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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Rest in Peace, David Martin (1929-2019)

Updated: Aug 15, 2022

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 linear providence of God, a God who seems to have fitted the man to the work remarkably well.

Readers of this journal, however, might find it most natural to reverse the order of the arcs and begin with sociology, since it is there where Martin has made his scholarly mark. Originally attracted to music (Martin was almost a concert-level pianist, but never attempted the examinations again, finding later a happy musical outlet in accompanying congregations, choirs, and soloists), and prevented from studying literature by his lack of the Latin necessary for university entrance to that subject (oh, the days of yore), he ended up studying sociology. He did so, as he studied most things, strictly to understand the rapidly changing world he was living in and, indeed, to understand his volatile self. Throughout his career, in fact, self-discovery both prompted and was advanced by his social scientific investigation of whole cities, regions, nations, and continents.

As is still the case today, in the 1960s the study of religion was a poor relation in the family of sociological fields. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and even more since 9/11, however, religion at least appears on the map of Important Things to Notice in the world. In Martin’s day, studying religion was like studying the last flock of passenger pigeons: perhaps of some historical interest as being once a factor in human life, but doomed to irrelevance because doomed to extinction. David Martin complicated that simple downward plane of the universally held secularization narrative in two respects. Only two, but two intellectual revolutions are perhaps enough to justify a career.

The first revolution was in two parts. In 1965, Martin first challenged the very idea of secularization as too general and too teleological to serve as an adequate description of the evolving relationships between religions and societies. A little more than a decade later—as his secretary came across an accumulation of notes and suggested she might type them up into a book—Martin then produced A General Theory of Secularization (1978) that stands to this day as the single most influential mapping of the variety of salient factors that influence the variety of forms of secularization evident in Europe and America (the conventional scope of the analysis even as recently as four decades ago) and the variety of paths it has taken. Secularization as a simple trope of religious decline in the face of technology, innovation, science, and, above all, reason was definitively critiqued and then replaced by a better paradigm in which communities at different scales negotiate their challenges with recourse to religion depending on a variety of observable and, to some extent (which is the mode in which Martin thinks sociology can only ever operate) predictable, factors. The way religion fares is always “path-dependent,” in one of Martin’s favorite geographical metaphors (the sociology guild was more resistant to his preferred term, “historically inflected”), and his theory—modified since then in various articles and books—helps us pay attention to those paths and thus to the various careers of religion in the modern world.

The one career, however, that religion was not supposed to enjoy in the modern world was resurgence. Yet David Martin, cartographer of secularization, emerged as one of the earliest and most influential students of the revival and spread of Old-Time Religion in the Global South, particularly in Latin America and in the particular form of Pentecostalism. Typically, he records his foray into this field in which he has stood as a giant as the result of a happy accident credited largely to someone else:

I went to a lecture by Peter Berger in London on a Saturday, something I was normally quite unlikely to do. Appropriately enough the venue was on the site of Aldersgate Street where John Wesley in May 1738 had the experience of a “heart strangely warmed” which gave major impetus to the English and American awakenings preceding Pentecostalism. Peter asked if I had noticed the spread of Pentecostalism in Latin America and parts of the southern states of the USA. Would I be interested in studying it?
I had seen Spanish-speaking Pentecostal churches in California, Arizona and New Mexico, but the presuppositions of sociology led me to suppose Pentecostalism in Latin America would remain a backstreet affair. I expected mass movements to be political not religious, in spite of my critical approach to secularization theory … .
Religion was once again playing a serious role in modernization, more so than the emphasis on the Enlightenment preferred in the academy. Many scholars were dubious about the modernizing potential of Pentecostalism, but I was willing to ask how far it could be a major modernizing agent. I would be challenging the elite ideology of the Enlightenment in the field of modernization as I had earlier challenged it in the field of secularization.

