In 1909, Professor Ismar J. Peritz of Syracuse University conceived the idea of forming a new organization for professors and scholars of Biblical Studies. Its purpose was to stimulate scholarship and teaching in religion. During that year, Professor Peritz along with three colleagues—Irving Wood of Smith College, Raymond C. Knox of Columbia University, and Olive Dutcher of Mount Holyoke College—founded the Association of Biblical Instructors in American Colleges and Secondary Schools, which held its first program the following year.
The group continued to meet under the original name until December of 1922 when members voted to change the name to the National Association of Biblical Instructors, and thereby acquired the acronym NABI ("prophet" in Hebrew). In 1933, the Journal of the National Association of Biblical Instructors was launched and published twice a year until 1937 when the name was changed to the Journal of Bible and Religion, a quarterly periodical.
By 1963, the association, sparked by dramatic changes in the study of religion, was ready for another transformation. Upon the recommendation of a Self-Study Committee, NABI became the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and was incorporated under this name in 1964. Two years later, the name of the journal was changed to the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (JAAR).
AAR is closely associated with the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). In 1969 the two groups founded the Council for the Study of Religion, the first of several joint ventures. The following year they began to hold joint annual meetings, a practice that continued until 2008. Since 2011, the two groups have held concurrent annual meetings in the same city at the same time. The Academy's executive offices are located in the Luce Center on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Academy provides a major publishing program, grants and awards, professional services, an annual North American meeting and ten regional meetings through which it serves its members and the advancement of the field. AAR raises funds to support its projects and services and to carry out its responsibilities as a learned society and professional association. It received 501(c)(3) tax status in 1985.
From a base of four founding members in 1909, the AAR has grown to more than 8,000 members today. Members are largely faculty and graduate students at colleges, universities, and divinity schools in North America, with a growing percentage located at institutions of higher education in Asia, Africa, and Europe.