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Obituary for David Martin

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David Martin. An Obituary

David Martin passed away on Friday, March 8, at the age of 89. He was a pioneer in the sociology of religion in Great Britain, indeed also internationally. More than fifty years ago, he published the first elements of what he called a general theory of secularization. Despite this name, what he advocated was the need for more contextual theories of secularization. He criticized the standard unilinear and deterministic model of secularization prevalent at the time. In 2001, Steve Bruce published an article about David Martin called “In praise of the history man”, and Martin certainly brought into secularization theory some very important historical filters. According to Martin, secularization is profoundly inflected by national histories.

Another target of Martin’s criticism was the idea that religion inevitably has become privatized. Martin’s view was that in various contexts religion could act as a repository of human values and transcendental reference which can be activated in the realm of civil society. In a not atypical mixture of normativity and empirically based analysis, Martin claimed that churches can have a role as chaplain to the nation as long as they do not openly attempt to exercise political power in their own favor or to involve themselves in a dangerous identification with power elites in the state.

David Martin can be read as an early proponent that history and sociology are not worlds apart. Furthermore, he had an interest throughout his whole academic career in holding together analytically political structures and religious life. He often reminded his readers that the comparative study of religion is not only figures about individual belief and practice. There is no serious sociology of religion which is not at the same time a political sociology, he claimed.

For those interested in relations between personal biography and academic work, there is much food for thought in Martin’s well-written autobiography from 2013, The education of David Martin: The Making of an Unlikely Sociologist. The connections between his life and work are not always predictable. His father was a lay preacher, but David Martin was strongly engaged in liturgical issues in the Church of England. I remember my surprise many years ago when I found in a book-shop in Oxford a pamphlet lamenting the marginalization of The Common Book of Prayers in the Church of England, written by David Martin together with the famous author of detective novels, P. D. James.

David Martin was a pacifist for many years, and the relation between religion and violence was a topic that he often returned to. Perhaps the closest connection between upbringing and intellectual interest was found in the field of art, and especially music. He grew up with a mother singing in the church choir, he was a singer in a church choir for decades himself, and he was an able pianist. Also in this field he was a pioneer in the sociology of religion, expanding the sociologist’s focus from written or spoken cognitive texts to non-verbal and often emotional expressions like art and music, as well as architecture. David Martin’s geographical focus was for many years mainly Europe, but together with his wife Bernice he became an important contributor to studies of Pentecostalism in Latin America.

In the ISSR, he served as president from 1975 to 1983, and together with his predecessor as president Bryan Wilson he was a central figure in developing this organization from a mainly Catholic organization to a more international and religiously independent forum for professional sociologists of religion.

David was intellectually active also as an aging man. Let me end this on a personal note. In 2016, Hans Joas invited some researchers to a seminar in Erfurt about David Martin’s sociology of religion. I had the pleasure of contributing there on two topics: David Martin’s writings about Scandinavia, and secondly, about his sociology of music and religion. Several of the papers from this conference ended up as a book in 2018, David Martin and the Sociology of Religion, edited by Hans Joas. In the period between the seminar and the book, I had several inspiring e-mail exchanges with David about “my” topics. I was struck by the intellectual vigor that he possessed, combined with a generosity and curiosity that I had experienced many years before, as a young scholar when I and some colleagues invited him to Norway for a series of lectures.

Pål Repstad
Professor emeritus in sociology of religion,
University of Agder, Norway



Société Internationale de Sociologie des Religions

International Society for the Sociology of Religion