Martin’s subsequent researches in the 1980s and ’90s introduced his colleagues around the globe to new paths of modernization indeed: not just a revision of the secularization myth, but its reversal. The explosion of Pentecostalism in Latin America, as one of his books put it, meant the explosion also of the secularization orthodoxy once for all, the reverberations of which haven’t yet reached the ears of the New Atheists, perhaps, but have echoed down the halls of all serious study of contemporary religion.

To revolutionize one’s field, and to do so twice, requires a rare combination of qualities: independence of outlook, a sort of “outsider” mentality that is free to question the conventional wisdom, and influence of office, a position in the hierarchy that compels others to give at least prima facie respect to one’s work. The second arc of David Martin’s life is the move from being the chauffeur’s son to being department chair at the London School of Economics, the move from the primary school teacher’s lounge to the halls of the British Academy.

One of the delights of this memoir is Martin’s self-portrait as earnest bumbler who ends up all right, and better than all right, after all: a seeker-after-truth who neglected his grammar school studies for the books he preferred to read (and so failed to enter university); who after a stint in the Army went to teachers’ college as a pale shadow of the academic life he wanted (and so later happened to notice a teaching colleague taking sociology by correspondence); who happened to be reading Karl Popper on the train (as one does) and found himself emancipated from having to think bien-pensant thoughts; and whose shock at the ungrateful and insolent student uprisings at the LSE in the so-called Sixties prompted strenuous campaigns on behalf of traditional university education, the King James Version, and the Book of Common Prayer in a polemical and controversialist mode he had never sought as, at heart, a “dreamy and unworldly romantic.”

The professional arc of David Martin’s life will give encouragement to any graduate student wondering if God can use the vicissitudes of one’s life toward good results. (It does help, of course, to be natively brilliant, as Martin obviously is. But his memoirs humbly make clear that intelligence and drive are not enough.) Indeed, Martin’s modest upbringing by parents who were both “in service” and Nonconformists kept him perpetually on the mental boundaries even as his academic stock rose and his influence spread. Delighted by the university life he had once thought forever denied him, he never took it for granted and wrestled endlessly with his place in it even as the honors piled up:

When I joined the LSE as a lecturer I felt under sufferance as a peripheral attachment. Once when I gave a lecture in a minor institution of the university, somebody commented in amazement, “You still think you’re an outsider!” When I was made a Fellow of the British Academy, my son-in-law felt it was time to tell me, “Listen, David, this is the inside.”

His background, however, was not simply something from which he felt he needed to escape. Quite the contrary: It furnished him with both the ballast and the outlook needed to think new thoughts:

My sociological colleagues might explain my outsider status in terms of family origins “in-service,” but that was not how my parents saw things. They calibrated the world in moral categories. Once I started wandering from home, intellectually and morally, I was never entirely at home again, anywhere. At the same time my home in SW14 [a modest residential area] had given me an inner confidence wherever I went, except that mine was derivative and I could not pass it on to our children. My father was supported by a doctrine of “blessed assurance” and I borrowed my inward security from that unquestioned faith in the unruffled stability of my childhood. The curious confidence bore me forward even in the LSE … . I was besieged by fear because jettisoned into an alien environment far from home, but still sustained by a precarious “blessed assurance.” For an outsider and a dreamer I was remarkably sure-footed.
So much in my background was unquestioned but I was ready to question and challenge where others watched to see which way the wind blew, or kept their own counsel. Unthinking security led me to act in a way that often paid off, but was much more dangerous than I realized. I possessed incidental courage.

That “blessed assurance” was, indeed, only partly appropriated. The same train-reading that freed him to think for himself also untethered him, at least for a time, from the authority of the Bible. Reading a wide range of New Testament criticism in the context of only a simple Methodism left him vulnerable to deep doubts, and for years he wandered in various borderlands of Christianity. All the while, strangely, he was a lay preacher in Methodist chapels, and later in Anglican churches. The Bible never lost its hold on him aesthetically, morally, or spiritually, even as he was troubled about its politics and dubious about its historical claims.

