinese
    • Japanese.

    A second research language is not required, but may be advised depending on the student’s area of study and their plans after graduation (i.e., whether or not they plan on pursuing a Ph.D.). For example, students working on the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or Sanskrit literature may be advised to learn German (the German Department offers a reading course for graduate students most summers: 001 German for Science and Humanities).

  • Requirements/Application

    All applicants should hold an undergraduate degree from an accredited college or university. Ordinarily, applicants for admission into the MA in Religious Studies program have majored in religion or religious studies during their undergraduate coursework. Admission is based on the degree of success in previous courses in religion, the clarity of the applicant’s educational goals, and the demonstrated potential for successfully engaging in graduate-level work in Religious Studies. Applicants will not be admitted if it is likely that they lack sufficient preparation to fulfill any of the program requirements. In the rare case that a student is admitted into the program without what the Graduate Committee considers to be a well-rounded undergraduate course of study in religion, the student will be required to complete remedial coursework without graduate credit.


    The deadline for applications to the graduate program is January 15th of each year.

    All applications to our program are made through the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, rather than with the Department for the Study of Religions. Do not submit your application to the department.
    To apply, go to the WFU Graduate School website.

    Please note in addition to:

    • Statement of Interest
    • Official Transcript
    • 3 Letters of Recommendation
    • GRE Test Scores (optional for the MA in Religious Studies; however, GRE or LSAT results must be submitted for applications to the joint JD/MA in Religious Studies) For applicants submitting GRE scores, Wake Forest University’s GRE institution code is 5885. There is no separate departmental code.
    • In addition, the Department for the Study of Religions requires an 8-12 page writing sample in addition to the “Statement of Interest” that should be included with the application to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. This should be a paper/essay from undergraduate work that best reflects and represents the applicant’s abilities, training, and potential for success in our program.

  • Course Descriptions
  • Course Schedule

    REL 641. Religion and Ecology. (3 h) Cross-cultural examination of the relationships among human beings, their diverse cultures, habitats, and religions, including social and political understandings of the environment.

    REL 655. Jewish Identities: Religion, Race, and Rights. (3 h) Examines how evolving definitions of race, religion, and Jewishness have correlated and conflicted in varied and sometimes surprising ways and how these shifts have been tied to legal rights and social privileges.

    REL 672. History of Christian Thought. (1.5, 3 h) Study of recurring patterns in Christian thought across time and cultures and some of the implications of those patterns in representative ancient and modern figures.

    REL 675. Race, Myth, and the American Imagination. (3 h) A study of myth and mythology in relation to the racial imaginary in America.

    REL 681. Zen Buddhism. (3 h) An examination of the origins and development of Zen Buddhism from China (Ch’an) to Japan and contemporary America. Particular attention is given to Zen doctrine and practice in the context of the broader Buddhist tradition.

    REL 700. Theory and Method in the Study of Religion. (3 h) Explores the history of and methodological resources for the study of religion. Focus may vary according to the instructor, but the emphasis is on the ways religion has been defined, studied and interpreted over the last several centuries.

  • Financial Aid

    Financial Aid

    Wake Forest University provides partial tuition scholarships

    For information pertaining to the Graduate Program in Religious Studies write:

    Simeon Ilesanmi, PhD (
    Graduate Program Director
    Department for the Study of Religions
    Box 7212
    Winston-Salem, NC 27109-7212 
    (336) 758-5459

    Wake Forest University and the Department for the Study of Religions welcomes all applications. We do not discriminate in admission or financial aid on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin