A History of the British Association for the Study of Religions

Originally published as Cotter, Christopher R. 2018. “A History of the BASR: Some Preliminary Findings.” BASR Bulletin 132 (May): 12-16.

A History of the BASR: Some preliminary findings


Since May 2017 I’ve been conducting research to develop a pilot history of the BASR in the context of RS in the UK. This has involved a literature review of relevant publications, consulting the AGM minutes, Executive Committee minutes, correspondence, BASR and IAHR Bulletins held at the Bodleian in Oxford, and conducting seventeen oral history interviews. This preliminary report focuses on the institutional (rather than intellectual or social) history of the BASR. Work on the project continues, with plans for an internally facing publication, as well as a journal article or two.

Historical Sketch

As Sutcliffe has noted “the BASR is the sole autonomous professional academic association in  the UK predicated upon the categories ‘religion’ and ‘religions’” (2004, xvii). Although founded in 1954, its history goes back further than that. Around the turn of the century there was some teaching of what might be described as ‘comparative religion’ at London, Oxford and Cambridge, and in 1904 we find the first chair of ‘comparative religion’ founded at Manchester with TW Rhys Davids (Gundry and Parrinder 1980). Internationally, although what we now know as the International Association for the History of Religions was not officially founded until a congress in Amsterdam 1950, its origins go back to six earlier European congresses from 1900, “of which the third was held in Oxford in 1908” (King 1994, 14).

So, our timeline begins with the official formation of the IASHR in 1950 (one wonders how much hand wringing could have been avoided if it was the H, rather than the S, which was quickly dropped in 1955!) The IASHR journal NVMEN was founded in 1953, and one year later a meeting occurred on 24 September at Exeter College, Oxford attended by “Dr Brandon, Miss Emmet, Mrs Ettlinger, Mr Gundry, Dr James, Mrs James, Mr Lewis, Dr Parrinder and Canon Ramsey”, with EO James being elected chairman, and
Mr (Canon) Gundry acting as secretary. The minutes read as follows:

The chairman outlined the history of the History of Religions Congresses and of the formation of the IASHR. He emphasised that it was important that a British section should exist, just as other national groups had been formed elsewhere. Attention was drawn to the new journal NVMEN, the first two numbers of which had already appeared, and to the Bibliography of the History of Religions scheduled to be published in 1954. Members were also urged to attend the History of Religions Congress to be held at Rome in April 1955. The secretary also read a list of members, and reported on the steps which had been taken to enrol scholars specially interested in this field.

Thus was born the British branch of the IASHR. Writing in 1975, Gundry tells us:

It may be of interest to members to know that before 1954 the late Professor E.0. James was invited by the IAHR itself to represent British scholars, but there was no official British branch. The late Professor R. Pettazzoni was very keen that there should be: Professor Bleeker felt so too. He discussed this with me early in 1954, and I went to see Professor Pettazzoni while I was in Rome in April of that year. Professor James was a scholar rather than an administrator! He asked me to take on the secretaryship of the incipient British section and get it into shape. (1975, 3)

The regular meetings became ensconced in Passfield Hall, London, and remained in London until 1977, moving to Oxford in 1978. Due to IAHR Congresses, smaller meetings were held in London in 1980, 1985, and 1990, and it wasn’t until 1992 that the current practice of moving around the UK began, with Winchester (1992), Newcastle (1993) and Bristol (1994). 2018 will mark the first ever BASR conference in Northern Ireland. Until the late 1980s these were single stream conferences or “meetings”, with initially only two papers being offered (increasing to three in 1974) to a relatively select group of (elderly, white) men.

Within one year the IASHR changed its name to the IAHR and the British group followed suit, becoming the British “Branch” or “Section” of the IAHR, or simply IAHR (Britain). For the next 15 years or so annual meetings for a couple of papers in London continued, with Andrew Walls telling me that many of the regular attendees at early meetings were based at universities in Africa and would meet in conjunction with the conference to strategize before heading off to their (post-)colonial posts. Membership increased steadily, from 22 in 1954, to 48 in 1958, 80 in 1968, and 100 in 1972.

