Guidelines for Essays in Religion

David R. Bains

Revised January 2003

The most important goal in any essay is to present a clear argument and defend it with evidence. By doing this you demonstrate your mastery of the material and your ability to assess it.

An essay is simply a means of communicating an idea. Therefore, the first step in writing any essay is to develop a good idea (or a good answer). This is achieved through a repeated cycle of reading (or otherwise observing), thinking, rereading, writing, and re-writing. Putting ideas down on paper in the form of an outline, a few catch phases, diagrams, or pictures will help you to sort and refine your ideas and opinions before you even sit down to write complete paragraphs. Each time you revise an outline or essay you should try to refine both your idea and the way you communicate this idea. Everyone has a different style of working and writing. Experiment to find the way that works best for you.

As you read your draft, ask yourself, "Am I in this paper?" "Can the reader tell I was at work analyzing and sorting information and presenting my assessment of the situation?" Your paper should present your, scholarly assessment of the situation. For this reason, it is permissible, on occasion, to use the first-person (i.e., "I").

A few key steps in the writing process:

1.) Read the assignment carefully before you review or read the assigned material.

2.) Be sure to answer all parts of the question.

3.) Be specific in your answer to the question. The more open-ended the question the more you have to fine-tune what you want to write in response.

4.) Support your claims with specific evidence from your sources. A few carefully documented and analyzed claims are worth more than a thousand vague statements.

5.) Be sure to properly document all quotes and borrowed ideas. See the section on "Writing with sources."

6.) Make sure your essay has a clear introduction, thesis statement, and conclusion.

Specific Guidelines:

Writing with Sources:

Sources are essential to academic writing. Primary sources provide the evidence to support your argument or analysis. Secondary sources (works by other scholars) enable you to build upon the work of others and to place yourself in the midst of scholarly conversation. The success of your writing depends in large part on your research abilities to discover important sources and include appropriate portions of them in your paper.

The development of research and reading skills appropriate to a given subject is a large part of any liberal arts course. We will discuss these issues in class. Here, however, one admonition is in order: Avoid long quotations! Long quotes crowd out your own voice. The reader "hears" the author of the quote, not you. Quote short, vivid phrases and sentences that support your argument and include them within your own sentences. There are exceptions to this rule. If you do quote a passage longer than four lines set it off as a block quote (single-space and indent the entire paragraph).

For more specific guidelines concerning how to use sources in writing, I highly recommend chapter one of Gordon Harvey, Writing with Sources ([Cambridge]: Harvard University, 1995). You may access this booklet online at The entire booklet is worth reading.

Citing sources properly is not difficult. The conventions or "style" of citation, however, varies with scholarly discipline. Hence it is often confusing to beginning and intermediate writers. In scholarly publishing, each journal has a specific style and scholars may have to revise their style depending on the journal they wish to publish in. Various bibliographic databases such as EndNote and NotaBene are marketed to help scholars manage and reformat their bibliographies and citations.

Before moving to specifics of particular styles, it is important to consider the various reasons why sources are cited:

To show that the work is not your own: This is how most beginning writers think of the task of citation. They do it to avoid being guilty of plagiarism, or falsely claiming ideas and writing as their own. Plagiarism is a crime, a betrayal of public trust and personal integrity that ruins careers.. Avoiding plagiarism is an important reason to cite your sources, it is not the only one, however. Furthermore, if you think of it as the only one you are unlikely to properly cite your sources.

To show where the reader can find the work you cite: Other scholars many be interested in checking your work to make sure it is true, or in following your leads to sources that may be important in their own research. You need to tell them exactly where to find your work. This is why publication information, date, and volume and page number are important.

To show whose work it is: If you fail "to give credit where credit is due" then you have not properly cited your sources. Because many of the sources you will read are collected in edited volumes or are quoted in scholarly essays, you need to be aware of the various individuals involved in bringing the words (or other data) to your attention. For example, if you cite "We are not to Study nor speak our own Words" as coming from Religion in American History, ed. Jon Butler and Harry S. Stout (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 47, you have accomplished two important goals: 1.) you have indicated that the words are not your own, 2.) you have told your reader where they can find it. You have failed, however, to properly credit the authors unless you indicate that this quote is from

William Penn qtd. in Edmund S. Morgan "The World and William Penn" in Religion in American History, eds. Jon Butler and Harry S. Stout (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 47.

