Rest in Peace, David Martin (1929-2019)

I’ve only just heard that my latter-day mentor in the sociology of religion, David Martin, passed away last month. I confess that I suspected something was wrong: David was remarkably prompt in replying to emails from even pipsqueaks such as I, and he hadn’t responded to my last two emails, a month apart. I knew he had been in poor health for some time, so I didn’t want to bother him. But now I know the sad truth.

I want to write more sometime about David, but I’ve reviewed several of his books (easily Googled) and I will reproduce here my review of his memoir as, now, a memorial. (It was originally published in Books & Culture.)

“His Wonders to Perform”

The memoirs of David Martin

Only a person possessed of extraordinary humility, hard-won and now lightly worn, with a self-deprecating twinkle in his eye, would even think to begin a memoir with a cascade of failure, desultoriness, and anxiety:

In my eightieth year, 2009, I was working with my friend Otto Kallscheuer for the European Commission, and he asked me how I became a sociologist. I explained that in 1947 I had been refused university entrance to study English Literature and failed a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. I had spent 1952 to 1959 as a primary school teacher in West London and Somerset. I stumbled on sociology by accident when a colleague in the Somerset school showed me his correspondence course for an external London University degree. From 1956, when my first marriage broke up, to 1959, I followed that course in my spare time. To my astonishment I won the annual university scholarship in sociology and entered university as a postgraduate. Between 1959 and 1971, as I moved from primary school teaching in SW14 to an LSE chair, I was besieged by neurasthenia and a chronic fear I was an interloper with no right of entry. The aftershocks never fully dissipated. Otto thought the story worth telling, though he can have had no idea of the travail of telling it or the re-examination of self it might require.

David Martin, along with Oxford’s Bryan Wilson one of the twin pillars of British sociology of religion in our day, has at last released a slim volume of memoirs. The book is not, it should be made clear at the outset, simply an autobiography. Martin avers that he has “little to say about the most important things in my life: my second marriage, the travails and triumphs of children, holidays, my sister, the death of parents, intellectual interlocutors, professional co-operations and friendships.” Instead, the book recounts a pilgrim’s progress toward the celestial city of reconciliation: reconciliation of faith and modernity, of piety and intellect, of religion and reason, of revival and secularization, of tradition and innovation, of periphery and center—and of father and son.

As Europeans negotiated the changing landscape of modernity, questions of faith inevitably overlapped with family dynamics. Fathers (and sometimes mothers) were synecdoches for the heritage under scrutiny, and the outcomes of such analysis were various indeed. Here was the bitter repudiation of an Edmund Gosse, who denounced his patrimony as he denounced his parent in Father and Son. There was the radical reformulation of a Friedrich Schleiermacher, who wrote home from seminary to his anguished Pietist father to declare that he could no longer believe in the Trinity—and then spent decades trying to be a Pietist still, “but of a higher order.” The life of David Martin, who describes himself as having had “a Victorian childhood some three decades after the death of Victoria in 1901,” describes a different arc.

Indeed, there are at least five arcs evident in the book—family, class, faith, the academy, and the discipline of sociology—that together form a braid of reconciliation under the lin