EO James served as president/chair from the inception of the association and the 1971 AGM minutes note that “Prof James indicated his wish to retire owing to his age, but consented to accept re-election as President for the next year.” However, during the following year he tragically died in a car accident. At the 1972 AGM,

Dr Sharpe and Prof Lewis gave appreciations of the life and work of Prof SGF Brandon [another founding member] and Prof EO James whose deaths during the year had been great blows to the Association. (AGM minutes)

This double loss had two major impacts upon the association. First, Geoffrey Parrinder was elected to the role of President – vacating the role of Secretary, which was filled by Michael Pye, and kicking off a process of consideration about the democratic processes of the association. Secondly, the 1975 IAHR congress – to date still the only IAHR congress to take place in the UK since its inception – had been due to take place with Prof. Brandon in Manchester but in 1972 this shifted to Lancaster, with preliminary
arrangements to be made “by members of the Association from Lancaster: Professor Smart, Dr Sharpe, and Mr Pye.” Note the important international connections: Smart later moved to the University of California, Santa Barbara after establishing the first department of RS in the UK at Lancaster; Sharpe served as IAHR General Secretary before becoming the founding Professor of RS at the University of Sydney where he hosted another IAHR congress (1985); and Michael Pye became Professor of RS at Marburg University in 1982 and served the IAHR as General Secretary (1985–1995) and President (1995–2000).

Following a proposal at the 1972 September conference, Michael Pye instigated the first BASR Bulletin (initially four per year), and at the 1974 AGM, the subject of a constitution was raised by Prof HD Lewis, with the rejoinder that the association was “much more haphazard than other learned associations.” Although it was felt that affiliation to the IAHR meant that the association abided by the IAHR constitution, and that the cumulative minutes somewhat added up to that, Lewis and Sharpe were tasked to make an initial draft of constitution. At the 1975 IAHR congress, the AGM of the British Section formally adopted a constitution and became the BAHR.

In 1981, 1984 and 1987 we find various mentions and position papers – largely from Dr Karel Werner – about changing the name to the BASR (sometimes singular R, sometimes plural), and at a “Special General Meeting” on 4 February 1989 the name was changed, with unanimous approval, to what we know today. In 1990 the association became a charity, the annual lecture began, and with the annual lecture came the first notion of having a themed conference. Also, we have a very intriguing mention of “sherry” at lunchtime – perhaps something that future organizers might think about reintroducing?

In 1996, a few years after becoming a “mobile” conference, discussion began about the setting up of a website, and thus we start to see a BASR that more closely resembles what we have today, with a vibrant website and email list, the Bulletin moving online, the development of DISKUS (now JBASR), the sponsorship of the Religious Studies Project, and so on.

Membership, International Connections, and Area Studies

Now I wish to turn to three key points that have emerged from the project thus far. The first concerns the “rules” surrounding membership.

Many of the luminaries interviewed recall how the BASR used to resemble a kind of gentlemen’s club, with potential new members having to be proposed by existing members and so on. Looking at the minutes of AGMs throughout the years we see gradual changes in this area. In 1955, “It was resolved that, in future, applications for membership of the British Section should be approved by the Annual Meeting, and that candidates for membership should not attend until such approval had been given.” In 1974 the procedure was streamlined, whereby “new members should be sponsored by two existing members and approved by the President and Secretary.” By 1982, the “meeting also agreed that people with an interest in the academic study of religion may apply directly for membership,” and in 1990 – because now a charity – “the former method of approval of new membership could not be applied. The Association still had the right of excluding people from membership for good cause.” What these minutes don’t tell is the reason for the initial highly restricted nature of the membership rule in 1955.

Writing in 1980, Geoffrey Parrinder claims:

At Rome [1955] a so-called witch, Gerald Gardner from the Isle of Man, had presented himself along with the British delegation to the IAHR, to the scorn of continental representatives. Although the BAHR, like Great Britain herself, had no written constitution at that time, it was agreed that members, and those invited to join in future, should hold university posts or be recognised as academic authorities. While this restriction may have kept numbers small, it was felt that it ensured the role of the BAHR in British universities and enabled it to co-operate with similar branches of the IAHR. (Gundry and Parrinder 1980, 9)

A second point concerns the BASR’s international connections. It’s already been mentioned that the BASR began as a “branch” of the IAHR, demonstrating that international connections have always been a part of what the association has done. However, the 1973 AGM minutes note that communications between national associations in Europe were considered inadequate, with four action points being

  • To invite other associations to the conference;
  • To add another paper to the BAHR conference to make it more appealing to travellers;
  • To make a point of inviting Europeans from time to time to deliver a paper
  • To invite Jacques Waardenburg of Utrecht for 1974.

Further, at the 1990 IAHR congress there was a “motion by the British Association requesting the Executive Committee to consider changing the name of the [IAHR] to the [IASR].” And the BASR was an important player in the setting up of the EASR. In 1995, a letter was sent to the BASR from Hans Kippenberg about a proposed EASR to which the BASR’s then secretary Terry Thomas appended the note “At last – I may yet live to see one of my hopes realised.” The BASR responded enthusiastically, and delegates attended an initial gathering in Hildesheim in 1998, with Peggy Morgan, Brian Bocking and others putting in significant work on the development of a draft constitution. Following an  unfortunate situation where a splinter group attempted to form an alternative European Association, Kim Knott (then BASR President) wrote to Michael Pye (then IAHR President) stating that “BASR would like to propose that members of the EASR join members of BASR at their annual conference in 2001 to be held in Cambridge”, and thus the inaugural EASR conference took place.