Pascal was perhaps chief among a number of writers who helped Martin find his way back to a recognizably orthodox Christianity. Writers such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and the earlier Metaphysical poets, as well as the great heritage of English and German sacred music, fed his soul and inspired his spirit. (Martin seems to be extraordinarily conversant across all the arts.) But it was Reinhold Niebuhr who converted him particularly to Christian realism and helped Martin tackle one of the main problems of his intellectual life: the nexus of the simple and the complex, the naïve and the sophisticated, the sincere and the practical. Martin did not revolutionize the discourse in this zone—although his Does Christianity Cause War? (1997) deserves much more attention—so much as resolve the anguish in his own heart between what he had seen, and admired, about his father’s way in the world and what he had learned in sociology about the way of the world.

That anguish between the paternal ideal and the pragmatically real would come to a head in a remote Chilean village in 1991. Martin devotes a chapter to a single day that climaxed in his, once again, finding himself in an unexpected and awkward situation: “My purpose in coming to Rengo as a sociologist was not understood and I found myself having to play the part of a charismatic evangelist if the research were not to collapse.”

Martin then proceeded to preach in the traditional style of evangelistic testimony. In doing so, he connected with his father in a profound way. But God, and David Martin, have a sense of humor and the sermon began with him being introduced as coming from Oxford University, not the LSE. “Gloria a Dios! Amen! It is a very great privilege to speak to you tonight because I feel there is more real life here among you than in the whole University of Oxford.”

As the sermon progressed, Martin talked about how evangelical people each have a story to tell of what God has done for them. He spoke of his grandmother and grandfather, and then of his father. His father was converted by hearing “a famous evangelist on the radio … Gypsy Smith.” Then, “after many years of hard work, the dream of his life came true. He bought his own taxi. He used his taxi to spread the gospel and would often stop for an hour in Hyde Park, which is just like the center of Santiago, and preach.” Martin then opened up his own story:

But what about me? The Word speaks to us all one way or another. One night I was returning to the Army after a weekend spent at home. As the train went hour after hour into the night, I opened the Bible and read the New Testament. The words that specially spoke to me were “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” and “I am persuaded that neither height nor depth, nor death nor life, nor any other creature, can separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” This is my story.

The sermon concluded with Martin quoting John Wesley three times—recall that Martin was raised a Methodist: “Is your heart as my heart? Then give me your hand.” “I am a man of one book and that book is the Bible.” “The best of all is, God is with us.” And with two amens, he concluded. The service went on for another hour or more. Afterward, Martin recalls, he was laid low with both strain and relief:

As I lay on the bed recovering, [my wife] Bernice said the occasion had brought a closure in my relationship with my father. The tiny Chilean chapel was not the Albert Hall of his imagination, and maybe he had never heard of Chile, but Bernice was right. In the course of the long “education of David Martin” many mistakes and mishaps remain beyond correction, and many follies beyond expiation, but on 22 November 1991, my father might have seen the travail of his soul and been satisfied.

There is here no “second naïveté.” As Martin puts it, “Between one generation and another there are mutations and transpositions rather than repetitions.” There is instead a grateful, graceful reconciliation with his father’s faith as, of all things, a sociological participant-observer. For “the education of David Martin” was not, as “right-thinking” people would have it, a secularized salvation story of flight from foolish faith into refined reason. Yet education truly played a major part in his journey, with sociological study itself and a career in the higher reaches of the British academy both playing their parts, sometimes straightforwardly and sometimes ironically, in his extended, difficult, and ultimately fruitful appropriation of the gospel.

And here is the final evidence that David Martin has not ended far from his evangelical roots. For his story does not climax with his receiving holy orders in the Church of England, nor in his election to the British Academy, but with him stepping in to preach extemporaneously in a missionary church in a faraway land, giving his heartfelt testimony in simple terms and nicely in line with his father’s, with a Bible finally held high over his head with a simple exclamation of Wesleyan praise.

This evangelical friend of David Martin’s can only reply, Gloria a Dios indeed.


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