Similarly you must credit the translators of foreign texts. Thus you must indicate that Matthew 5:4 quoted above is from the New Revised Standard Version, and that quote from Calvin is from the edition edited by John T. McNeill and translated by Ford Lewis Battles.

How to cite sources–a matter of "style":

Properly used, all styles accomplish the same goal, though they sometimes emphasize different parts of the information. It is also important, however, to learn to work with the styles commonly used in the various disciplines. This means that in my courses, except UCBP 101, that you need to follow "Chicago style" footnote-system generally used by historians. This is thoroughly outlined in chapter 15 of The Chicago Manual of Style. You can also find it outlined in more concise form in many reference works, most notably Kate L. Turabian, Manual for Writers. Both of these can be found on the "ready-reference shelf" of Davis Library. Most accessible, however, is the eleven page summary of this style available as a PDF file under "Turabian's Manual for Writers" at I strongly suggest that you printout and use this guide. My only qualm with this summary is that it uses "postal" rather than "literary" abbreviations for states. Please, in keeping with the Chicago Manual, use the literary abbreviations (Ala., Mass., N.C., Va., etc.) not the postal (AL, MA, NC, VA, etc.).

Students in UCBP 101 may use parenthetical references in the MLA style.

Citing the Bible:

Most editions of the Bible consist of two parts: the translation of the Bible itself, and the introductions, footnotes, and marginal notes provided by the editor. When citing the Bible itself, it is sufficient to indicate book, chapter, verse, and translation.

Paul says, "We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' know that a man is not justified by observing the law" (Galatians 2:15 NIV).

If all citations in a paper are from the same translation (e.g., NIV), it is only necessary to give the translation in the first citation. The Student Bible, the HarperCollins Study Bible. etc. are not distinct translations. They are editions of the Bible that contain a particular translation (e.g., NIV or NRSV) together with a variety of notes and study aids. When citing the Biblical text itself indicate the translation, not the edition.

When citing the study aids, introduction, or parts of a specific edition the Bible (e.g., HarperCollins Study Bible), cite it as you would a regular book. Be sure to include the author of that particular section (if given) as well as the editor, and the page number.

Review these guidelines to avoid common mistakes!

Use the correct form of the plural or possessive.

the Puritans -- (noun) more than one Puritan

the Puritan's idea -- (possessive adjective, singular) an idea that belonged to one particular Puritan (e.g., John Winthrop)

the Puritans' idea --(possessive adjective, plural) an idea that belonged to a group of Puritans (e.g., the authors of the Cambridge Platform)

"Its" is a possessive pronoun. "It's" is a contraction of "it is."

This is its most important point.

It's going to be hot today.

As a rule, do not use contractions (e.g., "were not" not "weren't", "it is" not "it's").

Spell out numbers less than one hundred (and generally other numbers that can be written in two words or less). This includes centuries.

"seventeenth century" NOT "17th Century"

Hyphenate two words used as one adjective.

The most common case of this is when centuries are used as adjectives.

"This essay is about seventeenth-century New England."

Note: "seventeenth century" is not hyphenated when used as a noun:

"In the seventeenth century, New England was settled by Puritans."

"Em-dashes" are properly made with two hyphens and no spaces. Many word processors will automatically replace this with a regular em-dash.

"The writer is by nature a dreamer--a conscious dreamer"


"The writer is by nature a dreamer–a conscious dreamer."

Be sure to add the "s" when making words ending in "-ist" plural.

"The Baptists held their convention this week."

When they are used, parenthetical references come after the closing quotation mark and before the period.

An errand is "the actual business on which the actor goes, the purpose itself, the conscious intention in his mind" (Miller 30).

Footnote reference marks come after all punctuation in the sentence"

An errand is "the actual business on which the actor goes, the purpose itself, the conscious intention in his mind."1