Finally, on the topic of other subject associations, it is interesting to note that the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) was founded in 1975, and in 1976 their annual meeting took place in the same venue as the BAHR, immediately preceding it, indicating an encouraging level of early collaboration. Then in 1990, Kim Knott and Grace Davie began discussions about a joint conference, which took place in April 1992. Unfortunately, only 22 BASR members attended this conference, and BASR also held a one-day conference at usual BASR time. In the June 1992 Bulletin it was noted that “Some members had been surprised by the strong confessional nature of many of the papers presented” and that “Sociology of Religion members seemed to be more socialised into offering conference papers.” However, despite some perceived problems the experience was judged to have been worth attempting, but in future collaborations there should be “much closer liaison with the Sociology of Religion organizers and a more balanced range of papers presented.” In 1994, SOCREL wrote to propose a similar venture in April, and the BASR responded that they were keen, but that April wouldn’t work: such is the way of tradition. That such collaboration took place in the past – and that former BASR President Douglas Davies has also served as the SOCREL chair – should be encouraging for future collaborations, but the fact that it has not been more frequent is perhaps indicative of a less encouraging fracturing of the study of religions into narrower area studies.

In October/November 1976, Michael Pye (then BASR Secretary) wrote somewhat prophetically in Bulletin #17 concerning streams on African and Indian Religions which had been added to the BASR annual meeting, and on Dr Karel Werner’s involvement in setting up the (now) Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions:

In the meantime it is not surprising that special interest groups have formed within the overall field where insufficient activity was taking place hitherto. […] I feel that members ought to be grateful to Dr Werner for indirectly prodding the association into more sustained activity, and perhaps the coexistence this year of an Indian and an African section followed by more general papers is a workable pattern for future years. […] One thing which could be harmful, however, to our common if widely-ranging interests is the danger of institutional fragmentation. The BAHR is a relatively low-key organisation, and for many of us that is one of the nice things about it. At the same time, if it is to exist at all, its activities ought to offer a reasonable reflection of the interests of its members in the history of religions and related disciplines. […] Frankly speaking, it would seem to be to be undesirable to set up a permanent separate institution to cater for the study of Indian religions, and for the sake of the coherence of our discipline I hope that this will not happen. […] I hope therefore that this personal plea for the integration and coherence of our subject will be seen not as a rejection of other initiatives but as a welcome to share in a common endeavour. Not everybody is interested in organisations, and yet how things are organised can have a practical effect on the overall development of our subject, as can be seen from its chequered history in various countries. I believe this also to be important in an intellectual sense, for institutions tend to shape the understanding of subjects.

Prophetic words indeed, which emphasise not only the importance of academic institutions, but of the institutional history of said organisations.


There is so much more that I could mention, including: the repeated interventions of the BASR regarding the place of RS scholars on, and the broader composition of, RAE/REF panels; the closure and threat to departments; the setting up of RS at the Open University; government cuts to higher education; cuts in teacher training; and policing the boundary between theology and RS in a variety of spheres. However, I want to finish with a very brief comment on the BASR as a collegial network.

This consistent refrain throughout my oral history interviews was expressed succinctly by former President Peggy Morgan in 2004, where she writes:

I found as a young woman its senior scholars welcoming and affirming and that the atmosphere at meetings involved critique but not destructive confrontation or academic arrogance. This seems to have continued, with young scholars being funded and encouraged at BASR conferences… It has retained its atmosphere of a professional community of friendship when education has lost much of its warmth in these pressured and insecure times. (Morgan 2004, xv)

This welcoming, collegial atmosphere is something that seems to have remained consistent throughout the years, despite great changes in the higher education environment in the UK and in our area of study. Long may it continue in these still pressured and insecure times.


  • Gundry, D.W. 1975. “Reminiscence.” BASR Bulletin 13 (October), 3–4.
  • Gundry, D.W. and E.G. Parrinder. 1980. “The Beginnings of the British Association for the History of Religions.” BASR Bulletin 31 (June/July), 7–9.
  • King, U. 1994. “Celebrating Forty Years of the BASR.” BASR Bulletin 73 (November), 13–16.
  • Morgan P. 2004. “Foreword” in S. Sutcliffe, ed. Religion: Empirical Studies. Farnham: Ashgate, xiii–xvi.
  • Sutcliffe, S. 2004. “Introduction – Qualitative Empirical Methodologies: An Inductive Argument” in S. Sutcliffe, ed. Religion: Empirical Studies. Farnham: Ashgate, xvii–xliii.

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... Research Fellow (Edinburgh University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Honorary Treasurer of the British Association for the Study of Religions. Co-director at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

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